Mohammed Seruwo is forty-three years old and heads a family of nine children (three boys and six girls, two are grandchildren) in Uganda. His wife, Nakalanzi Jamildah, thirty-seven years old, operates a small retail shop started by Mohammed.
Before Mohammed became mentally ill, he was a successful farmer and businessman, trading predominantly in matooke, green or yellow bananas, vending great bunches of them on a bicycle. His business was very prosperous. It enabled him to marry, buy land for farming, and begin to build a house for his family. Life could not have been better. But Mohammed fell sick in 2003 and was diagnosed with mania. He was unable to work, which made him very restless, but he refused to be hospitalized because of the exorbitant cost. His family consulted traditional healers but the illness persisted, and Mohammed ended up selling almost everything he owned to pay the healers. He felt exploited. In despair over the property and money he had lost in his search for a cure, Mohammed became acquainted with BasicNeeds’ mental health clinic. He was given medication which he took with extraordinary dedication. He responded well and stabilized. However, it was not easy for Mohammed to get over his tremendous loss and to resume meaningful work. His garden and compound had been abandoned because family members were were unable to cope with the farming and look after him. His business and fine reputation were destroyed.
What helped him get back on his feet was the formation of a self help group consisting of people with mental illness or epilepsy and their care givers. The group, called Ani Yali Amanyi, initiated income-generating projects for livelihood development. Mohammed was elected to be the group’s Treasurer based on his past experience in managing and growing a successful business. Mohammed feels a sense of pride today in managing the finances of the self-help group that has: a poultry business with forty-seven laying chickens; six modern bee hives that produce honey; a hybrid goat breeding center; and commercial cultivation of a four-acre plot of land. The group is going strong, he says. As Treasurer, Mohammed keeps its fundamentals robust and performs his task with enthusiasm and skill.
Simultaneously, Mohammed got a job managing the local abattoir. It is a lucrative position with responsibility, secured through an independent and competitive bidding process. He also has his own independent family projects which include farming, rearing animals, and a profitable retail shop. With visible pride and excitement, he talks of introducing efficient management and accounting systems at his shop. His feeling of self-worth has returned, but Mohamed is typically self-deprecating about his recovery and economic success. His humility endears him to the community that once disowned him because of his illness and the disgrace he brought to his family.
With the earnings from his businesses, Mohammed has completed his house, half-finished when mental illness claimed him. He supports his children and their education, and supports his elderly mother. He consistently takes his medication and maintains a positive attitude – “The illness no longer bothers me.” Mohammed’s audacious streak in business, his determination to overcome the effects of mental ill health, his dependability and sense of responsibility have earned him respect in the community. He was asked to become a member of the Management Committee for St Joseph’s Nakawanga Primary School. The school’s head teacher said that he was chosen because he is a supportive parent to his school going children, and he is keen to protect the school’s assets. “When students do not close their classrooms or leave their desks outside, he invariably puts the property back in the classrooms and secures them,” the head teacher says. “To us this is an exceptional act of care and responsibility.”
Mohammed had given up on life, he says he was looking forward to death. But now he believes he has the potential to move on because he has developed personally and professionally, and is a respected member of the community. He looks at a future that has many prospects.
Meet Atagona Kwame
Sixteen year old Atagona Kwame lives with his parents and four younger siblings in Anateem, a small farming community in Ghana. The land is dry with sparse vegetation. The community is poverty stricken with poor nutritional status and inadequate sanitation facilities. Life in Anateem is hard for the whole community but few have suffered more than Kwame who has lived with the extra burden of epilepsy since he was nine years old.
Epilepsy, a treatable and sometimes curable disease, is common in Ghana, however appropriate diagnosis and treatment is not. There is a common misconception that epilepsy is communicable and those affected are inhabited by “demons” or “evil spirits”. The social stigma associated with these beliefs, coupled with poor access to appropriate care and medication made Kwame a social outcaste. His entire family was ostracized from their community. Kwame’s neighbors told their children not to associate with Kwame and his siblings, and some people fled when they saw him in the street. As Afibgri, Kwame’s mother explained, “Sometimes when I am walking with Kwame, people run away. They say his sickness is communicable.” Kwame has experienced similar circumstances at school. He says, “My classmates won’t allow me to sit with them; they will not lend me any of their things. They won’t share their food with me, and, as much as possible, they avoid any contact with me.”
Kwame was just nine when he began to experience epileptic seizures. At first his family spent much of their time in the regional hospital because access to medication in Anateem was inadequate for Kwame’s frequent and unpredictable seizures. Kwame was eventually referred to the Psychiatric Unit of the hospital where he was diagnosed with epilepsy. His diagnosis and subsequent treatment led to substantial improvement in his physical condition. However, the continuing rejection from his community took a heavy toll on Kwame and eventually drove him to attempt suicide.
BasicNeeds staff met Kwame at a field consultation in nearby Navrongo. For the first time Kwame was given the opportunity to talk openly about the isolation and the sense of desolation that his condition caused him. As a result of this meeting, BasicNeeds began work to improve Kwame’s access to medication and ensured that he received regular visits from a Community Psychiatric Nurse who could monitor his recovery and help him reintegrate into his community. BasicNeeds also became active in challenging the stigma and misconceptions attached to epilepsy in Kwame’s community, and throughout Ghana.
Three years after joining BasicNeeds’ program, Kwame’s life has changed immeasurably. BasicNeeds’ support has boosted his self-confidence and changed attitudes in his community. As Kwame explains, “The way my friends and neighbors behave towards me has now changed drastically. They feel I am important because visitors come to me instead of going to the chief. My colleagues respect me and treat me as a part of them.”
There are still difficulties in Kwame’s life. Kwame’s family struggle to meet the cost of school fees and the drugs that maintain his seizure-free condition. His English remains poor. He attributes this to lack of company in school where some of his classmates continue to avoid him. However, despite these issues, Kwame is optimistic about his future and hopes that one day he can fulfill his aspiration to become a doctor so that he can help other people suffering from epilepsy.