A patient lies down with needles inserted on one side of her body. When asked, she says she had a stroke a year back that paralysed half of her body and resigned her movement to a wheelchair. She has since been seeking medical help from different health facilities. There was not much improvement until she started attending the acupuncture clinic, at the China-Uganda Friendship hospital in Naguru, a month ago.
“I can now walk on my own with a walking cane 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 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.
For about five years now, the hospital has been the only provider of free acupuncture therapy, for Kampala’s residents and its suburbs.
Acupuncture is a form of Chinese therapy where needles are inserted in the body to relieve pain or treat diseases, and is now becoming popular with Ugandans. It has its origin in traditional Chinese medicine and has been in use for more than 5,000 years.
“It relieves pain. Most of the patients come with pain in the back, joints or neck,” says Dr Ni Wei, a qualified acupuncturist and neurologist and with 20 years of experience, and the sole acupuncturist at the facility.
The clinic is open three days a week, with the majority of patients being older women who are recovering from a stroke or have chronic pain. It is a free service at the China-Uganda Friendship Hospital in Naguru but can cost between Shs80,000 to Shs200,000 per session in a private clinic.
Dr. Wei is part of a nine-member 18th Chinese medical team all with different medical expertise that is in Uganda for a year to offer medical expertise at the referral hospital.
The first medical team dispatched from China to Uganda arrived in 1983. So far, 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 eight to build 30 hospitals in Africa. It is also in line with the Johannesburg Summit of 6th FOCAC in 2015 were China pledged 10 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 Hospital says they have received equipment, a medical team of specialists and medical supplies from China.
But one of the challenges the hospital faces after partnering with China is support for other partners. A staff member who did not want to be named says the Chinese are “dominant”. But generally, the Chinese medical staff are friendly and willing to teach them.
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.
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. This seems to be a hit with patients as the 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.
“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 emphasises that prescription of either Chinese herbal medicine or western drugs is at the discretion of the doctors, not the patient.
Dr Wei’s patients at the acupuncture clinic also demand for herbals on top of the needles. On average he treats about 60 patients a week.
Challenges however exist. Not all Dr. Wei’s patients are pleased. Ms 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.
“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. She, however, concedes that she cannot attend the clinic thrice a week as recommended by the doctor. The hospital also has limited space so Dr Wei has only 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 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.
Hopefully, the hospital can find a 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.