Democratic Republic of Congo

Traditional Healer in DRC Treats Suspected Poisoning Victims Regardless of Tribe

In Goma, a city in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, people who fear they have been poisoned with a locally made potion called karuho often turn to Riziki Mbeta. The healer began learning folk medicine about 10 years after hostilities in neighboring Rwanda began spilling into the DRC, spreading fear of revenge killings.

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Traditional Healer in DRC Treats Suspected Poisoning Victims Regardless of Tribe

Mbeta treats karuho poisoning with an antidote she makes with hot water, fresh eggs, salt and the leaves of mwasamusa, a local plant.

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GOMA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – Riziki Mbeta is not a doctor.

She’s not a nurse, either. In fact, she never went to school.

But when members of her community fall ill and suspect they have been poisoned with karuho, a potion made from chameleon heads, toad skin and plant extracts, Mbeta is considered the best healer in Goma, a city on the north shore of Lake Kivu in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC.

Like many people in the region, Mbeta, 49, says most karuho poisonings are motivated by antagonism based on tribal affiliation.

Mbeta’s daughter suffered a bout of karuho poisoning 10 years ago, she says.

“My 9-year-old daughter was suffering from an unknown illness that I didn’t know how to identify,” she recalls. “Her stomach was inflated like that of a pregnant woman.”

An elder in the Ndosho district of Goma, where Mbeta lives, recommended she use the leaves of a vinelike plant called mwasamusa in Kitembo, a local language, to cure her daughter. The elder made the antidote by mixing the leaves with hot water, salt and a fresh egg, Mbeta says.

“When my daughter drank this mixture, her saliva turned red,” Mbeta recalls.

Her daughter recovered in four days, Mbeta says.

Poisoning is frequently used for revenge in eastern DRC, Mbeta says. Children are most commonly poisoned by accident when they eat poisoned food that was intended for someone else. Children can also be targeted for poisoning by someone seeking revenge on a family member.

After her daughter was cured, Mbeta began to notice how many people were suffering from karuho poisoning, she says. So she decided to commit herself to life as a healer.

“I like this work because while practicing every day, I develop my knowledge in traditional medicine,” she says.

To protect her recipe, Mbeta always mixes her karuho antidote in secret, preparing a broth that she serves warm. She administers one or two doses to a patient in the early stages of karuho poisoning, she says. She may give many more to a patient in an advanced stage of poisoning.

“The patient receives a dose according to the evolution of his health,” she says.

Married with seven children, Mbeta hails from the Tembo group. Unlike other local healers, she treats people from all tribes and backgrounds.

People in the district are astonished to see a woman treat all comers regardless of tribe, sex, age or religion, Mbeta says.

Not all community members consider Mbeta’s care effective.

“Some people respect what I do, but others take me for a high-class witch,” Mbeta says.

Mbeta charges 9,000 Congolese francs ($10) for her treatment, but she is rarely paid in cash, she says.

Many of her customers are too poor to pay cash. Rather than turn them away, Mbeta accepts other forms of payment, such as goats.

Mbeta’s husband is out of work, but she is able to support her family as a healer.

“Sometimes I don’t even pay for public transportation,” she says with a smile. “And often when I am at the market, I go back with a hen whereas I only came with money for vegetables.”

Karuho poisoning became more common throughout eastern DRC beginning in 1994, when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda began to displace much of that country’s population. An estimated 2 million people crossed the porous border to find refuge in eastern DRC, bringing with them the hostilities raging between Hutus and Tutsis.

Deep divisions between these tribal communities – and an overall culture of mistrust in a region that is home to more than 40 rebel groups – contributes to the widespread belief that people poison one another as a revenge tool, sociologists and local experts say.

Local residents say it is pointless to report karuho poisoning to police, who generally refuse to investigate such cases. Health care workers say they frequently see patients who believe they have been poisoned, but they add that the symptoms of karuho are similar to those of serious recognized illnesses such as tuberculosis and malaria. When health care workers believe a patient has been poisoned with karuho, they refer the patient to a traditional healer like Mbeta, they say.

The instability of the DRC contributes to the use of poisoning to settle old scores, particularly in the eastern region, says Franck Mwendangoli, professor of African sociology at the Zanner Institute, a Goma secondary school that educates conflict orphans and other vulnerable populations.

After the Hutu government of Rwanda was overthrown in 1994, many Hutus fled across the border into eastern DRC. Hutus are thought to have invented karuho, which can include rat poison and acid as well as animal tissue and native plants.

Whatever its origin, the recipe for karuho is now widely used, Mwendangoli says.

The poison is considered potent, though recipes can vary significantly, Mbeta says.

“Karuho can take down a man in a few hours,” Mwendangoli says.

There is no data on the number of karuho poisonings committed in Goma. The crime is generally not reported to police, and hospitals don’t keep statistics on the number of patients who say they have ingested karuho, police say.

“The Congolese government does not recognize witchcraft,” says Sebiguri Bamu Patient, a student and law school finalist at the Free University of Great Lakes in Goma. “There is no tangible evidence to prove it.”

But many people here believe karuho poisoning is a common threat.

People who think they have been poisoned say traditional healers are their best chance at survival.

When Maman Raissa Asumani was poisoned, Mbeta took care of her, she says.

“I trust in her very much,” she says. “She even took care of me when I didn’t have any money.”

The community relies on Mbeta, Asumani says. When friends or family members suspect they have been poisoned, Asumani always recommends Mbeta.

“I am certain that they will find a positive result,” Asumani says.

Mbeta has no record of how many patients she has saved or how many have died despite taking her remedy.

Given Mbeta’s lack of education, some people remain doubtful of her skills.

“How can it be that a person who didn’t study medicine healed karuho with medicinal plants?” asks Benjamin Kasembe, a university student of community development in Goma. “I think it is dangerous because they don’t even know what dose to give to an adult compared to a child. It is only luck.”

Kasembe doesn’t doubt that karuho poisonings occur, but he mistrusts people who profess to heal those who have been poisoned. He suspects healers are engaged in a racket.

“Those who take care of the karuho, I think they can be the same people who poison other people,” he says.

Such mistrust fuels the culture of karuho, Mbeta says.

Some local health care professionals warn that unconditional reliance on traditional remedies can be as dangerous as karuho itself.

People who believe they have been poisoned should first seek medical attention at a hospital or clinic, says Rosalie Juvénal, a nurse at AMESA health clinic in Goma.

People suffering from symptoms such as fever, stomachache, headache, chest pain, inflated stomach, lack of appetite or a change in skin color often assume they have been poisoned, Juvénal says. But such symptoms may also indicate other serious illnesses, including typhoid, malaria and tuberculosis.

“If the tests of malaria or typhoid are negative, we give the patient a perfusion of glucose serum,” Juvénal says.

Beyond that, there is little a hospital or clinic will do for someone who has been poisoned with karuho.

“If we note intolerance to this serum, like increase of the pulse and the arterial tension, we advise him then to see a traditional healer to confirm if there was poisoning so the [healer] can take care of the patient,” she says.

In a given week, Juvénal sees about 15 people who believe they are suffering from karuho poisoning, she says. As many as 10 of them have actually been poisoned, she says. She refers them to traditional healers like Mbeta.

Mbeta knows that many of her patients are referred to her by local doctors and nurses. She agrees that patients should first be tested at conventional hospitals and clinics to rule out other diseases before coming to see her.

According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Community Medicine and Health Education, as many as 30 percent of patients who tested positive for tuberculosis in eastern DRC initially assumed they had been poisoned. Researchers refer to the phenomenon as “karuho phobia.”

The report notes that the assumption of poisoning is “pervasive and entrenched in settings with longstanding social conflicts and affect dangerously the health seeking behaviors.”

Mbeta is determined to continue treating cases of karuho poisoning in all members of her community, regardless of tribe or other affiliation, she says.

She knows that policy makes her unpopular with some people. But the benefits are worth it, she says.

“I like to save lives,” she says. “It became like a gift for me.”



GPJ translated interviews from French and Kiswahili. The article was translated from French.