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Traditional uvulectomy: one of Africa’s most curious medical and cultural practice

Uvulectomy, the practice of removing the uvula for curative or customary reasons by traditional doctors is still prevalent despite numerous hazards associated with it.

Traditional uvulectomy is a practice remotely familiar to many but this age-old procedure is prevalent in many parts of Africa.

There has been extensive medial research conducted on the practice in attempts to explore and understand its existence and prevalence.

The uvula is “a fleshy [tissue] extension at the back of the soft palate that hangs above the throat”. It’s also known as the palatine uvula ( and should not be confused with the uvula vermis, a lobe of the cerebellum, or the uvula vesicae, in the urinary bladder).

For centuries, there have been various theories on the functions of the uvula, from untested speculations to scientifically verifiable ones.

According to medical research, benefits of the uvula are said to include, its influence on the tone of voice, immunological function and secreting serous saliva which moistens the oropharyngeal mucosa.

On the downside, the uvula has been said to contribute to snoring or heavy breathing during sleep while more complicated medical conditions which warrant the surgical removal of the uvula is sleep apnea a “sleep disorder characterised by pauses in breathing or instances of shallow or infrequent breathing during sleep”.

Sleep apnea a a sleep disorder warrant the surgical removal of the uvula Photo: Shutterstock
Sleep apnea a sleep disorder warrants the surgical removal of the uvula Photo: Shutterstock

Traditionally, the uvulectomy procedure is performed by traditional doctors by cutting the organ which is believed to be responsible for “all throat conditions”. In some parts of Africa, traditional uvulectomy is practised as as a ritual custom, performed on toddlers or infants of both sexes. According to medical research, the practice is common in Niger, Nigeria (within the various ethnic groups including the Hausa and Zarma), Tanzania, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sierra Leone and in the Maghreb amongst others. These traditional doctors also “double up as barbers and using a sickle knife, performing other procedures such as incision and drainage of abscesses, circumcisions, and tooth extractions”.

Traditional uvulectomy is also seen solely as a curative practice by some ethnic groups in Africa, for “children and adults, for vomiting, diarrhoea, anorexia, the child’s rejection of the breast, growth retardation and fever”.

Traditional doctors who double up as barbers use these tools to perform the uvulectomy procedures Photo:
Traditional doctors who double up as barbers use these tools to perform the uvulectomy procedures Photo:

However, despite the cultural and health significance of the practice, the practice has often been discouraged owing to the complications resulting from traditional uvulectomy. The complications occur as a result of the unsterile environments in which the procedures are often performed in. The fact that the surgical equipments are not thoroughly cleaned and or sterilised often leads to “complications such as haemorrhage, anemia, septicemia, tetanus, risk of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection, and death” a study noted.

Curiously, traditional uvulectomy is still prevalent despite the health hazards it has been proven to cause. Critics of the practice believe traditional uvulectomy should be discouraged or prohibited altogether. Some studies have recommended that cultural groups should be discouraged to continue practising the custom on the belief that the uvula can aggravate child-hood diseases. Others have recommended training programs and in some cases the re-training of the traditional doctors to improve their practice and safeguard people’s lives.

In trying to understand the existence of traditional uvulectomy some medical scholars have suggested approaches based on cultural relativism rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The studies suggest that, “knowledge and comprehension of traditional medicine is important for the medical profession in those countries where traditional medical procedures are still in use”.

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