Sometime before Christmas, as our custom is in the Debube clan, we gather to discuss the year’s activities and relevant family matters. I had to fly in from my residence in Canada to attend this one because Mama was going to be ninety! We would paint the city, and the entire village, red, blue, and every other colour on God’s green earth.
Drinks flowed freely as we savoured the goat meat pepper soup the women prepared, sitting around the fire in the courtyard, deliberating over details. Orange flames did an occasional jig, and the fire crackled with joy when a new log of firewood got consumed. Our roaring laughter mixed with the fire’s smoke and ascended skyward.
“So what colour should we wear?” Nnamdi asked.
“I think red and green would be nice,” Ichie said, somewhat timidly. That was the first time he spoke, and all eyes turned on him.
“Red and green? You want us to look like Christmas trees?” Nnamdi asked.
“Since it coincides with Christmas time, I feel…”
“Ehmmm, please, let people that are mentally alright do the talking,” Nnamdi said, cutting him off.
Stark white silence as the blue sky got darker.
The crickets and the birds also chirped louder. Or perhaps we could hear them better since we had shut up.
After a painful minute of silence and stiffened bodies, Dennis, the eldest, cleared his throat. “Going forward, I think we should discuss issues without throwing shades at anyone.”
Ichie mumbled something and he and his wife left the meeting.
Chike who sat next to me was about getting up when I tugged him back down with his shirt sleeve. We all had to have a talk.
“Nnamdi, why did you shut him off like that?” I asked.
“Errrr… because he no dey okay. (He has a mental illness.)
“Oh!” I responded. It seemed I was the only one who wasn’t up-to-date.
“Which one?” I asked again.
“I don’t know,” Nnamdi said, shrugging.
Chike spoke up then. “No one really knows the details. All we heard is that he has being to those doctors that treat mental people. Some days he’s high and other days he’s moody… So he’s sick up there,” Chike replied, rotating his index finger close to his temple. “And I think you can leave my shirt alone now, Isioma,” he added.
“Oh. Sorry,” I replied sheepishly, releasing his multi-coloured shirt.
But I wasn’t done.
“I think it is unfair not to let him speak. First of all, not all people with mental health disorders are ‘crazy’. But more importantly, anyone with a mental health illness can lead a normal life as long as he gets appropriate care and uses his medications well. Just the same way someone with diabetes, hypertension, or headache can do regular things if treated. He needs our help. We need to stop being squeamish about mental health issues and talk about them freely,” I said.
“Are you done?” Chike said mockingly. “Na Naija we dey so. Craze na craze, abi my people?”
“Yes.” and “Exactly!” were heard from different corners of the courtyard.
“That’s definitely not true,” I remarked. There are many mental health symptoms, and they affect people differently and give different symptoms. You can’t just lump everything together and treat it like it doesn’t matter. As a family, we should find out what the matter is and support him instead of treating him like an outcast.”
“Support? Are you ready to expose yourself to the evil spirit that is tormenting him?” Nnamdi asked.
“What?!” I cried out in shock. “You’re still talking like this in this 21st century? Very soon you will say the gods are after him!”
“Exactly! He must have offended someone and gotten placed under a curse. Either that or he is very weak-willed. Because biko nu, why is he the only one affected?” Chike said.
“You got to be kidding me!!! A mental health illness can affect anyone!” I cried again.
“Tufiakwa! Minus me,” Chike said.
“My friend, listen to me. Mental illnesses are not any different from physical illnesses. Any part of a person’s body can be ill. So making such a mountain out of mental illness is just wrong. Because people didn’t understand mental disorders, they assigned it to evil spirits. But that isn’t necessarily true. Do you remember when people didn’t understand twins and triplets? And they were sacrificed in the evil forest because it was a strange occurrence? But now we pray for twins and celebrate them because we understand it now. The same holds true for mental health. It just needs to be understood! And you can’t understand something if you aren’t willing to even talk about it!”
“Hmmmmmm!” Nnamdi said.
“Now that science has more insight on mental health conditions, we need to learn more about them, talk more about them, and invest more in caring for mental health. And the funny thing is that mental health disorders are not so strange or rare. They are quite common. In some parts of Nigeria, 1 in 8 people suffer from a mental health condition. So, the earlier we face it and handle it well, the better for everyone.”
“Hmmm. I hear you o, but as far as we know, craze na craze,” Chike said. “See ehn, it’s already 3 a.m. I suggest we take a break now to catch some sleep. We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow,” he added and walked away.
Fortunately or unfortunately, he hit his little toe on a stone as he got to the edge of the courtyard.
“Yeeeouch!” he cried, hobbling and holding his leg in pain.
‘God must be trying to teach him a lesson for not listening to me.’ I gloated.
Then it hit me. God was not trying to teach him a lesson but allowing me to teach everyone a lesson. I had to seize the moment. I went over to him, took a look at his toe and then started screaming in my best dramatic voice:
“HELP! HELP! WE HAVE TO CUT CHIKE’S LEG! Oh God, why?”
I ran around the courtyard with my hands on my head for some extra display.
Chike himself was confused. “Whose leg do you want to cut? Or is there another Chike here?” he asked.
Everyone kept asking questions, but I just pointed at Chike’s toe with a horrified look on my face. “His leg! He has a leg problem! He must have offended the gods, or someone cursed him for him to hit his leg on that stone. I mean, why is he the only one that hit his leg?”
Black pupils danced back and forth on white sclera as my family members looked at each other, at Chike, and then at me.
“Isioma, what are you talking about?” Dennis asked me cautiously.
“Are you okay up there?” Nnamdi said, indirectly asking if my mental health was intact. Talk about stereotypes!
I sighed. “I’m very okay. Remember when Papa Ariya had a problem, and they had to cut his leg?”
“Now Chike’s leg has a problem so we have to cut it. Since craze na craze, leg problem na leg problem, abi?”
At that point, I couldn’t hold in my laughter anymore.
“Mschew!” Chike hissed.
A sigh of relief washed over everyone.
Someone playfully tossed a can at my head.
“You be yeye boy o,” Dennis said.
“But there’s no lie in anything I said,” I replied, shrugging. “The same logic should hold true for both cases.”
“Chai! You have just exposed the foolishness of our belief about mental health issues,” Dennis replied. “They can not all be the same and should be treated appropriately.”
Then, Mama’s voice came from behind me. “Isioma my son, you have done well.”
Oh wow. I didn’t even know the drama brought her out.
I smiled. “Thank you, mama. Sorry for waking you up. I just wanted everyone to understand that a mental health illness is just as real as diabetes, hypertension, or any other physical illness. Mental health disorders, therefore, require professional care in the same manner. They should not be ignored.”
“You are very right my son,” she said. “I’ve been telling them to treat Ichie well, but they wouldn’t listen.”
“I think we should go apologize to Ichie,” Nnamdi said.
“Yes. And we have to be more empathetic and deliberate about relating with people that have any form of mental health illness,” Chike said.
I smiled. Mission accomplished!
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