Wars, famines and natural disasters not only leave the dead to be buried but survivors to go on living. While many will have come through the crisis with their bodies intact, the same cannot always be said of their minds.
In the last 50 years, sub-Saharan Africa has seen more of these crises than anywhere else in the world. Their legacy is mental illness on a grand scale with almost no resources to treat it.
Conflict and disaster diverts funds away from health and education. For the mentally ill, hospitals become prisons and ignorance results in stigma and neglect. Care often relies on the use of forcible restraints in both institutions and homes.
The mentally ill are often accused of being possessed or branded as witches. Spiritual healers are regularly employed to ‘deliver’ them. They are chained and sometimes starved so as not to ‘feed the demon’ inside them.
The mentally ill really are cursed, not by God but by the societies around them.
I’ve spent my career documenting human rights issues but I’ve never come across a more neglected or vulnerable group than the mentally disabled in African countries that are in, or recovering from, crises.
In January this year I went to South Sudan to cover the referendum for independence. There I went into Juba Central Prison. What I saw had a profound effect on me. The first young man I photographed with a mental disability was shackled to a prison floor. He urinated and defecated on the same dirty ground where the prison guards would feed him slops. He was naked. He didn’t speak – he didn’t even look at me. I don’t know his name. The only way I could justify photographing this man was if I took up his cause and did everything I could to make sure someone was speaking for people like him when they too had been denied a voice.
The guards at the prison were not bad people, but 20 years of war had left this new nation impoverished and resources for the most vulnerable non-existent.
Each of these regions are struggling with their own crisis. What they have in common is a sector of society that is routinely neglected and abused.
Governments, the aid community, entire societies, have in large part abandoned these people. They are consistently disregarded – relegated to the category of ‘insane’, ‘lunatic’, ‘mad’ – they have no chance to be able to speak for themselves. Condemned will give them a voice. Your support can make that happen.
I have self-funded this work to 5 east African countries. Unfortunately there are many other sub-Sahara African regions in crisis. Each African country facing difficulties has unique circumstances. It would inaccurate to call these 5 countries in one corner of the continent ‘Africa’
The next phase is to document countries in crisis on the other side of the continent.
– Cote d’Ivoire is recovering from a brutal civil war
– Chad has been flooded with refugees fleeing genocide in Darfur
– The Central African Republic’s south-eastern communities live in fear of The Lord’s Resistance Army
– In parts of the country lawlessness, corruption and inequality has resulted in fighting that has left countless dead and thousands loosing their homes.
All of these crises have led to traumatized populations and affected health structures that should be in place to care for the mentally disabled.
The mentally ill in these countries are hidden away. In most cases there is no help for them. I will document their plight and record their stories and finally give them the representation they deserve.
There are a few dedicated organizations and individuals trying to stand up for the mentally ill in African countries in crisis. Unfortunately they are tiny in number and their resources small. I have been in constant contact with these groups and we are strategizing how, once the project has been completed, we can effectively use this work to support people with mental illness in Africa. We already have exhibitions and screenings planned, but we intend to take the work beyond the gallery to those with the power to make a meaningful difference to the lives of the mentally ill in Africa.