Living with the mentally ill


Mental health comes in different forms and some may actually suffer from mental problems without knowing it. Some can be cured and some can only be managed. There are different causes and triggers of such mental health problems.

One of the most common metal illness is probably depression. While some schools of thought seem to argue that it is not an illness that needs to be treated medically. The jury is still out on that for me so I wot discuss that.

What I will discuss is the mental health illness that is more apparent, i.e. Schizophrenia otherwise known as ‘kupenga ne pfungwa’ in Shona. Schizophrenia is a metal disorder where there is a breakdown in the relation between though, emotion, and behaviour leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion, and a sense of mental fragmentation.

This is common in Zimbabwe, and the majority of cases I know the people were not born with it, and sometimes there was a trigger later on in life which triggered it. What is also widely accepted as the cause is witchcraft, relatives who curse others because of past issues. There is a negative stereotype of the mentally ill.

Hence we see families take their mentally ill family members to see a n’anga / sangoma / traditional healer (Not to be confused with a herbalist). Hoping that they will be healed. Others maintain its demon possession hence the demon has to be cast out. So they go to the new age prophets who promise all sorts of deliverance from various ailments.

Having grown up in a home with an uncle who was schizophrenic I have first hand encounter with a phenomena that used to puzzle us. Before my uncle came to live with us we used to see various mentally ill people in our neighbourhood who used to wander around. They all had different characteristics though all suffering from the same condition. There were various stories about how each of them had got into that condition. Some were said to be super intelligent before the illness came.

When our uncle came to live with us, we were around form three. Although we had known him from before, from the times when we went kumusha. We were afraid of him because he wasn’t like everyone else and he always talked to himself. You could not have a conversation with him. But as we started living with him and spending time with him we realised that he was just as normal as everyone else and when his condition was managed he went about his business. He would leave home and go sit at the shops and then come back for lunch.

He was a chain smoker but never smoked in the house because he knew it wasn’t permitted. At times when his dose of pills was getting weak we would go to the hospital to get injections. At first this wasn’t a problem but as the years went by the pills lost effect over a shorter period and he would get agitated and seemingly violent though he never laid a hand on anyone. He wasn’t violent.

He would just start raising his arms and shouting saying imi endayi kunobayiwa majekseni nekuti ndimi munorwara (You go and get injections, you are the ones who are ill). Sometimes when he didn’t comply we would call police from a nearby satellite station and just the sight of the police he would calm down, and it seemed like he had not been acting up!

Then when my dad passed away my mum cared for him for almost a year. But she got to a point where she couldn’t manage it anymore. He took advantage that she was a women and would act like a disobedient child. So he had to go back kumusha after over ten years of caring for him. In fact none of the three mentally ill people who were in Mutare, Dangamvura in our hood were violent. They were actually very friendly with the kids. Two of them are still alive but one passed away.

One thing I learnt about the mentally ill is that they were also very perceptive. If you notice as well, they don’t treat men and women the same. For example in Harare I used to see them harassing women but never men. They also knew when to to cross the road and most of the time they would just intimidate people and scare them.

Many who have been abandoned by relatives as mentally ill just need love and support and medication. At a point we resorted to putting the medication in his food.  When he wasn’t taking his medication you could see by his snappy attitude, grumpiness and laughing a lot. The idea of casting out demons or being bewitched is just trying to find an explanation for a phenomena they do not understand.