IT was at 3pm when we were ushered in. At the entrance we had to remove our shoes. Inside, a man clad in traditional attire told us to feel at home after noticing our fear of the strange setting in the room. The floor is covered by traditional mats and a collection of traditional items including drums, skins of various animals, stools and gourds, among others.
The place located in Nyarutarama, Gasabo District is the ‘office’ of Modeste Nzayisenga Rutangarwamaboko, a traditional healer, who has not shaved his hair in four years. The long hair is the first thing you notice when you meet him for the first time. He cuts a unique look with the traditional ‘Amasunzu’ hairstyle.
“I don’t shave my hair because it is against my philosophy of living naturally,” he says.
At first sight, you would easily mistake him for a witch doctor. In fact before we visited him, our understanding was that we were going to visit a shrine of a popular witch doctor.
When I asked him if he is a witch doctor, he was very quick to explain that witch craft is evil and he doesn’t believe in healing people through evil ways.
Rutangarwamaboko says he is a therapist in both conventional and traditional medicine.
In conventional medicine, he says he is a psychologist, psychotherapist, and ethno psychiatrist; while in traditional healing, he uses local medicine to treat health complications. On top of medicinal herbs, he also uses music and plays to heal people.
The founder of Rwanda Cultural Health Centre (RCHC) holds a post graduate degree in culture, history and cultural based tourism. He further adds that in his dissertation, he did research on “The Impact of Kirazira (taboos) on Mental Health and Rwandan Culture” under Ethno psychiatry.
He explains that Ethno psychiatry deals with understanding mental illness through a cross-ethnic and cultural perspective.
The 34-year-old was born in “Bibungo bya Mukinga” in Kamonyi District, Southern Province. He says he started studying medicinal plants at the age of 7, after developing a keen interest in how plants and herbs were used to heal people .
Why taboos and culture matter in healing
When he was 27, Rutangarwamaboko visited Ndera Neuropsychiatrict Hospital in Gasabo District, to gather data about his research project. At Ndera, he said, he found a man who had been treated for mental illness for 3 years, but his condition could not improve. Rutangarwamaboko recalls that the man could hardly speak.
“I realised that the man was depressed,” says the traditional healer before adding that, the man had killed a bird called ‘Inyamanza’ (Wagtail), and that it brought him a bad spell leading to his mental illness.
From that situation, he said, he started understanding that taboos mattered a lot in understanding and diagnosing illness.
“Killing a wagtail was a taboo, and once you kill it accidentally, you bury it in a place where it will not be splashed onto by the rain,” Rutangarwamaboko explains noting that the Wagtail bird is the sacred symbol for Abagesera (one of the 18 clans of Rwandans), and that whoever wrongs it, wrongs all Abagesera.
In line with his philosophy, he says the human being is made up of the spirit, soul and body. Once one part is attacked, he says, the whole body is attacked.
He says that is why he developed a wide-ranging therapy that goes beyond only healing the body, but also the spirit and soul for comprehensive cure.
“As Sigmund Freud [an Austrian neurologist], founded psychoanalysis – a way of understanding a person’s unconscious mind, where there is a depository of things we do not control such as the happenings in dreams, I also came up with Rwandan Cultural Psychotherapy which I based on our culture,” he said.
According to Rutangarwamaboko, conventional medicine has failed when it comes to healing the integral part of the body– the soul and spirit or the abstract component of a human being.
“Sometimes doctors take a scan of a patient or take him through an MRI machine, but fail to diagnose the disease, the patient is told to wait telling him/her that the problem will vanish, which is a baseless promise,” he said.
Here is what Rutangarwamaboko told Sunday Times that he does when a patient comes to him after conventional therapy has failed.
“That needs far-sightedness to make advanced consultations to know the cause of such health complication,” he said pointing out that such health problems might be a result of witch craft.
He said that healing such a patient requires rare ability which is unique to him after inheriting it from the grandfather.
He added that the patients he attended to during his research got healed, and it is why he was motivated to establish a center.
“I also healed a woman who had chronic periods for over two years. She had gone to one of acclaimed hospitals in the country but the treatment she received there could not help,” he said.
He also uses music-based therapy, whereby a person gets treated through traditional music like to cure stress and depression.
According to him, traditional medicine lost its value because of colonialism, which introduced new ways of life and the adoption of western health practices.
Testimonies from people he cured
Pricilla Mukarihamye, 47, a mother of three children, and resident of Gasabo District became paralysed and she could not move her legs or her arms. Her disease was at a latent stage since 2007, but got severe in 2010.
She went to a hospital, but doctors could not diagnose the disease. She spent about three years confined to bed.
“I could not drink, nor eat,” she added.
But, she said that Rutangarwamaboko came to her residence in 2013, and cured her after people had gathered to bid her farewell.
“He did not just treat me, he rather resurrected me because he came to treat me the same day when people were planning to hold the last prayers and bid me farewell as they thought I was about to die,” she told Sunday Times.
“He applied some medicine on my body, and gave me other medicine that I consumed,” she said, noting that he did not do any rituals.
“I am a Christian, but I have a testimony about him and his therapy. He heals because he healed me,” she said.
Aman Mboneye, 28, from Gasabo District is another beneficiary of Rutangarwamaboko’s healing powers. He had severe pain in the upper part of his arm, and in one of his legs.
He told Sunday Times that he had visited renowned hospitals in Kigali, but the treatment was not effective. After listening to Rutangarwamaboko on a radio talk show, he became interested in his therapy.
“I went to him and he gave me herbs for two weeks. He also applied some on my body,” he said.
Mboneye, who is an accountant, said that, what makes Rutangarwamaboko unique is the interactive and helpful conversations he initiates between him and the patients, enabling the comprehension of the normally unclear causes of a disease and what can be done to deal with it, accordingly.
Dr Theophile Dushime, the Director General of Clinical and Public Health Services at the Ministry of Health, previously told this paper that the ministry was considering ways to regulate the sector adding that it recognises the existence of traditional medicine in the country.
“Knowing the list of traditional healers in the country is difficult and ensuring that what they do cannot have adverse effects on patients is also difficult,” he said.
He said a law and policy governing traditional medicine are in the pipeline.