Monday, June 8, 2009

Poisoning in Eastern Congo

Another question...
"What type of traditional medicinal practices have you come across? Have you seen any signs that these practices are still alive and functioning in the communities? Are there certain types of illnesses that would be treated with traditional medicines versus western medicines? Is there much interaction between the two health systems?"

Traditional medicine is quite common here. I think everyone that I know here has been to a traditional doctor at least once in their life, and most people have gone many times.

Recently Roy's son was sick. It appeared he was malnourished and losing weight, so Roy took him to a regular doctor. The doctor ran tests, did not find anything wrong, and suggested Roy take him to a traditional doctor.

The traditional doctor concluded that Roy's son, a 4 year old boy, had been poisoned, and gave him medicine to counteract the poisoning. Roy's son took the medicine, which was a pink liquid smelling a bit like thyme, gained strength, is doing well now.

I am sure that there was some helpful herbal medicine in that concoction. And in an age where Western countries are returning to the value of herbal medicines, I am sure there is value in the existence of traditional medicine. And I would truly like to see Congo maintaining its traditional culture.

Unfortunately, traditional medicine in Goma has taken on a particular role. Going to a traditional doctor pretty much guarantees a diagnosis of poisoning. I cannot count the people that I know here in Goma who claim to have been poisoned. It is a common claim in a conversation that usually goes like this.

"How are you?"
"Not so good. I've been sick recently."
"Oh really? What's wrong?
"Someone poisoned me."
"Oh really ??? Who poisoned you?!!!"
"I don't know."
"Why would anybody poison you?!!"
"I don't know. "
"How do you know that you have been poisoned?"
"I went to the doctor and that is what he said."

I participate in this conversation regularly with a wide variety of people. Often the "poison victim" is a guard or street vendor. Sometimes a child. From my American standpoint it is hard to understand. Because poisoning in my head is what might happen if you are a king...or maybe a president...someone very big and important. I have never imagined that my own existence is nearly important enough for anyone to think of poisoning me.

It is infinitely fascinating to me that people here accept on faith that they have been poisoned, and that some nameless person has probably done this to them.

Unfortunately I think it is a testament to the deep level of distrust and fear that exist here.

From the traditional doctor's standpoint it seems an easy out. They don't have diagnostic equipment, and even if they can identify a complicated medical problem, how will they possibly explain it? No it is simpler, and much easier for their customers to accept if they simply explain that it is poisoning. End of discussion.

The fact is that a diagnosis of poisoning here seems to require less of a leap of faith, than a diagnosis of cancer. And offers more hope. Poisoning is controllable in a little bottle of pink liquid. Cancer? In Goma. Your options are not good.

So in the end, I shouldn't be surprised that traditional doctors have taken to offering this diagnosis time and again. I don't think the history of traditional medicine was always like this. At least I hope not. But perhaps it is easier to believe that some other person gave you this terrible illness. If your neighbor didn't do this to you than who did ? God? Yourself?

I get it. But I still cringe every time someone I know goes to the traditional doctor. When a person comes out with a diagnosis of poisoning, what does that do to his own heart? What does that do to the people around him? He must start looking around and wondering who has done this. How could you not? And it is this doubt that is at the fabric of a society desperately broken.

What came first the chicken or the egg?
What kind of society believes that this type of poisoning is possible on such a large scale?
What kind of society does this belief create?


kristine said...

That's so interesting. I know where you are coming from, feeling a bit uncomfortable with it. I used to have this in Indonesia (which is obviously very different from Congo, but still) all the time, - people always had ghosts and spirits that were doing nasty things. It's kind of hard to carry on a normal conversation about it.

shona congo said...

Indeed. I find it hard enough to carry on conversations about mysterious people who must be poisoning sick people, I am sure I would find it even more challenging to continue the conversation about ghosts and spirits. I hear a little of that hear, but I am sure you heard much more in indonesia, and I also think I would probably hear a lot more about ghosts and spirits in a more rural setting.

I guess I might find some beliefs and perspecitives a bit challenging here, but I am sure many people here would find some of my American beliefs equally difficult to engage! I guess it is all perspective.

Joshua said...

I'm American. My dear friend is from DRC. Together we traveled to DRC last month. He got sick and died. Indeed, I found it very disturbing how, the first thing to come out of the mouth when somebody hears of his death was. "Was he poisoned?". Some even decided that that's what it must have been.