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Updated Feb 19, 2020

Parfait Akana is a Cameroonian sociologist and anthropologist who has spent the past decade reviewing the historical and present conditions of the treatment of the mentally ill in West Africa. He is also the founder of The Muntu Institute, a Cameroon-based think tank focused on the humanities and social sciences. Akana’s ten years of work sheds light on a structural lack of empathy for those struggling with mental afflictions. Sabine Cessou sat down with him for an interview. 

Families of those with mental illness, in Akana’s view, have become “incarcerated within practices of violent care”, part of a broader sociocultural “project of erasure and strategy to obscure madness, which translates into shame and culpability”. He draws upon historical examples to show a pattern of marginalization, including an incident where former French president Georges Pompidou visited the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé in 1971. Public officials ordered the area around Jamot Hospital, which had by then become the “hospital of fools” in the popular imagination, to be cleansed of all presence of the mentally ill and other peripheral members of society so as to prevent Pompidou or his Cameroonian counterpart from coming across them during this diplomatic visit.

Akana uses such examples to demonstrate a continuing degradation of patient care due in part to various structural and organizational failings within mental health systems. Persistent violence in Cameroon’s far north and in the anglophone regions exacerbates these shortcomings, as there are few resources in place to assist those who will be surely psychologically scarred by the violence. Only two hospitals offer psychiatric care for Cameroon’s population of 24 million, Jamot Hospital in Yaoundé and Laquintinie in Douala. Outside of standard medical care, the next best option for mental health patients are religious authorities. “Here, the question of religious therapies is important,” Akana said. Incorporating religious figures and traditional healers as part of broader strategies tackling mental health care would help fill in gaps that the state has left open.

Such a practice isn’t unprecedented, and could very well be replicated using the experiences of past African pioneers who did just that. One example would be the Nigerian psychiatrist Adeoye Thomas Lambo (19232004), founder of a neuropsychiatric hospital in Aro, who worked in tandem with surrounding villages that combined western medicine with traditional healing methods. In Senegal, Moussa Diop (19231967) worked alongside Professor Collomb at the Fann Hospital, where they founded the African Psychopathology Review, a journal at which Akana is the editor-in-chief. Questions on how to combine Western therapeutic methods with those of traditional healers are often discussed in the pages of this journal.

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