Years ago an American living in Africa offered this advice: “Until we, the outsiders, understand how important tribe and magic is in Africa, we will waste our time and money on well-meaning development projects. We’ll never get to the heart of the problem.”
Academics may prefer “ethnicity” rather than “tribe,” and “superstition” rather than “magic,” but the message remains the same. The recent Ebola tragedy should have reminded us how many people, especially in traditional, rural areas of Africa, believe illness or disability is the work of demons. If a woman gives birth to a deaf child, she (never the father) is blamed for having upset her ancestors. If someone has epilepsy, they are thought to be possessed, and therefore shunned and neglected.
Before we go on, let’s remind ourselves that it was relatively recently that people in the wealthy white world made the connection between dirty hands and the spread of disease. And for years, our politicians on both sides of the Atlantic approached the subject of mental health tentatively, if at all. Thankfully, that is starting to change.
In Rwanda, superstition still has a firm grip on daily life, especially among the poor and uneducated (the vast majority). Traditional healers (witch doctors) exploit this ignorance, extorting vast sums of money from unsuspecting, but frightened people.
We are countering this insidious influence: at our Aspire project in the Rwandan capital,
Kigali, we teach women about mental health issues including anxiety, trauma, depression
and serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Sixty-five women attended our most
recent training and told the social worker it was the first time they had been told about
mental health. Our staff referred people suffering from trauma to professional counselling
services at hospital. Following the training, 34 women visited neighbours and friends who
have mentally ill family members, explaining that their loved ones are not possessed by
demons, and that they can get help at the hospital.
Aspire’s social worker provides regular group and individual counselling to our beneficiaries. She also encourages women to use the income from the skills they have learned at Aspire to buy health insurance for their families. In 2015, 61 women bought health insurance from the government. In addition, the social worker provides individual counselling; in 2015, she helped 50 women with their experiences of sexual and gender based violence, living with HIV, and anxiety and depression. She also visited 26 women in their homes.
Knowledge is power, and in this case, knowledge can transform the lives of stigmatized families who have lived in terror of whatever illness has “cursed” and “punished” them. To help us continue this work, please donate today by clicking on the arrow to the right. Thank you.