His left leg shackled to a steel bed frame, the old soldier sits still as a statue on a stained concrete floor, staring off into some middle distance. Flies swarm in the heat.
When Avo "Papa" Kitoko enters the room, he summons the man to his feet. The old soldier does not speak. He merely nods every few seconds, while Kitoko holds his hand, explaining how he plans to cure the soldier's madness with herbal remedies, prayer--and manacles.
"We see so many mentally affected patients here," Kitoko said while visiting patients on a recent Sunday. "It is because of the war."
Every Sunday, this war-weary capital city brings its sick and its shellshocked to Kitoko's temple, a crumbling single-story building that is missing parts of its roof yet serves as a walk-in clinic and treatment center. When the hospitals fail them--as most things in this country seem to do--desperate families turn to Luanda's self-styled shaman and shrink, a quiet man with a bantamweight's physique whose shackles and homemade brews have earned quite a following.
Angola has been at war for so very long--24 years and counting--that it sometimes seems the entire country is standing at the precipice of madness. Its booby-trapped land spits out limbless people like bad seeds. Street children retreat to the sewers for a night's sleep. It is filled with exhausted soldiers with blank stares and with traumatized refugees who looked on as the soldiers killed, or lost arms or legs or even their minds.
Certainly nothing in science suggests that Kitoko can heal Luanda's physical or emotional pain. That does not matter to the families of the hundreds of afflicted who come to his church every week. To them, Kitoko's peculiar treatment of leg irons, faith and strange brown liquids seems no more or less effective than anything else at keeping this city from going completely off the deep end.
Seven years of fighting rebel guerrillas in the Angolan countryside left Jose Lutumba depressed and suicidal. "I felt like a prisoner," said the 29-year-old former soldier. Word of mouth led him to seek help from Kitoko, and after a few months in his care, Lutumba said he was able to let go of the war and all its wretchedness.
"I am happy now," he said, while worshipers sang hymns in the sanctuary of Kitoko's church. "Papa Kitoko saved my life. I thank God for Papa Kitoko."
As the congregation's clapping and singing grew louder and more animated, Manuel Mendoza stood silent and shirtless in a dark and dirty room, his right leg chained to the rusty rim of a truck tire. His treatment included sipping from a bottle filled with a murky, brown concoction three times every day. He stared at the ground while he talked as if he were digging a trench with his gaze. He was in the Angolan army, and saw, he said, "things of great horror." But he would not say what precisely. He mumbled, then abruptly turned away.
"I condemn the war for what it has done to the people," said Kitoko, 41, soft-spoken and dressed in a flowing white robe. "That's why we started this place." That was 23 years ago, a year after Angola won independence from Portugal following a 14-year war. Almost as soon as the Portuguese fled, Angola's anti-colonial factions turned against each other in a civil war, pitting the new socialist government--and, soon, its Cuban and Soviet supporters--against rebel leader Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), which came to be backed by the United States and South Africa.
In fits and starts, that war has gone on ever since. Kitoko started his modest church, using the faith-healing approach and herbal remedies that he watched his mother use in the village where he grew up.
Kitoko said he charges his patients nothing--most are indigent anyway--and relies instead on donations. The roots and herbs, he said, can cure everything from impotence to hypertension. The believers are not difficult to find.
"Our son is a drug addict," said Jose Miguel Santos as his hysterical son was chained to a rusted tire rim. "And we tried everything, but modern medicine didn't seem to work. This traditional medicine seems to be working for now."
Perhaps, said Ndoza Luwawa, chief medical officer of the U.N. children's fund here, Kitoko's approach to healing is not accepted medical practice. But it is the best this struggling city can do now.
"Traditional medicine has its place, and when working together with modern medicine it can actually do more good than harm," he said. Kitoko "has done a lot for this community in helping it deal with the psychological scars that the war has caused."