MBANDAKA — Don't tell Mfutu Etawale Ratis he's a magician or a witch doctor.
The self-proclaimed traditional practitioner says he can cure mental illness. And in this northwestern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where modern treatments are often missing, Ratis is one of the only people trying to help patients with mental disorders.
Seated in a furnished shed in his back yard, Ratis, 50, is talking with some of his patients, while a few meters away, two sharply-dressed young people are chatting with others.
"These two are my new clients. They're already recovering," Ratis says, smiling and proud.
His technique relies on a simple approach: He tests his patients over time to see how they progress. For example, he sends them to the market to buy sugar or salt, and sees whether they can perform the task.
Ratis is currently considered one of the most respected traditional practitioners of the Congolese province of Équateur — and he proudly shows his photo album, filled with pictures of all the people he's cured.
"I have had 97 mentally ill patients so far, not to mention those who suffered from epilepsy," he says. "And most of them are now completely cured. With God's help, they can recover in about a month, provided that they haven't been ill for more than 15 years."
To make a diagnosis, Ratis interviews families and friends in order to best understand the patient's history and current condition. Their symptoms can come from excessive use of marijuana, from having suffered emotional distress, trauma or even having been involved in esotericism. Not all of the people who come to him are actually "mentally ill" in the medical sense, but rather have shown inappropriate social behavior or have, at some point, been through difficult circumstances that have left their mark.
While there are more than 700,000 inhabitants in Mbandaka, there is no facility specialized in treating mental illnesses — nor is there any structure able to take care of patients.
People are generally too poor and have no means to travel to the neuropsychiatry center of the DRC's capital Kinshasa. As a result, they turn to traditional practitioners and, based on numerous accounts, the results are noteworthy. The price is also right. "I took my brother to a health center but it didn't work. We went to see a pastor and it didn't do any good either. So we followed somebody's advice and came here to see Ratis," a local explains. "Now my brother is cured."
Official paperwork in hand, Ratis describes himself as a "traditional herbalist doctor."
He explains that he documents everything he sees and hears from his patients. "Then I prescribe the appropriate treatment," he says.
The treatments he speaks of are in fact potions prepared with plants that his patients have to drink, or to take as a collyrium. Sometimes, they are powerful sleeping concoctions made with wild roots. According to Ratis, these can make the patient sleep for up to three days, depending on the illness and reaction to the substance prescribed. "It relaxes them, calms down the nerves and freshens up their memories," he claims.
Ratis says it's a job with built-in risks. "It's a dangerous profession. You can end up treating a restless patient who can hurt you." Pointing to one of them on a picture, he goes on: "That one broke my leg. But hey, it's part of the job…"
Despite his success in curing people, Ratis deplores the fact that his activity is misjudged by the very people who he feels should be praising it. "The region's Health Ministry doesn't include us in their work. The doctors with whom we should be working hand in hand despise us," he says. "They think of us as charlatans or quacks even though we're the ones getting real results."