A staple of traditional medicine in short supply

LUBERO, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO. When Kavira Shalikovue was still raising chickens, she locked them in her bedroom at night so that no one would steal them. During the day they were free to roam, but only if he was home. But in December 2021, his entire flock of chickens was struck by a disease he didn’t understand. Despite consulting a veterinarian, all 25 died one after the other. Now he does not keep chickens in his house.

The chickens raised by Shalikovuwe are a traditional local breed known as kayira. The breed is not only appetizing and a source of livelihood for those who keep it, but the eggs are also an important ingredient for traditional medicine practitioners.

The breed is becoming increasingly rare in southern Lubero, eastern DRC, due to disease and increasing theft, a blow to traditional medicine, which plays a significant role in the DRC’s health care system.

Kiza Biamungu, who has been a traditional medicine practitioner for 20 years in Kirumba commune in South Lubero area, says herbalists rely on these eggs to treat many ailments, including gastritis, heart attack, kwashiorkor and cough. They are also used to regulate blood pressure and cleanse the kidneys. Raw eggs are either mixed with other ingredients and given to patients, or taken alone, he says.

Practitioners now find it difficult to provide treatment, says Kakule Shalyamubana, a herbalist from Kirumba. “I no longer know how to effectively treat certain diseases.”

Before the shortage, most traditional practitioners would have the eggs in stock, but now, Biamungu says the shortage is so severe that they ask those seeking their services to bring the eggs with them. Although he cannot say exactly when the shortage started, he says it is getting worse.

Although eggs from chicken breeds imported from other countries, such as Uganda, are available, they are not used to make traditional medicine because locals and traditional medicine practitioners consider them to be of poor quality, says Biamungu.

This local perception is evident in how vendors mark up the prices for eggs. Before the shortage, an egg of the local breed cost 200 to 300 Congolese francs (about 10 to 15 cents). The same egg now costs 800 francs (40 cents), while eggs of imported breeds cost less than half that, about 300 francs.

The use of raw eggs for healing is not unique to the DRC. In ancient Persia, raw eggs were used as a topical treatment to relieve swelling and boils. And snakebite patients drank it slowly, according to a 2020 study in the journal Food Therapy and Health Care. In Indonesia, raw egg yolk and coconut oil are sometimes used to help speed up childbirth. In central Turkey, a whole egg is left in lemon juice for 24 hours until the shell dissolves, and taken with olive oil to pass kidney stones. A 2007 thesis from Madagascar’s Mahajanga University showed that raw eggs are commonly used to treat children with oil poisoning.

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Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Kakule Shalyamubana, left, a herbalist, prepares medicine for Gentil Kahindo Wasalinyuma in Kirumba, Lubero area, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Biamungu worries that if the shortage persists, many who rely on traditional medicine will suffer. Traditional medicine is often the first resort in many parts of the DRC, given the lack of health facilities and an economic situation that limits access to care, according to the Ministry of Health’s 2019-2022 Plan.

Samveli Visogho from Kirumba, who recently underwent surgery, says that due to the lack of cayira eggs, he is unable to heal the wound after the procedure. Although he initially went to a modern medical facility, the treatment he received did not work.

“The caretaker [traditional healer] he advised me to eat eggs from local chickens every day,” he says. “But I can’t do it because of that [shortage] of these eggs, which makes them more expensive.

One reason for this shortage is theft, says Flavien Kamate Kasai, a veterinarian in Kirumba. Farmers in this region mostly struggle to keep animals because of constant theft. This particular breed is commonly stolen, he says. Although job opportunities are scarce in the DRC, which has an unemployment rate of 23%, Kasai blames the robberies on a lack of interest among young people.

This increasing theft is why Pauline Kahambu Muhanya no longer raises chickens. “My chickens have always been regularly stolen.” After the latest incident, Muhanya says he had to stop keeping them.

“And yet, these animals helped me a lot. I mainly used their eggs for my stomach problems and sold the rest for my needs.”

Kirumba Deputy Mayor Benjamin Kasereka Mulavi confirms the increase in theft cases. While authorities have arrested several people and educated locals to stamp out the theft, he says locals also have a role to play.

“It’s always our children who steal our chickens and our goods. People don’t come from far away,” he says. Since the locals know who the thieves are, they “must get into the habit of denouncing the criminals,” he adds. “We are obliged to secure our territory.”

There are other reasons for the shortage. A common local perception is that the local chicken breed is prone to diseases such as bird flu, so farmers prefer to keep other breeds that are not used in traditional medicine.

“They think they get sick a lot,” says veterinarian Kasai.

While Kasai agrees that the kayira chicken breed is prone to disease, he says locals can easily solve the problem if they vaccinate their chickens, which they rarely do. “They are more disease resistant if properly cared for.”

He blames the low vaccination rate on ignorance, adding that he and his colleagues educate locals through radio campaigns. He advises them to consult with veterinarians about how to best care for their chickens.

Mathe Kakule Baraka, a Kirumba-based traditional medicine specialist, says that in the meantime, he uses honey as a substitute. But it doesn’t always work.

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