It was a visionary initiative aimed at providing Kenyans with a sustainable means of living, as they strived to rebuild their lives after a protracted and turbulent colonial era. Tea farming was considered an ambitious project, hailed as a transformative milestone for the country’s economy, which had suffered the scars of war. Fast forward – about thirty years down the line, the once-promising sector has become a devastating affliction, leading to the deterioration and premature deaths of countless farmers plagued by debilitating arthritis. The cost of treatment for this affliction often surpasses the means of these hardworking people. Despite the severity of this unfolding crisis, lack of viable alternatives compels the majority of farmers to desperately hold on to tea farming, which, in turn, poses the looming threat of an uncontrollable epidemic.
Simon Kamundi was in so much pain and so frail that he had to slither like a snake when delivering a box of steamed rice for lunch to a farmer working as a casual labourer on his half acre farm in Kamatumu village in Kenya’s mountain region. The last time he had been physically fit was five years ago, and after a diagnosis that confirmed he had arthritis, things took a different turn, including difficulty performing simple duties like tending to his goats or even delivering a sack of tea leaves to the factory which is 200 meters from his home. In the five years, he has seen the disease significantly mutate, bringing closer the possibility of him being permanently disabled. Although he is not on a wheelchair yet, he soon enough might be, “crouched there for eternity like a road accident victim,” he said.
His condition deteriorated right before his eyes, helplessly, and by the time he was able, both financially through fundraisers and even emotionally, to seek medical care, the doctors could only administer a surgery to do what they said was ‘saving his legs’. However, he declined the operation citing a heartbreaking story from a neighboring village where a patient with a similar condition underwent it, only to lose his ability to walk and remaining lame for the better part of his life. “I would rather stay untreated and limp rather than get the surgery and remain in a wheelchair forever,” he said with finality. “It is a matter of life and death, but death seems to be the constant variable – a heartbreaking reality indeed,” he added.
Lucy Muthoni 62, who forfeited her stable job at a school a mile away over what she termed as ‘leg failure’ which made it extremely hard for her to walk, said that the majority of residents who possibly had worked in the tea sector for long, knew very well the reality of how prone they were to get arthritis. “Any workers who have picked tea leaves for long understand from a firsthand experience what the industry is capable of doing to someone’s health”. she asserted. As she narrated her ordeal with the disease, she constantly referred to her first appearance at a public hospital over the same, saying that since then, her life has never been the same. Her own father was a renowned tea farmer who perished from the disease. In her case, the initial stages of the disease were characterized by abnormal responses like having to rest constantly along the two-and-a-half kilometers’ journey to work, which in just a few days exacerbated, forcing her to give up the job. Now, the doctors have warned that if she does not forfeit other chores, however light, she will get worse. “But what shall I do?” she asks, rather rhetorically, “I have nothing to turn to.” She helplessly admits that just a few days after resigning and promising the doctor to keep off the farms, she dived back, compelled, in part, by the economic hardship.
Karimi wa Mbae
Near a rundown tea buying center, Karimi wa Mbae, 60, cries while struggling to cross a makeshift timber raft holding tea picking bags. Her feeble legs strain as she attempts to settle her plump figure on a bench outside her house. Suddenly, a group of playful children approaches and hops onto her lap. Her shrill voice reveals the pain she endures. A bone weakness ailment, present for almost a decade, has caused her deformity. The initial agony originated in her back, where she used to rest her picking bag. “Then it spread downward,” she recollected. Now she looks to the factory, for help, as according to her, “As farmers who sell directly to the agency, we deserve fair treatment and care. This is our workplace.”
Miriti’s wife, devastated by her husband’s recent demise due to arthritis, began to endure unbearable anguish as the disease invaded her own body. Gazing somberly at her husband’s resting place, she confessed her profound sorrow, not only for her loss, but also for her deteriorating state that threatened to shatter her late husband’s unrealized dream of a modern home, a dream he never had the chance to relish. Despite her desperate desire to remain hopeful, she harbored doubts, sensing that she would not be spared from the worst fate. Regrettably, this despairing sentiment echoes throughout Kamatumu Village, just a stone’s throw from the forest, where countless loved ones have succumbed to arthritis. As they willingly recount the excruciating torment their departed kin endured, their hearts brim with profound apprehension, as the symptoms have now begun to manifest in many others, destined to tread a similarly agonizing path.
According to current reports, the country’s prevalence with arthritis stands at 23% with knee, hip and hand osteoarthritis breaking down to 15%, 3% and 5 % respectively – yet the authorities and involved pioneers never projected that the sector’s working conditions were capable of endangering the lives of farmers significantly. Now, the ailment has spread across vast regions and ages, including young children who help their parents to pick the leaves. The situation is running out of control and becoming a menace and something needs to be done.
Arthritis, alas, stirs much controversy hereabouts, its surging presence fueling the ongoing discourse surrounding Kenya’s tea establishments’ feeble grasp on healthcare administration. Despite efforts like Kinga ya Mkulima, a supposedly transformative health insurance initiative launched by the Tea Development Agency, farmers bemoan its inadequacy in tending to the exorbitant costs associated with the burden of arthritis. The ailment, a poignant reminder of their shared endeavor in tea picking, begs for urgent attention, as deemed by these beleaguered individuals.
“The health fund was a major milestone in the healthcare department, but we still wonder to whose benefit it is if it can’t help us get treatment for the disease we are struggling with the most,” said Silas Kithinji, the chairman of Kamatumu tea buying center. The farmers argue that the program was rolled out in pomp and colour, and was hailed as one that would grant an ultimate panacea to the farmer’s struggle with healthcare, but only ended up being very ineffective with it catering for lesser demanding ailments. True to their sentiments, many people have already died needlessly and there is fear that by the time this menace gains attention and begins to be solved, a big part of the population will probably have died and the region will have an out-of-control arthritis epidemic like none other in the country’s history. The signs have started to show.
Karimi Micheni, a senior doctor at the local dispensary, sadly refers to this enduring conflict as a prolonged ordeal, persisting for countless years and now reaching a pitiable climax. In her somber establishment, she confesses to dispatching larger quantities of medication for the battle against arthritis compared to other ailments, desperately relying on immense shipments from the dispensary’s original hospital, Chogoria. “Regrettably, the number of patients is staggeringly high.”
The true picture vs the Leaders’ Picture
Although the area assistant chief, Emily Mukwanjeru, did not agree with the information on the surge of the disease or its reputation as the area’s top killer disease, her mother in law in Mitheru, a few kilometers away from the forest basin, also died of arthritis. “Her final days were characterized by bone defections, which possibly indicated that the cold had gotten into her. The doctors suggested that it was arthritis but never got to deliver a definitive diagnosis as she died before the procedure was done,” she sorrowfully explained on December 18, at the funeral.
Her mother-in-law lived in a village a distance away from the tea farming zones, and she arguably had never come into contact with tea bushes. There, the climate was drier and extreme cold was not frequent, which is why tea farming is restricted. Nevertheless, there remains evidence of the diseases’ occurrence, albeit not at a significant rate, resulting in fatalities. It is worth noting, however, that these deaths could have been influenced by other factors, such as inadequate nutrition, rather than cold temperature from tea plantations.
The assistant chief’s dissenting stance against the data collected from the villagers exemplified the disregard of higher authorities, who often fail to grasp the true gravity of the situation. Consequently, such a disease could potentially transform into an epidemic due to the delayed implementation of appropriate measures, evoking a sense of helplessness and despair.
Amidst Kenya’s towering title as the unrivaled tea export champion of the globe, a poignant truth shadows the hearts of its farmers. Their precious yield, like elusive treasures, fails to fetch the true appreciation it deserves. Entrapped within an unyielding vortex of unfairness, those positioned higher up snatch the lion’s share, dispensing meager remnants to the toiling hands that nurture this verdant whose legacy costs them their health – even their very lives. Sadly, their plaintive pleas for better well-being remain but echoes in the wind. As countless voices rise in unison, a fervent appeal resonates: May the government intertwine the nation’s esteemed reputation for exquisite tea exports with genuine concern for those who sow its fertile fields.