As I drive to Nduuri Village in Runyenjes constituency, I take a winding murram road, that seems impassable during the rainy season.
At the foot of the imposing Kirimiri Hill forest is the residence of the man who famously cut the Uvula of the first president of Kenya, the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta.
Uvula is a small fleshy finger- like flap of tissue that hangs in the back of the throat and is an extension of the soft palate.
The 87-years old, Kariuki Kobuthi is this year celebrating his 60th anniversary since he embarked on his popular but controversial "medical" practice of cutting the uvula.
He began his trade in the year 1954 following his release from detention during the country’s freedom war.
Just like many other Mau Mau war veterans, Mzee Kobuthi is not rich and neither are his children.
“I get everything for living from this business. Fighting for self-rule added no value as the government has never fulfilled its promises to the war veterans,” he regrets.
The octogenarian who learnt the skills from Inyashio Ndwiga whom they had been sewing clothes together in Runyenjes Town, has now taught four people on how to go about the service and reveals that the organ can be cut anytime.
“It is always easy to cut it as it is always soft because of the saliva, the saliva also helps the wound to heal,” he notes.
As we continue with our interview at his shop at around 3pm, a couple arrives with a one-week old baby.
They greet us and request to talk to him. They want their first born child cut the Kirimi (Embu for uvula) which, according to Mzee Kobuthi, is necessary because the baby is coughing uncontrollably.
The soft-spoken man calls his third wife’s first born son, Stephen Ireri, who was just within the house, to carry on with the service. Unfortunately, the middle aged man who holds clients as his son cuts the epiglottis, is away, and the elderly man is forced to do it.
Quavering on his crutches, he slowly reaches onto a bench outside his house where they do the job. One feels both the physical pain and emotional pain the old man is going through now. But at the same time, there is a palpable confidence in the air, that this is the best in Kenya.
President Jomo Kenyatta had just assumed reigns of power in 1963 when a persistent cough that began during his detention, became a distraction. Kenya's current President Uhuru was just a small baby then.
Kenyatta had tried all kinds of "modern" medicine without success. And so Kobuthi, who was already popular even in 1960s, was called in help. "After i cut the kirimi, he was completely cured," he says. It is said Kobuthi was held in detention for one week until President Kenyatta was fully healed.
Kobuthi is todate among the few traditional doctors who hve lept into the 21 centiry with their reputation intact. He hopes to meet President Uhuru one day.
He has faithfully carried out his trade faithfully the last 60 years. Today, Kobuthi looks into the horizon and proudly says all the people he can see has probably gone through his hands.
Apart from circumcision, the cutting of the epiglottis is the other traditional practise that has persisted in Embu.
“There is a man who helps me hold the baby but at the moment he is not around. Because we value our customer’s time we have to do it with my father,” Ireri says picking the small baby from its mother.
The affable man, Kobuthi, spends some minutes to get out of his house armed with a spoon, thin wire and a razor tied to a thin stalk, ready to remove the epiglottis.
He warns its a risky "operation" that can even lead to death.
The service takes less than a minute because he has 60 years’ experience and his son has four years experience.
Kobuthi says that he charges Sh200 per head no matter how old the client is. When he cut the first president, the fees was Sh3.
The elderly man says he cannot remember the exact year he cut the president but places it as between 1964 and 1966 when the presidential convoy zoomed into Runyenjes Town where he reportedly performed the critical operation.
“It’s a small thing and can lead to death. When not cut, it has high probability of expanding.
It becomes stiff and at times the affected becomes dumb and even dies,” Kobuthi explains, showing us some of the epiglottis they had cut earlier in the day.
“Mzee Kenyatta had breathing problems and his handlers recommended him to me. I had good experience in cutting of epiglottis of people of all ages and many come to me even now,” he says.
He strongly refutes a popular talk that after he performed the operation he was held at an unknown location by Mzee Kenyatta’s handlers until the president healed completely.
“I was not held up as many puts it. There were no impediments to the people I had earlier on cut their uvula and most healed in one week time,” Kobuthi says.
His clients come from all over the country and pay Sh150. He says: “They come all the way from Makueni, Tanganyika, Namanga and Isiolo amid other places. I receive three or more clients in a day.”
He says that the business has helped him put food on the table despite losing the ability to walk properly after the freedom war.
“My clients come to met. Those from far are directed by God as no one has ever missed the way to this place,” he says.
What is the role of Uvula?
Uvula is the small fleshy mass protruding downwards from the soft palate in the back of the mouth. There are no characteristic functions of a uvula as an isolated organ. It works in coordination with the soft palate, inhaled air and back of throat portion to produce specific sounds.
Another major function is to prevent food entry into the breathing passage at the time of swallowing. Removing uvula is indicated for some medical problems, but one should discuss the negatives of uvula removal with the concerned doctor before getting the surgery.
In some African regions, removal of small parts of uvula, by a healing expert, is a custom. This rarely causes adverse effects as a small section is removed. Considering the fact that uvula is not a vestigial body part, side effects are evident after getting it removed. The question is severity of the adverse effects, of which some are manifested lifelong. There are also complications related to the surgical procedure, such as bleeding, inflammation, infections, sore throat, and drainage of fluids to nose.
After the removal, there is no longer a separation between the nose and throat regions while performing common activities like swallowing food, breathing, and speaking. Thus, nasal voice and eating problems (nasal regurgitation) are common. Since uvula plays a crucial part in sound production mechanism, one of the major side effects is permanent change in the voice. After getting it removed, the person finds difficulty in verbalizing words that have uvular 'r' phoneme in them.