The growls from the caged hyena reverberate through the room as Mohamed Sheikh Yakub slumps silently in a chair nearby, hoping the animal will frighten away the evil spirits he says have troubled him since his divorce. The traditional treatment – rooted in the belief that hyenas can devour the ‘jinns’ or spirits widely blamed in the region for depression and mental illness – takes place in a sweltering shack in Somalia’s capital Mogadishu.
The Horn of Africa nation, which has suffered decades of civil war, only has three trained psychiatrists, the World Health Organization says.
In the absence of conventional therapies, many people are turning to traditional healers including Yakub’s exorcist – a spry 70-year-old called Aden Igaal who goes by the name of Dr. Hyena. Medics at the capital’s Turkish-funded Erdogan Hospital say there is no scientific basis for the treatment.
“I don’t think it can help,” said neurosurgeon Dr. Nur Abdullahi Karshe. Psychiatric nurse Abdirahman Ali Awale, known as ‘Dr. Habeeb’, says he always encourages people to get clinical rather than traditional treatment. “I am trying to educate them to not go to the hyenas,” he said.
But patients at Dr. Hyena’s shack and their families say they have little choice given the shortage of alternatives. Fatuma Ahmed says she took her 13-year-old daughter to Dr Hyena after giving up on other avenues. “I took her to every hospital in Mogadishu but wasted my money. I was feeling hopeless,” Ahmed tells Reuters. She says the treatment worked. “Thank God, she is OK.”
In the past, other healers often locked patients into rooms with unrestrained animals, Dr. Hyena says. His use of a cage means there haven’t been any injuries since he started his practice four years ago, he tells Reuters.
Patients have red thread tied around their little fingers to stop the spirits from slipping away temporarily before the hyena can deal with them properly, he says. He got into the business after his sister was treated by a traditional healer. “This inspired me to look for a hyena to heal the people.”
He found a hyena pup for sale for $1 200, nicknamed it Ali and set up shop, charging people $10 a session – still pricey in a city where a soldier receives $100 per month.”
Back in the treatment shack, the hyena swings its head around and snuffles against the cage’s narrow bars. But Mohamed Sheikh Yakub shows no sign of improvement and remains listless and withdrawn.
Dr Hyena stops the session after a few minutes, saying his animal has not managed to detect any spirits. Some conditions are not caused by jinns, he says. But Yakub should come back three more times, just to make sure. Yakub’s brother, who was with him throughout the treatment, occasionally holding him up to the cage, leads him outside.