Traditional belief and practice among the Pokot people of Kenya with particular reference to mother and child health: 1. The Pokot people and their environment

Ann Trop Paediatr. 1988 Jun;8(2):49-60. doi: 10.1080/02724936.1988.11748540.


In order to provide effective and sympathetic health care in a community, it is essential to have a detailed understanding of the culture. This is particularly true when one is concerned with the health of mothers and their children. The Pokot people of Kenya have developed a social structure and cultural practices which aim to optimize the chance of survival of the community in an often difficult and hostile environment. When examined in detail, some of these practices are seen to be beneficial, while others are associated with significant morbidity and mortality, especially in the area of mother and child health. In recent times, Pokot society has been in a phase of transition, influenced by new opportunities of educational, economic and social interaction, particularly since the completion of a tarmac road through the district in 1983. While many of these changes are undoubtedly beneficial to the community, they have been associated with a disintegration of traditional Pokot society and accompanied by changing patterns of existing diseases, as well as the opportunity for introduction and dissemination of diseases which were previously absent from or rarely encountered in the area.

PIP: The Pokot, who inhabit an area in Western Kenya and Uganda, base their society on the extended family and the clans. Men dominate the decision-making processes within the society, and a council of elders is responsible for maintenance of law and order, security, social disputes, ceremonies, and decisions regarding agriculture and livestock. The Pokot are polygamous, with the number of wives in proportion to a man's wealth. This practice is viewed as a means of maximizing the productive and reproductive capacity of the society. Diseases are seen as related either to some natural phenomenon (e.g., certain mists) or some supernatural power (shadows of dead people). The force of the psyche as a determinant of disease is stressed, and ceremonial cursing in particular is thought to have the power to induce symptomatic illness and even death. Some of these beliefs have the effect of enhancing health and welfare. For example, the belief that the shadow of a woman whose child has just died is dangerous may serve to reduce the spread of infectious diseases. There are several categories of medical practitioners in Pokot society: chepsaketian, an older woman skilled in the diagnosis of most diseases and the use of herbal remedies; koroyokyon, a specialist trained to foretell the future; kokeogh, the midwife; werkoyon, a prophet who receives his powers by inheritance and is a key figure in the prevention and containment of diseases; chepsokoyon, a female diviner concerned with the problem of witchcraft; and kapolokion, a specialist believed to manipulate forces that cause mental imbalance. In recent years, especially since the 1983 completion of a tarmac road through the district, there has been an erosion of traditional practices. This has been accompanied by changing patterns of existing diseases as well as the introduction of diseases that were previously absent from the region.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Child
  • Child Welfare*
  • Cultural Characteristics*
  • Culture*
  • Diet
  • Education
  • Ethnic Groups*
  • Female
  • Housing
  • Humans
  • Kenya / ethnology
  • Male
  • Marriage
  • Maternal Welfare*
  • Medicine, Traditional
  • Middle Aged
  • Religion
  • Social Environment*