Thursday, July 8, 2010


I've known for a few weeks that my colleague B.'s sister is sick. He's even been late to watch a few world cup matches in his own home because he was praying with her. Today on the way back from working in Nyakiliba sector he said we were going to visit her in the hospital in Muhoko sector. Only districts have hospitals, and ours is in Gisenyi, so I asked him, "Do you mean the health center?” No - B. explained that his sister was sick with a mental disorder because she’d been poisoned. The hospital we were going to was a traditional hospital.

I’d heard about the Rwandan belief in poisoning, but this was the first time I encountered it personally. Basically, there are many diseases doctors here can’t diagnose. They lack the technological means to scan a body for cancer and there isn’t a lot of knowledge about invisible illnesses, be they degenerative or temporary. If a doctor can’t diagnose and treat a patient, many times the family (or even the doctor) blames poison, uburozi. “Bamurozi,” they say: they poisoned her. Who is they and why would they want to poison someone? These questions go unanswered. The patient is treated by a traditional healer, an umuganga gakondo, also called a witch doctor. In the case of B.'s sister, the nature of her mental disorder is that she sometimes says things that don't make sense or says non-existent words.

The traditional hospital and witch doctor were not at all what I expected. The hospital was a collection of houses, and the one we entered had several large rooms with 3-4 beds in them and a few small private rooms. All the beds had mosquito nets. Because B.’s family is well off, his sister had a private room. Her son, who is thirteen months old, was with her on the bed. A man came in and talked briefly to B. and his sister; he was well dressed in slacks and a dress shirt. Imagine my surprise when I was told he was the “witch doctor.” According to him, the sister’s condition is improving. After he left, we discussed the child, who has been vomiting and refusing food for a few days and had just vomited up a piece of soap he’d presumably found on the ground. As B. pointed out, the conditions were less than hygienic. Then B. said a lengthy prayer, and we said our goodbyes.

B. is an educated, middle class, religiously Christian Rwandan whom I’ve seen deliver excellent speeches on nutrition and other health topics. Yet he is among many Rwandans who believe in the poisoning phenomenon, and who turn to traditional healers for a cure. He acknowledged that the conditions of the hospital were not clean, and were probably the cause of the child’s illness, but thought that the doctor was healing his sister.


  1. I'm not sure that the poison diagnosis is so different from what western doctors do when they give a name like neuropathy to symptoms but have no idea what causes them. Then instead of prayers they give you a bunch of pills, which may be equally (in)effective.

  2. As one who has worked with the mentally ill for many years, I always find it fascinating how people from other cultures explain mental illness.


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