22 August 2012

Zimbabwe: Treat Mental Illnesses Traditionally


Before Western medical interventions in Zimbabwe, we did not have any psychiatric hospitals for mad people, mapenzi edu. We lived with them. Madness did not just happen; there was a cause for it. The spirit of an aggrieved dead person or ngozi could cause mental illness. When a spirit wanted to possess someone, like that of a shavi, it also caused disturbance in the brain. In those days, depression and anxiety or kusuwisisa or kufungisisa was not common. Since we lived in villages where one was hardly ever alone, there really was no time or space to be very lonely and very sad.

Then colonisation came and the process of getting civilised brought all forms of cultural adjustment for Africans moving to the city. Sometimes those who failed to adjust to city life became alienated, anxious, lonely and depressed. They went mad, ending up in psychiatric hospitals where they were subjected to Western forms of bio-medical treatment, various tablets and electro-convulsive therapy to make them normal. Yet the white doctors who treated them did not know what a "normal" African was like.

When we were growing up in the village, my father often threatened us with confinement to Ingutsheni if we misbehaved. It was just an empty threat to instill fear in young children. Ingutsheni was a lunatic asylum built by the Southern Rhodesia government in 1908 on the outskirts of Bulawayo.

It was like a scary prison where my uncle Babamunini Jonah had done some time after suffering a sudden bout of mental illness. Vakapenga. If he did not return to the village for traditional village treatment, Babamunini Jonah would have died at Ingutsheni.

Some time before the liberation war, Babamunini Jonah left the village and went to work for Kango, a steel saucepan company in Bulawayo.

One day Babamunini Jonah was taken from his work place by policemen after his white employer accused him of acting strangely and swearing to the other workers. Babamunini had also threatened to beat up the white boss. Only a mad native could act that way, the employer said. The police took Babamunini Jonah to Ingutsheni lunatic asylum and locked him up.

My father and his other brothers travelled all the way to see Babamunini Jonah. They found him chained, skinny, hallucinating and sitting on a cement floor surrounded by filth. When he saw them, Babamunini cried and begged to be released. My father appealed to the staff at Ingutsheni to let Babamunini go. After much persuasion the authorities agreed on condition that my father would take Babamunini straight to the village away from Bulawayo.

My father's descriptions of Ingutsheni filled us with horror. He said, due to language difficulties and lack of interest in Ndebele and Shona culture, white psychiatric staff made a quick diagnosis and commenced treatment on people who came in with various mental problems.

The people slept on mats spread in an overcrowded dark room with small windows. Wearing khaki pyjamas with shaved heads, these patients suffered from hunger, disease, cold and maltreatment. Some of them were chained and locked in dungeon-like cells. They shrieked and shouted in agony or despair.

Yet European patients had better rooms and they wore their own clothes. White mentally ill women were provided with a beauty parlour saloon while African women were confined in dark squalor not fit for human beings to live. Many people died at Ingutsheni, my father said.

Back in the village my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, and the other traditional healers, gave Babamunini medicines in black tea and sometimes in millet porridge, mubota.

They also burnt some leaves, covered him in a cloth tent and forced him to breathe in the smoke from the leaves. Within a few weeks, Babamunini was talking normally and he had put on weight. But the cause of Babamunini's mental illness was not discussed until the elders were convinced he was well enough to talk about it.

One day they summoned Babamunini padare, the men's meeting place, and demanded a full explanation about his journey to Bulawayo, where he lived, with whom who he ate with and where. Babamunini told them that each time he entered his work place at the Kango company, he felt a splitting headache. Whenever the white boss shouted at him, Babamunini felt a lot of anger rising inside him. At one time, when he was called a kaffir, Babamunini almost punched the young white boss, but he managed to restrain himself.

Equipped with enough background, Mbuya VaMandirowesa and the elders went to the traditional healer for divination to find out the exact cause of Babamunini's mental illness. The traditional healer said abuse from white men and Western civilisation, chirungu, had refused Babamunini entry into city life. But what was so new about that, the elders asked? Rhodesia was a colony known for ill-treating black people and calling them names during chibharo, forced labour, and in several work places. If so many African men were going to Bulawayo and turning a blind eye to racist name-calling and abuse, why did Babamunini not do the same? But Babamunini's anger was no ordinary anger because it erupted too easily due to a small provocation, said the traditional healer. One day, Babamunini was going to lose restraint and even kill the white man and that would be the end of Babamunini's life. Since he could not control his anger, the ancestors, vadzimu, had therefore induced madness to stop Babamunini from committing a crime. Clearly, modern life in the city and proximity to white men had disagreed with Babamunini Jonah.

At about the time that Babamunini Jonah came back home, my father left his teaching job to work as a store manager at Gwenda Store. The store was owned by a white man called Jack. It was one of few white-owned stores in the Charter area of the tribal trust lands near Enkeldoorn (Chivhu). During school holidays we went to live at the back of Gwenda Store with both my parents.

Every morning, a mad man nicknamed Chabvari came to sit on the store verandah. Chabvari's dark skin had layers of dirt and his hair was all matted together, thick and full of dust, grass, sticks, blanket fluff and possibly nits. He wore a heavy brown coat covered in black dirt. His beard covered most of his face and his big eyes emerged out of a bushy face. He chewed a muchakata tree stick all the time. Chabvari was mad, benzi chairo. But his madness did not bother anyone.

Chabvari called my father, tezvara, father in law; because he said he was going to marry me when I grow up. People teased me, calling me Chabvari's wife. That did not matter because Chabvari was the only one who said I was beautiful.

He said: "You will be my wife, ah those big white eyes, white teeth, that smooth beautiful black skin." I loved him, too, even though he was a mad man, kunyangwe raive benzi. I brought him a piece of bread or anything else that my mother wanted me to give him, like a cold morsel of sadza, or some bits of meat that were left over the night before.

Chabvari always sat on the store verandah talking to imaginary voices in his head and laughing. Every day he said he was a different person. Sometimes you heard him saying he was a white priest waiting for his congregation. Then he was a school teacher teaching children history of the country.

On the day he was a white priest, Chabvari spoke in English all day. His English was impeccable. My father said Chabvari had passed his Rhodesia Junior Certificate, RJC, and was ready to start teacher training at Kutama College when he went mad.

His whole family knew the cause of Chabvari's illness. It was something to do with the murder of a stranger committed by one of Chabvari's close relatives, his father, uncle or grandfather. The angry spirit of that dead person was responsible for causing Chabvari's madness.

One day two district assistants came to tell my father that they were under instruction from the white native commissioner at The Range to capture all mad people because they were undesirable in society. They said refusal to wash and keeping masses of unkempt dreadlocks was unacceptable in a civilised society. Chabvari was like a savage and he, too, must be locked up. Mad people, mapenzi iwaya, would be taken to psychiatric hospitals at Harare Hospital, Ngomahuru in Masvingo and Ingutsheni.

We already knew about Babamunini Jonah's experience at Ingutsheni. To save Chabvari from being taken away, his whole appearance had to change. But Chabvari would not hear of it. He climbed the hills nearby and was not seen for two days. My father and a few other men climbed up the hill and begged Chabvari to come down so they could cut his hair before the district assistants came back.

But Chabvari shouted to my father that he would only come down if Irene (that was my preferred Christian name at the time) came up the hill to get him.

Over the years, I have this vivid memory of my mother holding my hand as we climbed up the hill. Chabvari sat on a rock, meditating or counting ants. Then he looked up and saw us. He smiled and said: "Irene, my future wife. Come and get me." I went up and took his big dirty hand and we came down the hill and were greeted by laughter and cheers from people at the store.

My father cut Chabvari's hair with a scissors first. Masses of matted dreadlocks fell on the ground. Then he shaved him with a razor. My mother gave Chabvari Lifebuoy soap and a clean old nappy for a towel, a pair of my father's old trousers and a shirt. Chabvari went to the river to wash for the first time in many months. The district assistants came back in a Jeep the following day, accompanied by a native policeman. They asked for a mad-looking savage African called Chabvari. My father and everyone else interviewed said such a man had since disappeared from the area. And yet, Chabvari was right there, looking at them.

But within a few days, Chabvari was back to his mad self again. Then one day, elders from his village in Ndiraire arrived to take him away and we never saw him again. Years later, I heard that Chabvari was successfully treated by traditional healers and compensation paid to repay ngozi, the spirit of the dead murder victim. Chabvari went back to teacher training school and later taught somewhere in Chipinge.

Our early history of psychiatric treatment in this country during the colonial era involved physical torture including chemical and electric-convulsing therapies, psychotropic drugs and at times painful straight jacket restraints. It was often drastic, racist and unethical. Although treatment has changed and conditions are better, we still lack the resources to treat mental illnesses properly. Daily, you see mentally ill men and women in the streets searching rubbish bins, lying on the footpath in the heat or shouting and screaming. We regard them with suspicion and stigma as if they chose to live their lives that way. We should no longer use the word "mad" to refer to them. They are mentally ill and in need of care, treatment and food.

Today, there are striking similarities between African traditional healers' understandings of severe mental disorders and the established Western psychiatric model. There is no single cure to depression, psychosis, schizophrenia and other forms of mental illness. If brewing beer and dancing the evil spirits away cures mental illness, then we do that. Or perhaps if it requires fasting and spending the night in an all-night prayer, I think we should do that, too.

We could very well benefit from returning to the indigenous knowledge of African traditional psychotherapy and healing practices while simultaneously accepting what works within ethical Western bio-medical treatments.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and is a consultant and director of The Simukai Development Project.

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