Cancer Curse – Nyūmba na Riika Itiumagwo


Some time back I met an old flame and since Gīkūyū himself said, ‘no irīma itacemanagia’, that is, ‘only mountains never meet’, and since neither she nor I are mountains, I was not the least surprised. What shocked me however was that even if it seemed like only yesterday since the last time we met, she looked haggard, decrepit and completely out of her depths. Gone was the vivacious, fun-loving spirit of nights past. Gīkūyū also said, ‘ciero nī ūimbo’ or rather, ‘these beautiful thighs you see now are merely inflamed and will one day shrivel to the bone’. When I recalled how beautiful she was those old days of our youth, I concurred, “Oh yes, ciero nī ūimbo.”

When we sat down for a serious tet-a-tet, she literally fell on my shoulder and wept. She then poured out her heart like a generous Gīkūyū woman would, openning her inner private store, Thegi. She told me that she was under a curse and will soon die of cancer. She said her mother, her two elder sisters and three of her aunts had all died of one type of cancer or another. Her little girl, her flower, her everything had just been buried the week before having succumbed to cancer after so much suffering and anguish. She had been treated by the best specialists in the country and my friend had spared no resources but as she put it, the curse, Kīrumi could not be swept away by modern medicine and science. She told me that for her, whoever bewitched her family was long dead and there was not a living Mūndū Mūgo or traditional medicine man who could undo the curse.

Like the Biblical opening of the seventh seal, when there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour, we too fell into a deep silence that brought us closer than we had ever been. As from a deep sleep, I murmured, ‘Nyūmba na riika itiumagwo’, that is, ‘one can never escape the fate of one’s family group and one’s age group’. Here was a woman of my age group, who seemed resigned to her fate. I could not escape being pulled into her circle and world of pain. I recalled how the grim reaper seemed to waylay this age, our age with that dreadful word – cancer.

Nyūmba na riika itiumagwo. According to the Gīkūyū one cannot escape ones family fate or destiny. It is like that famous painting that used to be on the walls of many Gīkūyū rural bars and restaurants that was titled, ‘Death has no Escape’. It depicted the story of a man who had gone out to cut a tree near the river and just as the tree was about to fall, a lion appeared and the man abandoning his axe scampered like a monkey up the tree. The picture always showed the moment when up in the branches he saw a deadly snake coming down and when he looked down, a hungry crocodile, was waiting in the river. For us in this age, it seems like cancer and other modern diseases are the lions, crocodiles and snakes.

Nyūmba or house are our genes, and Riika or age-group is our time, or age. The Gīkūyū believed that there was no escaping the dictates of these two. But we can. Genetic makeup comes from natures need for a variety of expression. This means that we are not all the same and some will find that their bodies need more calcium, some need more potassium and some require massive amounts of specific vitamins. This also means that some families will suffer more readily than others from specific vitamin or mineral deficiencies and thus will be predisposed to certain diseases. These families then carry the label of ‘Curse” from specific ailments. All that is needed is scientific knowledge, what the Gīkūyū call ‘Ūgo’, and the answering of the questions, Who am I? Where do I come from? Who is my mother – Ma iitū? Modern medicine is a flat land treating every body as the same. It has a passion for standardization, and exact doses as if we are all the same. Traditional Gīkūyū medicine, ‘Ūgo’, treats each individual being as a unique entity that must be understood for origin and specific time. Do not live other people’s truths. That is the true meaning of ‘Nyūmba na riika itiumagwo’. Know thyself. ‘Mūgīkūyū wīmenye’.

In the United States of America and also in Europe, it has been found that the diabetes burden leans more heavily on the black man than the white races. This is due to the genetic difference that caused the African to adapt to existence in a high heat environment and the white races to adapt to living in extremely cold environments. This meant that the African had to eat foods whose conversion into heat was as slow as possible and the European a diet that was metabolized faster and produced more heat. In scientific terms this translates to foods that have a very low glycemic index for the African and vice versa for the European. The African staples were then, yams, cassava, arrow roots and many other tubers and fruits that had very high fiber content. The fiber slows down the uptake of glucose from these foods. It is a fact that these tubers have very high levels of soluble fiber, a slimy, gummy substance that slows the uptake of sugar in the digestive tract even better than the fibrous fiber. This is why when you eat cassava for breakfast you feel full the whole day even up to 3 pm. The European staple food was wheat which has a much higher glycemic index. This means that one way of confronting the current challenge of runaway obesity and increasing Western diseases in our culture is to redefine our relationship with sugar. As Africans we cannot afford to continue to be reckless in our use of refined sugar. It is a matter of life and death. You are, many have said, what you eat. We can add that “you eat, like who you are”. There is no getting away from your genes. Nyūmba na riika itiumagwo

My old flame is now on a long journey of self discovery. She is on her way home and surprisingly this new impetus has revived her. The “curse” and its hold on her is weakening. She lives.