For about five years now, this health facility is the only provider of free acupuncture therapy, for Kampala’s residents and its suburbs. Dr. Ni Wei is also the sole acupuncturist for the Chinese therapy of inserting needles into the body to relieve pain or treat diseases at the China-Uganda Friendship hospital in Naguru.
“It relieves pain. Most of the patients come with pain in the back, joints or neck,” says Dr. Wei, who is a qualified acupuncturist and neurologist and with 20 years of experience. Staff at the hospital say the treatment is becoming very popular with Ugandans.
At the acupuncture clinic that is open for three days every week, the majority of patients are older women who are recovering from a stroke or have chronic back pain. It is a free service at the China-Uganda Friendship hospital in Naguru but can cost up to Ushs 200,000 or USD $70 per session in a private clinic.
One patient with needles inserted on one side of the body says she had a stroke a year back that paralyzed half of her body and resigned her movement to a wheelchair. She has since been seeking medical help from different health facilities with not much improvement until she started attending the acupuncture clinic a month ago.
“I can now walk on my own with a walking stick for support,” she says checking on her phone for the time left to finish her acupuncture session.
Another patient Ms. Jane Nakintu says she attends the clinic because she has been taking pain medication but she is tired of it. “I want to try something different.” Nakintu has back pain that stretches down to her feet that feel like she is walking on fire and sometimes has numbness in the feet.
A male patient says he has been suffering from gout for a month and the pain was excruciating during the Easter break. This stopped him from wearing closed shoes. But after attending the clinic the pain lessened. Dr. Wei applies thin needles at just the right spots which reportedly restore the flow of a mystical energy — through the body, and that can spur natural healing and pain relief.
But not all Dr. Wei’s patients are pleased. Mrs. Carol Mukasa, an elderly patient with chronic pain, complains that the needles inserted into her are too few that is the reason she is not improving fast.
“The former acupuncturist used to insert about 30 needles in all the pain spots I used to point at but this one is mean,” she says comparing Dr. Wei with his predecessor under the same programme. She, however, concedes that she cannot attend the clinic thrice a week as recommended by the doctor because she lives far away and cannot afford the transport.
Dr. Wei is part of a nine-member 18th Chinese medical team – all of them have different medical expertise and are in Uganda for a year to offer medical expertise at the China-Uganda Friendship, a referral hospital.
The first medical team to Uganda was dispatched in 1983. Up to now, 173 Chinese medical experts have served in Uganda. Previous teams were based in Jinja until the Chinese government built the China-Uganda Friendship Hospital, Naguru, in 2012.
It is one of the pledges of the Beijing Summit of the 3rd Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2006 where the then Chinese president pledged to build 30 hospitals in Africa. It is also in line with the Johannesburg Summit of the 6th FOCAC in 2015 were China pledged ten cooperation plans with Africa and one of them was the China-Africa public health cooperation plan.
Dr. Emmanuel Batiibwe, the director at the China-Uganda Friendship in Naguru says the hospital has received equipment, a medical team of specialists, and medical supplies from China.
Li Xin, Economic and Commercial Counselor’s Office, Embassy of China in Uganda says currently, China supports the hospital in three aspects – they send a Medical Team annually, donate drugs, medical apparatus, and instruments as well groups of Chinese experts assist the hospital engineer to maintain the equipment.
Xin says in September 2018, the 7th FOCAC Beijing Summit will announce China’s continued support to Africa in the health sector and pledge new pragmatic cooperation plans. Over the years, China’s worth of donations to Uganda’s health sector have risen. About USD $1.6 million was donated to Naguru hospital in 2014 alone.
But one of the challenges the hospital faces now after partnering with China is being unattractive for support to other donors. A staff member who did not want to be named says the Chinese are ‘dominant’ aid providers and discourage institutions from partnering with other donors which hurts them. But generally, the Chinese medical staff are friendly and willing to share their knowledge at the hospital.
Dr. Batiibwe says doctors of the medical teams from China have boosted his staff and have opened new clinics like the Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT), gastrointestinal, internal medicine, and acupuncture that did not have specialists or exist before.
Dr. Cong Linhai, an ENT specialist as well as the team leader of the 18th Chinese medical team says all the nine members of the medical team are well trained – half of them are Ph.D. holders and all are specialists in different medical fields.
Despite the need at the hospital, when Dr. Linhai started out at Naguru a year back there was no ENT specialist. He now works with a Ugandan medical intern and he is eager to pass on his skills to the student, however, there is a language problem that requires reliance on an interpreter.
Xin says the medical teams have brought not only high-level medical treatment technology through the years to Uganda, but also the traditional Chinese herbal medicines and have as well trained a large number of local medical staff through clinical teaching and academic lectures in various forms.
Medical staff at the Uganda-China Friendship hospital say their clients just love the Chinese herbal medicines. It comes in as ready-made remedies or pills. China also donates western medicine to the hospital.
“Ugandans just love herbal medicines. They think they are very effective,” says nurse Flavia at the hospital. She says on the days when the clinics managed by the Chinese are open the number of clients almost doubles and some patients just leave or complain endlessly if the Chinese herbal medicines are unavailable.
However, Linhai emphasizes that prescription of either Chinese herbal medicine or western drugs is at the discretion of the doctors, not the patient. The Chinese herbals are in stock at the hospital pharmacy and some local doctors are learning from their Chinese counterparts to prescribe them.
Dr. Wei patients at the acupuncture clinic also ask for herbal medicine as a top up. On average he treats about 60 patients per week. Acupuncture has its origin in traditional Chinese medicine and has been in use for more than 5,000 years and although it can be administered with herbals it can also be a stand-alone treatment.
The hospital also has limited space so Dr. Wei only has five beds for his patients even though he wants twice the number. He says the noise due to the location of the hospital is unbearable yet acupuncture therapy requires a relaxed, very quiet space. The hospital is adjacent to a rugby pitch and behind a big shopping mall.
Dr. Wei has also requested the hospital administration for an intern to work alongside him and learn the practice but so far his wish has not yet been granted.
“I am still looking for a young medical person because the training takes a bit of time and the intern has to learn both the Chinese language and acupuncture at the same time,” says Dr. Batiibwe.
“I want a young Ugandan to train alongside me,” says Dr. Wei who too has piqued demand for acupuncture in Uganda. Hopefully, the hospital can find the perfect candidate to work with the next Chinese medical acupuncturist due in September.
This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.