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."
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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