Africa's psychological woundedness

Trevor Grundy writes on Dr. Dixon Chibanda's recent account of the mental scars carried by many Zimbabweans

Crying need for national dialogues to heal the wounds of psychologically fractured Africans

Trevor Grundy was moved by an article in ‘The Guardian’ by the Zimbabwean psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda about the need to come to terms with the damaging impact of traumatic stress on its victims.

In a separate piece, he recalls a trip he made six years ago with members of the Commonwealth Secretariat to Sierra Leone where victims of one of Africa’s most appalling civil conflicts are still so cruelly mocked and laughed at in the streets of Freetown.

A call for a national dialogue to help heal the mental wounds of survivors of a Robert Mugabe-inspired slaughter of anything between 30,000 to 50,000 men, women and children in Matabeleland, the Midlands and parts of Mashonaland between 1983-1987 has been made by one of Zimbabwe’s best-known psychiatrists, Dr Dixon Chibanda.

Writing in the British liberal newspaper ‘The Guardian’ (January 11, 2018)  the Harare-based Director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) and one of the only 12 qualified psychiatrists in a country now topping 16.5 million, he said that over the years he had witnessed the mental scars caused by years of death, deprivation and struggle in his country.

“Four generations have had their lives marked by chronic fear. They have endured the liberation war, the Matabeleland massacres, enforced land redistribution, the destruction of homes and a general atmosphere of violent suppression and economic struggle.”

He added: “We are an emotionally and psychologically fractured people.”

He recalled some of the experiences of patients he had treated over the last decade – one them an elderly woman called Gogo Ncube (not her real name) from Matabeleland’s Silobela.

The woman spoke about events during the darkest days of Matabeleland's history when Robert Mugabe, aided by the new President Emmerson Mnangagwa and mastermind by the country’s new Lands Minister, Perence Shiri, let loose the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on villagers accused of aiding “dissidents” belonging to the late Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA, the military wing of ZAPU.

She said: “They rounded us up. They put men in a hut, closed it and set it alight.”

Her granddaughter sat next to her as she told the doctor part of her story.

“The young women were raped in front of us. Some were bayoneted. I have not stopped seeing these visions. They called it Gukurahundi.”

The granddaughter interrupted. “Doctor, can you stop these thoughts and constant repetitions about these events? Why has Gogo not moved on?” Finally, the younger woman broke into tears. “This has affected all of us.”

Gogo looked into the eyes of her granddaughter and said:”How can I move on when I have the ghosts of my entire village crying out for justice?”

Chibanda also treated survivors of the Rhodesian War (1972-1979) and told part of the story of a 74- year old man, Simbarashe (not his real name) who spent eight years fighting in the bush.

He was brought into the consultation room at a hospital in Harare handcuffed to two police officers. “They want to kill me,” he yelled.

The man’s wife said that her husband was convinced that members of the Selous Scouts – a crack Rhodesian military unit – were trying to kill him.

“I keep telling him that was 30 years ago but he says, ‘Ma Selous Scouts arikuya!’ (the Selous Scouts are coming) and he wants his AK-47. Sometimes when we are walking down the road he will suddenly scream. ‘Take cover!’ and drop to the ground. Everybody laughs at him.”

The doctor also spoke to a former farmer who was one of the 100,000 or so whites who stayed on after Independence in 1980 only to lose his farm in 2003 during Mugabe’s land “redistribution” campaign, again masterminded by Perence Shiri.

Koos von Tonder (again, not a real name) sat next to his wife as he struggled to articulate the pain. “My farm was the best in the whole district. I had a school, a health clinic and accommodation with electricity and running water for all my staff. I paid for university feeds for my staff’s kids.”

His wife held the man’s hand. “It’s been a terrible time, doctor. We lost everything.” Then, turning to her husband, she said: ‘ But Koos, you need to tell the doctor about your drinking. That is why we are here.’

Koos stood up and walked away, adamant that he didn’t need to see a psychiatrist and, anyhow, he didn’t have a drinking problem.

Later, the wife called the doctor to tell him Koos had committed suicide.

Chibanda told the story of the plight of some of the people who suffered so horrendously when Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina (Remove the Filth).

 It came shortly after hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken urbanites in Mashonaland voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Political experts in Harare say that Mugabe was furious and decided to teach the “filth” a lesson.

More than two million Zimbabweans were affected, with 700,000 people left homeless.

A report by the Sokuwanele Civic Action Support Group said on June 18, 2005 -

“In three weeks since the beginning of this “clean up', estimates of the displaced vary from 300,000 to over a million, and hundreds of thousands more have lost their sources of income in the informal sector. The Government, under the auspices of the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprises Development, began by arresting 20,000 vendors countrywide, destroying their vending sites, and confiscating their wares. Thousands more escaped arrest, but have lost their livelihoods.

This process took one week in the first instance. Harare was among the worst affected cities: police action was brutal and unannounced. Sculpture parks along the main roads, which have been there for decades and feature as a tourist attraction in guide books, were smashed. Beautiful works of art on roadside display, created out of stone, wood and metal some standing up to two meters high, were smashed.

Vendors, who have been operating in the same places without complaint or interference for their entire working lives, were confronted with riot squads without any warning, were rounded up, arrested, and watched helplessly while their source of livelihood was destroyed. Within days, bulldozers have moved in to take away remains of these works of art.

Other wares were taken by the police, and are being sold off through “auctions” in which the police buy goods worth hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few dollars. These auctions are not open to the general public, and there is no process of highest bidder, but any minor offer is accepted. No records or receipts are being kept during this process. Police have also been reported selling goods stolen by them from vendors directly to the public.”

Mugabe‘s spin doctor insisted the operation was to “ clean up” the country,

Nearly all Zimbabweans interpret it as “remove the filth.”

In his magnificent book “Achilles in Vietnam – Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character” (Scribner, New York 1994) Jonathan Shay quoted the American cleric Rev William Mahedy who said dictators always reduced their opponents to sub-human status and label them with demeaning names. The Nazis used the words untermensch (under-men/less than human) to describe Jews. Said Mahedy: “The enemy must in some way be de-humanised, degraded to less than full human status. Collectively the population (and soldiers) of the other country must become ‘gooks’ or ‘Nips’ or ‘ Japs’ or ‘ Krauts’ or ‘ Huns.’ One must first hide from the full humanity of the opponent before one is able to kill him.”

Chibana tells the story about a mother of an 18-month old baby who fed the child porridge containing rat poison after her home had been demolished. She then took a sizeable amount herself. But she somehow survived.

The consultation letter from the physician to the psychiatrist was brief: “Please see Mufema, a 22- year old mother of one who ingested position together with her son. The son died on admission. Mother in ICU but will need psychiatric evaluation once she is moved to the medical ward.”

The woman never left hospital. She died four days after admission.

In his short but powerful article, the author said that 80 percent of all admissions to psychiatric facilities in his country are due to substance misuse. “An entire generation of educated young people are unemployed and helplessly depending on drugs to make sense of the socio-economic turmoil. The collective trauma of four generations, often marked by rape and domestic violence continues to be a characteristic feature of Zimbabwean families and society. There is only so much a dozen psychiatrists can do.”

And the overwhelming message is -

“There is need for a national call to action, a peace and reconciliation effort driven by those affected, both within and outside Zimbabwe but an effort facilitated by the highest office in the country and rooted in an evidence – based approach that seeks to heal, compensate and unite.”

Whether such a peace and reconciliation effort can be driven by men who played such a prominent part in the disasters that have affected the minds and bodies of so many people in Zimbabwe for such a long period of time remains, of course, to be seen.

Much will depend on the will and the financial resources of the small number of trained psychologists and psychiatrists in not only relatively well off southern African countries (especially South Africa where so many of them are either overseas or in private practice) but also in other parts of the continent where the past is seen as another country not to be talked about, yet alone re-visited.

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa from 1966-1996.

From the archives:

Africans and Post Traumatic Stress after decades of war and abuse by Trevor Grundy in Sierra Leone

February 15, 2012 

TEN YEARS after the end of a war which left Sierra Leone, a once-promising West African country, economically bankrupt and morally drained, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair, aka Tony Blair, lives on as ‘ local hero’ in the minds and lives of most Sierra Leoneans.

“He’s my hero,” the general manager of the Sierra Leone News Agency, Augustus Kamara, told me at the end of a Government/Commonwealth Secretariat-sponsored Media and Development in a Post-Conflict Sierra Leone Forum held at Freetown from 23-27 January.

Amazement must have registered on my face.

“I named my third child after Tony Blair who was Prime Minister of Britain in 2000,” he said while showing a group of journalists around his offices in downtown Freetown. “That man had the courage to defy the world and send nearly 1,000 British to my country. The British and UN peacekeepers – 17,000 in all – disarmed tens of thousands of rebels and ended a terrible war that has ruined everything.”

He said: “I never saw people getting their hands and legs chopped up by rebels but it happened only six miles from this office.” He peered out of the window towards a nearby Anglican church and thousands of brightly clad people passing by, many of them school age children. “Today, you can see amputees everywhere you go. But things are starting to improve. Look outside – children going to school, people look better fed, they have more confidence. We have to put the past behind us and begin again and Tony Blair helped us do that.”

And … “When we get a new Chinese-built airport in Sierra Leone, I want it to be called The Tony Blair International Airport. I will lobby for that.”

In a country almost full of Muslims with rich Arabic-sounding first names how did his son’s peers react, I asked.

“My third son was born in May 2001. When I read Tony Blair’s book My Journey, I saw that he was also born in May (1953) so we gave him all of the great man’s names – Anthony Charles Lynton Blair … Kamara. My son is now 11 years old and he’s very proud of his name. Sometimes people call me ‘Tony Blair’ in the street. I like that very much.”

I said: “I think Tony Blair’s more popular in your country than he is in mine (England).”

Mr Kamara, a veteran journalist who lived through the worst days of the Sierre Leone ‘blood diamonds’ war which left so many dead and even more suffering today from undiagnosed and unhealed post-traumatic stress disorders, looked at me as if I’d landed from another planet.

Those of a certain age in Sierra Leone 2012, remember Tony Blair as a man of principle and courage who dared defy his critics by sending soldiers into Freetown in 2000 whose military expertise and daring scared away drug and alcohol-fuelled teenage gangs whose trademark was to cut the hands, arms, feet and legs off civilians.

Walk along the magnificent beaches outside the capital and see what I saw.

Dozens of young men on crutches, somehow smiling and laughing, ambitious young soccer players who not only admire Tony Blair but who idolize David Beckham who bothered to fly to Freetown and hold a series of soccer clinics for people without arms and legs who love the Beautiful Game.

“Tony Blair … David Beckham … Wayne Rooney … Man U… we love them all,” said one man in his twenties. He had no feet and was swinging himself along on crutches with a group of friends, the same age, the same problem.

Blair’s political courage and Britain’s military expertise restored security to Sierra Leone.

What’s needed now is a mood of national confidence and realistic plans to re-vitalise the economy.

Unemployment and widespread corruption hold back development in this diamonds and other minerals rich nation of just under six million people – about 50 per cent of them under the age of 15.

And one of Sierra Leone’s most urgent problems lies untouched – how to heal as many as 500,000 men, women and children suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders which include widespread drug and alcohol abuse, an inability to sleep or work … maybe even to love or show affection.

AT THE Commonwealth sponsored Media and Development Conference, that matter was raised when a delegate from the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA) asked how the Commonwealth could help – possibly by sending in trained psychiatric doctors and nurses on a voluntary basis.

Sierra Leone has only one trained psychiatrist.

The well-respected Dr Julius Spencer, a former Minister of Information and one of the country’s leading newspaper proprietors, rose and replied:

“Post traumatic stress disorder?

“We don’t recognize the problem. We don’t think post-traumatic stress disorders exist. When someone’s behaving abnormally we say – Oh, he’s just mad. We laugh at him. We taunt them on the streets. They throw stones at them. If you look at some of the people roaming the streets, you can easily recognize the signs.

“There’s one guy in my area where I live who always dresses like a soldier. He will take a stick, carves it like a weapon and hangs it on his shoulder and then you look and see he’s wearing … what do you call them … a sort of bullet-proof jacket and he stands on the same spot every day, not moving. That guy was obviously a combatant or had some experience with combatants that made him lose his mind.”

He added: “Sierra Leone today is very prone to violence. Some who were combatants knew you could get what you wanted by violent means during the war. People still think you can get anything you want by violence. And there has been a collapse of culture and our religious beliefs. We don’t tell stories to our children any more. They contained moral lessons, how to behave properly. Now, they’re left on their own to watch television and movies. Blue movies are shown at 2 a.m. in those small video halls up and down the country. Children don’t go to school and they go instead and watch these films. There’s no regulation. There’s no control.”

With great sadness in his voice and with words that deeply moved conference delegates, who included the Botswana-born Deputy Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, and the Commonwealth Acting Director of Communications and Public Affairs, Kenya-born Manoah Esipisu, he said:

“As soon as a war breaks out, or ends, in Africa some British journalist has written a book about it. When it comes to telling the full horror of what happened to Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002 we keep quiet. I have kept quiet. It’s time Sierra Leoneans told their own story.”

DURING my brief stay in Freetown, I was hosted by the Chinese-managed Bintumani Hotel which was the headquarters of rebels during the war.

A strange, unhappy, disturbing, atmosphere pervaded despite the Chinese decorations (and food) and a TV set that seemed to be on 24 hours a day during the Africa Cup Football Competition that went on while we were in Sierra Leone.

Buildings, like us, have memories.

On the last day I had lunch with a friend from The Gambia.

During the meal a woman in her 40s or 50s came to our table and yelled at me. I was stunned. What had I said, what had I done to cause offence?

She was hauled away by hotel guards and a policeman and pushed – roughly – into the hotel garden and then told to get away from the building. Guards with guns shouted in Krio that she was mad.

Later, my Gambian colleague explained what happened.

The woman had been told we were journalists.

She told us, in a terrible state of emotion in a language I did not understand, that a long time ago in the mid-1990s she had brought her children to this place. They had been taken away. She never saw them again.

Where are they? Help me find them?

I finished my beer and ate my rice and chicken and remembered what Dr Spencer said the day before:

“We throw stones at them. . .we taunt them . . .we say that they are mad. Traumatic stress disorder. We don’t admit it exists.”