“Marvelous — Sabi Chop Winner”
“Skeleton dey barb afro”
“McFerdinand was here”
“It is only a fool that doubts proof”
I stood at the classroom door, staring at the funny inscriptions the students had on the wall. The dirty wall would have been perfect for graffiti if the students had someone to teach them. The school authority frowns upon writing on the wall but there is a high that comes from seeing your [nick] name on a wall, a sense of greatness overshadows your miserable life and, just for a moment, life feels good. I know this feeling because I also had my name written on my classroom wall.
“Mental health! Sir! Uncle Mental!”
The teacher called me all sorts of things before she could get my attention.
“I am done with them. They are very stubborn, are you sure you can handle them?”
With my tiny framed body struggling to get the roll-up banner into a good position, I answered,
“Ahhh Don’t worry ma. I can handle them”
The training kicked off like every other one I’d facilitated;
Write down what comes to mind when you hear mental health,
Let us talk about mental health and physical health.
Few minutes into the training, I asked a random question;
“If someone has a mental illness, where should they go to?
They all echoed,
“Clap for your-“
Before I could finish the statement, one of the students, screaming at the top of his lungs asked;
“Sir! Sir! I have a question, erm, what if it is someone from the village that is doing somebody?”
I don’t dwell on spirituality when speaking to students. What I always do is tell them to take the mentally ill to the psychiatric hospital for treatment before considering other alternatives. But this boy, who looked older than most of the students didn’t just ask a question out of curiosity. The tone in his voice when he asked was strong, harsh and defensive. He must have felt like I was there to rob him of something dear to him; his culture and tradition. His countenance wasn’t pretty either. His question and the audacity with which he asked swallowed the voice of other students. The silence that engulfed the classroom begged to be filled with words. I was on a hot seat. I had earlier portrayed myself as the most intelligent person in the room, now, I had to prove my intelligence and convince them that I was worth listening to. This wasn’t fair. It was me against 53 students and their ancestors. Maybe they (the ancestors) were also in the room… waiting for answers to all the cases of ‘madness’ that remained mysterious till they died. Maybe they were curious about how science helped or whether this was another lie the white men tried to sell to us to erase our traditions.
I am not denying the existence of your village people, I am not saying that they are powerless. I am not even here to talk about them. What I’m here to do is inform you that there is an easier and better way to handle cases of people with mental illness. How do we confirm if it’s village people that is doing somebody if we haven’t tried to take them to the hospital? If you have malaria, do you think of the village people first or the doctor? Mental illness is as real as physical illness. I am here to do one thing; teach you that your first instinct above all others, when you see a mentally ill is to take the person to a psychiatric hospital. After that, we can think of other things. It’s a brain disease and it can be fixed. There are testimonies all around us of people that have gotten better and I can see that it is written on your classroom wall that ‘it is only a fool that doubts proof’.
The boy smiled, clapped, and others followed. The tension in the room was lifted. Maybe the ancestors got answers to their questions. And even if they didn’t, well, they should be glad that there are better ways to treat the mentally ill other than keeping them in shackles and taking away their rights to be human. A boy excused himself to ring the school bell. It was 11:30 am. It was time for them to go on a break, that was also my cue to leave.
Project Future is a campaign supported by ACT FOUNDATION. For the campaign, we have been visiting secondary schools across Lagos and Oyo state to train students, teachers and parents on myths and misconceptions surrounding mental health, early identification of mental health problems, and how to take care of their mental health.