Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Sister Somayah Kambui Has Passed

Sister Somayah Kambui has passed. Just about Thanksgiving time. Most of you never heard of her, I'm sure. But just as everyone else has a story of value, so did she. She was an extraordinarily courageous woman and the person who brought awareness of marijuana's medical help for sickle-cell to the world.
I'm sure most of you know that I used to work at High Times magazine. The bulk of my work there dealt with the hard news of the drug war--medical marijuana, mandatory sentencing, forfeiture, dirty cops/government agents, that sort of thing. There were also some fun travel stories, fascinating Peyote stories and so forth, but my real job was to work the hard news with a great team. It was Steve Hager, the visionary editor over there who put me on those things and let me run with them.
Well, you work troubled corners you run into troubled people. I'd get collect calls day and night from prisoners begging for intervention in their cases. I'd get crank calls from an occasional law enforcement officer who'd been found dirty and somehow blamed it on us. And then I had a series of calls with someone I later learned was Sister Somayah Kambui.
She first got in touch with me in the middle of the night nearly 20 years ago. The phone rang, I answered, and someone was screaming at me. I hung up.
Two weeks later or so it happened again.
And again.
I kept trying to find out who the person was and what they wanted, but all I got were names hurled at me. I had no idea what I'd done or to whom I'd done it. But someone was sure angry with me.
It probably took six months before I could get her to slow down and take a breath and tell me what as wrong, and why she had to keep waking me at 3 AM and 4 AM just to curse me until I hung up.
She said she called when the pain from her sickle-cell anemia got unbearable. If she was going to suffer, others were too. And as I was white and sickle-cell only affects African Americans, and also because I wrote for High Times on medical-marijuana, she took my not writing about sickle-cell as a racist thing. Therefore I had to pay with her tirades.
I told her I knew nothing about sickle-cell--didn't even know what it was, and so surely didn't know marijuana could help.
Then she schooled me. She had me look up articles, call hospitals to see how it was treated, that sort of thing. I forget most of what I learned, but the gist of it is that sickle-cell is a condition in which normally round or oblong red blood cells take on the shape of a sickle, and hook on to each other. When enough hook on they can clog up around the places where limbs meet, causing unbearable pain. The standard treatment most hospitals give is morphine three times a week. Or at least it was back then. People like Sister Somayah would go to her local hospital, get a small cup of morphine and drink it, then be told to come back in two days for another. And people like Sister Somayah, a military veteran who had spent I think 9 years in the army, became government junkies. "I couldn't do anything on the morph," she told me. "And neither can a million other people. That's why you see so many middle aged and older black folk sitting on stoops looking like junkies. They are junkies. They're US government junkies."
And that wasn't good enough for her. So she took her campaign to my stoop and despite being thick about it, I was able to investigate and discovered that she was right about the morphine at city hospitals. Of course, it didn't have to be that way. What was needed, aside from a cure, was a simple vasodilator. Like marijuana. Something that would simply open up the blood vessels and allow the hooked together cells to move on down the line. And so we began to print stories on that issue. And we discovered there were a lot of African Americans who'd already discovered that marijuana eased the symptoms and allowed them to hold jobs, and that that was much better than being a government junkie hooked on morphine.
And I hope some docs got it and that one day the Feds will get it too. If they do it's because of the work of Sister Somayah.
And that's the part of her story that I knew. I'm sure there was more, but it wasn't my business.
I'm guessing she's arguing with St. Pete right about now. And I'm going to bet she gets in as well. Good for you Sister. Good for you Sister Somayah Kambui.


Jorge Villacorta Santamato said...

Mmm... .

The Grudge said...


Sometimes it's best not to add if what is added does not in fact add anything at all.

Great write up Peter. I had no idea Marijuana could help those with sickle-cell anemia, it makes sense. Thanks for the share, rest in peace Sister Somayah Kambui.