top of page

Indigenous Resilience During COVID-19

How the Ogiek Community in Kenya Relies on Indigenous Herbs and Traditional Medicines

Ogiek herbalist displaying traditional medicinal herbs.   ©OPDP
Ogiek herbalist displaying traditional medicinal herbs. ©OPDP

The ancient, forest-dwelling Ogiek community of Kenya is famed for its cultural practices, such as beekeeping and using nature for healing illnesses and injuries.

The 2020 emergence of COVID-19 posed a serious potential threat to the world’s communities—and it did not bypass the Ogiek people, who live across six counties in Kenya in the 400,000-hectare (1,544-square mile) Mau forest complex.

How did this ancient hunter-gatherer population fare with this 21st century illness?

Since time immemorial, the Ogiek community has depended on its indigenous forest for food, water, herbal medicine, and honey harvesting. The Ogiek’s honey is believed to have strong healing properties and be capable of preventing ailments such as the common cold and cough. Thus, honey is taken with many herbal medicines and plants.

Ogiek woman selling honey in Narok.   ©OPDP
Ogiek woman selling honey in Narok. ©OPDP

The indigenous forest in Mau has a variety of herbal plants, including certain tree species whose roots, barks, leaves, gums, and seeds are useful for herbal medicine. Skilled Ogiek medicine men and women know how to recognize and gather these materials and can prepare many kinds of herbal medicines.

The Ogiek Have Relied on Traditional Medicines and Practices to Deal with Health Issues

Some of the herbal plants used as medicines by the Ogiek community include: Chepindorwet,Narubat, Kurpanyat, Nukiat, Soget, Segetetik, Tangaratwet, Kosisitiet, Maironget, and Ororwet. Some are boiled with bone soup while others are chewed as per instructions from an experienced herbalist or elder.

Medicinal soup cooked with herbs prepared by Ogiek in Keneti, Narok West.   ©OPDP
Medicinal soup cooked with herbs prepared by Ogiek in Keneti, Narok West. ©OPDP

These herbs are believed to be very effective in curing various ailments, and, for some community members, these herbal medicines are their only means of treating illness. Indeed, some community members in Nkareta have never visited a health center and have only used traditional Ogiek herbal medicine.

Among the diseases faced by the Ogiek community are tuberculosis, asthma, and other respiratory diseases. Waterborne illnesses, such as typhoid and cholera, are also common. Malaria has been reported in Narok County, and cancer and HIV/AIDS have also been reported among the general Ogiek community. In places where there are no health centers, community members depend solely on herbal medicine; only serious cases are taken to a hospital.

Improving Community Health

The Ogiek Peoples Development Program (OPDP) has sought to improve community health and well-being by raising up Community Health Volunteers (CHVs). These youths from the community receive training in basic health practices and are then deployed to assist public health officers with community outreach services.

The Ogiek community has also begun building the capacity of its herbalists. Traditional knowledge is being documented to preserve and protect the knowledge for future generations, and community members are developing herbariums to grow plants for medicinal purposes.

Ogiek elders displaying herbs.   ©OPDP
Ogiek elders displaying herbs. ©OPDP

The Ogiek Community During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The emergence of COVID-19 posed a serious potential threat to the Ogiek community. They have limited access to basic infrastructure, such as clean water, electricity, and roads. In some areas, such as Keneti in Narok West and Nkareta in Narok North, there are no health centers where community members can receive vaccines. Moreover, testing to confirm COVID-19 cases was absent in areas inhabited by the Ogiek community. The cases of Ogiek who tested positive were those staying in cities, such as Nakuru.

In addition to logistical and supply limitations, the COVID-19 vaccines were not trusted by many in the Ogiek community. Some believed that COVID-19 vaccines were lethal, while others believed the vaccines would cause infertility in both men and women. In the Nessuit dispensary, for instance, vaccines were available, but a health practitioner in Nessuit health center confirmed that community members rarely came to the health center for vaccines.

Community outreach at the grassroot level has persuaded some to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, COVID-19 vaccination is not a common practice in the Ogiek community, and COVID-19 vaccination rates among the community remain low. Most of those vaccinated are civil servants who were required to do so by the state.

In contrast to Ogiek suspicion of COVID-19 vaccines, the community’s apprehensions towards COVID-19 itself may have promoted social distancing and social isolation. For instance, Ogiek who live in Mau Forest did not warmly welcome community members traveling back from urban areas. There was even a case in Sasimwani, Narok County, where an elder took all his family members and camped deep inside an indigenous forest, as he believed there was no way the virus could find them there. Community members believe that the forest will sieve the air, clearing all the virus, and that the forest and forest products will protect them from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drying herbs on a rack used by Ogiek inside Sasimwani forest.   ©OPDP
Drying herbs on a rack used by Ogiek inside Sasimwani forest. ©OPDP

In the absence of sufficient health care facilities and conventional COVID-19 treatments, the Ogiek community turned to their traditional medical practices and treatments to mitigate instances of COVID-19-like symptoms. The actual protective benefits conferred on COVID-19 patients by Ogiek herbal medicines cannot be ascertained due to the lack of COVID-19 testing. Yet, the centuries-old Ogiek medical practices and natural herbal treatments should not be summarily dismissed; such treatments may have alleviated specific COVID-19 symptoms to some degree, or even possibly boosted immune responses, thereby protecting against COVID-19 viral infection.

The perceptions, attitudes, and responses of the Ogiek community during the COVID-19 pandemic provide a real-world example of how an indigenous people responded to a devastating disease amidst a paucity of conventional treatments and health care facilities. The lessons learned from the example of the Ogiek community during the COVID-19 pandemic may improve health care efforts in other regions of the world.

Part of the indigenous forest in Mau Forest complex.   ©OPDP
Part of the indigenous forest in Mau Forest complex. ©OPDP

*Daniel Kobei is the Executive Director and Founder of the Ogiek Peoples' Development Program (OPDP), an NGO based in Kenya, with ECOSOC Status since 2019, promoting the human and land rights of the indigenous Ogiek Community and other Indigenous Peoples (IPs) of Kenya and Africa. He is the focal point on IPs matters in the International Indigenous Forum for Biodiversity (IIFB) under the Collaborative Partnership for Wildlife Management (CPW) established by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD). He has an MBA in Strategic Mgt. from Egerton University, Kenya, and a Post Graduate Diploma in Project Appraisal and Management from Maastricht School Management (MSM) in the Netherlands.


Join Our Community

Sign up for our bi-monthly environmental publication and get notified when new issues of The Earth & I  are released!


bottom of page