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Witchcraft and Mental Health in Chad

Witchcraft and Mental Health in Chad

A recent report by the BBC reveals a threatening dimension of witchcraft belief in Chad. This time, people are not banishing alleged witches to camps as in Ghana, or driving ‘child witches’ to the streets as in Angola, Nigeria or in Congo DRC. People are not ‘killing’ others with ‘witch guns’ as in Sierra Leone or lynching alleged perpetrators of malevolent magic as in Kenya or Zambia. The state is not trying and jailing ‘witches’ as in Central African Republic or in Cameroon. ‘Witches’ are not caught flying some meters above the ground as in Swaziland. Witches did not ‘crashland’ while flying in ‘magic planes’ or winnowing baskets as in Malawi and in Zimbabwe.

In this case, people attribute psychiatric problems to witchcraft and spirit possession. And this trend, according to Dr Egip Bolsane, who is reportedly the only psychiatrist working the country, is undermining health care delivery.Mental health problems are poorly understood in Chad. People believe that those with such health issues might be possessed by evil spirits. There is a popular notion in the country that illnesses like depression and schizophrenia have spiritual, not medical causes. These misconceptions complicate the health situation in a country that lacks adequate facilities and medical personnel.

Psychiatry has a diabolical image in Chad. And due to this image, people with mental health issues do not seek medical help or advice. People with psychiatric problems are reluctant to discuss them openly even with family members because such discussions could arouse suspicion of witchcraft.

It is not only in Chad that people with mental health problems are demonized or are accused of witchcraft. Throughout sub Saharan Africa there is a growing trend of associating mental health problems with demonic and spirit possession. The activities of penticostal and charismatic churches, mallams and muslim spiritualists called marabouts- who provide quack and quasi spiritual ‘healing’ services- are worsening the situation.

The spiritual image of psychiatry has impacted negatively on the perception and treatment of people with mental health problems in the region. The ‘mentally challenged’ persons are often stigmatized and treated like people with terrible and infectious diseases. In fact they are perceived as agents of the devil. Patients with psychiatric problems are ostracised and subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. They are tortured, beaten, starved and chained during exorcism. Yes, people believe that mental health problems can be exorcised and actually engage the services of charlatans.

Some scholars have attributed the cases of witchcraft accusation in the region to reactions by Africans to changes caused by modernity and globalization. And if I may ask, is the diabolization of psychiatry really a response to modernity and globalization? Or is it a reaction to absence or lack of access to modern goods- in this case effective health care and medicine?

Before the advent of modern medicine, people in Africa attributed many health problems to magic and spirits. And traditional healers treated them by administering some herbal concoctions and making some ritual sacrifice. Today the modern medical care is still not available, affordable and accessible to all Africans. So, the belief in the spiritual cause of illness has not gone away particularly in a situation where christian and islamic religious groups that promote faith healing and miracles are among the health care providers in the region. The notion of attributing diseases to witchcraft has always been there. They have never been abandoned by some segments of the African population.

Witchcraft belief is not only a health care issue, it is an education issue. It is a mentality issue. People attribute mental health problems to witchcraft due to ignorance. More importantly witchcraft attribution is a development issue. It is a symptom of development failure. Max Marwick describes witchcraft accusation as a sign of ‘social disorder’, a ‘social strain gauge’. For me, it is a development strain gauge. Witchcraft manifestation is a sign of societal rot, state failure and institutional decay. As Malcolm Gaskill rightly observed, witchcraft like any other magical narrative, ‘provides explanations and remedies for those living in extreme poverty and without access to alternatives’

The government of Chad and other countries in Africa should see the wave of witchcraft belief sweeping across the region as a development challenge and take urgent measures to address it now.

By Leo Igwe

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