“Mad” people in a mad country

Part ii: Whirlwinds and Flies on a Dunghill

by Elisha Gwanzwang Godswill
if you missed part one, Gathering Firewood”, you can read it here

I think you remember what I yarn last time…. that ‘na everyting for Naija go drive you mad’ and that ‘Madness is a foreign country’?  I think you also remember the shocking statistics of the Medical Director of the Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital? These gut-wrenching stats vex me and like Dante (reading the words on the gate of hell) their ‘meaning is dire to me’. But unlike Dante, I don’t have Virgil to guide me in this foreign land of ‘various tongues, horrible languages, outcries of woe, accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse, with hands together smote that swell’d the sounds, made up a tumult, that forever whirls round through that air with solid darkness stain’d, like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies’.

Sweeping Ones Home Clean

There is an old Africa proverb that goes ‘it better to sweep your home clean than sweep the streets’.  I think a modern equivalent would be ‘charity begins at home’ or ‘as the family goes, so goes the world’. The family system is the chief and sole supplier of the mentally disordered to the world. Therefore, it is wise for us to pay attention to our setups and members of our family.

If a person has a mental health disorder, it is very likely that the manifestations would be felt at home first.  And It is also the family that can come to his aid as with the case of the souls in purgatory as Catholic theology teaches.  Like the wretched souls that Dante hears wailing,  our family members experiencing mental health challenges are powerless to help themselves due to their state of mind.

My dear uncle Emma now roams around the streets of Zango-Kataf in his state of nature. I remember him as a devoted Catholic, hardworking and prayerful. As time went on, we noticed some changes in him. All of a sudden, he took to the consistent praying of the rosary and lectio divina like a Catholic monk. As time went on, he became somewhat aggressive and violent. It was in his violent mood of his unstable mind that he attempted to machette my late father. Fortunately, my father was able to dodge from the aggression, overpower him and snatched away the arm from him.

Not quite long after this incident, Emmanuel was returned to the village where he came from.  His condition, I learnt, deteriorated while in the village. I strongly feel now, that had it been we took the right measure as a family by not leaving him alone to himself and his creator, by taking him to Barnawa (Neuropsychiatric Federal Hospital, Kaduna) he would not have been the being he is today. Worse, I do not know the whereabouts of his wife and child today.

Stitching the Social Fabric

We live in a society that is flooded with misconceptions about mental illnesses. One of such misconceptions is that mental illnesses are spiritually induced, this might be true to an extent and reasonable to the average African who believes that to every physical occurrence there is a spiritual force behind it. Perhaps, this is why we prefer to rush our relatives to prayer houses – Traditional, Islamic, and Christian – on discovery of any questionable behaviour that is against the social standard.

There is a prevalent ideology among Nigerians that psychiatric care is expensive (which may be true). We also believe erroneously that if you are not sleeping in dunghills and going about without cloths, nothing is wrong with you, with this attitude of ours we allow our brethren with mild mental issues that could be easily curtailed to worsen.

It therefore comes to me as no surprise when I overheard my classmates classify a lady that stands alone somewhere near the new garage that leads to my university campus to beg for alms as being normal just because the demarking appearance are yet to manifest all over her. In my view, she’s far from being normal. I do not think an able-bodied person in her normal senses would chose not to work but to live on the Naira notes she gets from generous Nigerians from begging with her then infant child, without giving a thought to the sad event of her child falling off her body and being crushed by a vehicle. We have this category of people everywhere in Nigeria.

Our scepticism about a person’s mental health should not deter us from giving attention to their mental and psychological state of mind and lending a helping hand to them. We should endeavour to cultivate a culture of awareness to little details in our lives and that of our neighbours. It is a trite saying that, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’.

Prayers Don’t Gather Firewood

In Nigeria, I have too often seen religion being employed negatively or abused to its own detriment. The way we practice religion in this country leaves a lot to be desired. We fight and destroy lives and properties, nearly on a daily basis, in the name of God. Others want to forgo all ownership and responsibility, in hope that God will do it for them.

In the case of the mentally disordered person, we attach our spiritual sentiments to their problems and instead of taking those affected by mental illnesses to the appropriate place (psychiatric hospitals), we rush them to prayer houses – a classic example of placing round pegs in square holes. I believe in the efficacy of prayer and rarely go a day without communing with God by means of prayer. However, when it comes to allowing our God to do everything for us, I am totally opposed to it. If we believe that God has fashioned every person with a thinking faculty and bodily abilities to do things for ourselves, then that’s exactly what we should do when it is possible.

Behind my dormitory at school, is the Dynamic Apostolic Church. Without them singing, dancing, preaching praying, one could easily mistake them for a traditional healing centre. Here, people with all kinds of diseases are being attended to. I know of two mentally disordered people who lived in the church for over a couple of years. When the administrator of the church felt their cases were beyond his power, and perhaps beyond the power of his God, they were discharged and now worse off. Ade Bendel and Alaba are their names. The last time I sighted Alaba, he was hurrying towards Ijebu-Oru from Ago-iwoye – all in the Ijebu North Local Government area of Ogun state, without any cloth to cover his nakedness. I think it is high time Nigerians stopped hunting for penguins in the Sahara.

A Deadbeat Government

Euphemistically, people experiencing mental illness in Nigeria are being referred to as ‘government pikin’. The term suggests that they are under the care of the government. In reality, the case is exactly the opposite. For if the government really cared about them, how come they are homed by the streets like proper vagabonds? How is it that we have just a single neuropsychiatric hospital in Kaduna? How come they have not taken it upon themselves to sensitise us on the fact that mental illnesses are not spiritual? How come psychiatric health care is beyond the reach of the average Nigerian?

Often times, I wonder if our mentally inadequate brethren are not Nigerians. Often times, I wonder if they are in any way deserving the kind of life they are getting. I cannot prevent myself from calling the sanity of all those in the echelons of power into question. I cannot understand why any sane person would take an oath to help contribute to progress of his country, but instead of doing so, he adds to the problems by ignoring real problems and carting away the wealth.

It is pertinent to state, that the bulk of psychiatric service is provided by the eight regional psychiatric hospitals and the departments of psychiatry in twelve medical schools[i]. From my observation, government seems to worry less on the issue of mental health, perhaps because they feel it is not as pressing as security, food production, battling corruption to mention but a few. This may be true in some essence, but we cannot neglect the fact that one problem leads to the other. Further, it is not ideal to overlook some sectors of our national life even if the same amount of attention would not be paid to them.

Market of Betrayals

So many times, when things are not going well in a country we point accusing fingers at those at the helms of affairs in the state, well, this is not out of place because they formulate policies and are saddled with the task of implementation. I strongly feel that we have our own share of the blame to burden. We talk as if we are governed by people from another planet who have nothing to do with us. We are the government. We present ourselves to contest for elected positions. We vote those who represent us in the running of the state.

We are either directly or indirectly connected to governance. For those that are politically nonpartisan, we have relations in power. Similarly, the religionists that capitalise on our gullibility to make us do absurd things are products of the family. Without the family, there will be no society; this goes to show that we are the principal actors in orchestrating our problems- mental problems inclusive. In one way or the other we are contributing to the alarming number of mad people in Nigeria. We do not care a bit about our welfare. Some of us engage ourselves in acts capable of impeding the smooth running of our brain. We deceive ourselves on solutions to problems of mental health. We do not provide our ailing people with the needed facilities and conditions to return to sanity. In brief, we are the source of our own problems. We are the building blocks of our families, our congregations and religious institutions, we form the society and we are the basis of our government. We are all at fault as well. We need to admit this and take responsibility ourselves.

An aspect where the four factors (family, society, religion and government) have combined to a devastating effect to mete out what I perceive as unmerited wickedness on the mentally challenged is in the shameful act of sexually abusing them. Some highly irresponsible members of our family and society do sneak out under the cover of night from the warmth and love of their spouses to the slums and dunghills to see their mistresses and fancy men. Some of the results we see in the pregnancies they carry about.

In Literature that is generally accepted as the mirror of society, Nigerian dramatist, Niyi Adebanjo in his ‘A Market of Betrayals and a Monologue on a Dunghill’ captured this barbaric act aptly. Inquire from the perpetrators of this beastly act, you will get to hear that a religious minister ordered them to do so in order to acquire wealth or in the case of politicians vying for and those in power to gain it or remain in power. Is this true? Well, that is for the experts in that field to tell us. To classify the four factors into one I will say it is Man. The four factors are human. This is a case of man-killing-man.

As a family, society, people of God and countrymen, we need to go back to the drawing board to think, devise and implement ways of ameliorating the pangs of the tragic conditions of the mentally disordered person. As a matter of fact, we are all praying not to be in their state but if truth must be told, we must realise that we could be in their shoes tomorrow. After all, there is only a thing line severing sanity from insanity.

Elisha Gwanzwang Godswill is a Nigerian obsessed with knowledge and has a wide variety of academic interests. He hopes to research Conflicts, especially as it relates to Africa