London, United Kingdom (Winter 2018)
“This is witchcraft,” my father said with authority. I had questions that I dared not ask; my father was a formidable and austere character. The terror he had instilled in me as a child was still palpable, and I still feared him as an adult. I am not sure I liked him. Because I did not live with him, I often thought of him, and occasionally missed him. But now that I was in his presence, I realized that I missed the idea of him, rather than the man himself.
“What next?” my mother asked, who feared him as well.
“We take him to a witchdoctor, of course,” Father stated matter-of-factly.
“The church prohibits it,” Mother said.
My father hated all matters to do with religion. He felt the Bible and its teachings were designed to criticize him and his lifestyle, and he became very defensive whenever the church was mentioned.
“It is your son. You can decide to look for treatment for him, or you can listen to the church!” Father bellowed. We now knew it was time to shut up, because things could go downhill very fast. Father was hot-tempered and did not like to be opposed.
I had so many things to say but I was fearful of the repercussions. I would not put it past my father to lash out at me physically, as was the mainstay of his parenting in my childhood. I also could not trust myself to not lose control and lash back at him in retaliation. With my stocky six-foot-four-inch frame to his frail five-feet-nine-inches, he stood no chance to remain uninjured. And that would have been an abomination in my culture: to hit my father would bring a huge curse upon myself and future generations. This curse would present itself as madness. I would run mad and so would all my sons and their sons. That was the superstition. I do not know how true it was, but I did not want to find out the hard way.
I looked away from my father and focused on my young brother, Jones, who was the subject of discussion. A few days ago, Jones had started talking to himself while at the dinner table. We had thought it was a game, as he was very playful. By bedtime, he was having full blown conversations with empty air. He even burst out laughing now and then. That is when we realized that he was not joking. He had gone to bed, taking his imaginary friends with him.
The next morning, things were worse. He seemed in distress, as if he was petrified of something. He was talking to himself, but this time they were whispers. Occasionally he would whimper and flinch, as if he was being hit. It was painful to watch. If you approached him, he either cowered or seemed ready to pounce on you. We observed him from a safe distance and now, five days later, the problem did not seem to be waning. That is what had prompted Mother to summon Father.
Father did not live with us. He was polygamous and lived with one of his other wives. He stopped living with Mother many years back, and we liked it that way. The home was certainly freer and lighter without him around. I was born and brought up in the village, but I had relocated to America for my studies. In the village, many medical problems were seen as witchcraft-related and the remedy was to see a witchdoctor for treatment. The witchdoctor treated ailments such as mental illness, headache, stomach ache, body ache, erectile dysfunction, miscarriage, infertility problems, and most childhood illnesses. In the village, we hardly went to a hospital because that cost money, and more so because the nearest one was miles and miles away. We also believed that all those that went to hospital died. The witchdoctor was often paid in kind and he was within walking distance.
The first time I was ill in America, I had asked my roommate where the witchdoctors were. My roommate, an American, had asked me who a witchdoctor was. He had no clue. I was concerned that there was nobody to treat me in that country other than the hospital. I feared I would die in a foreign country and my parents would not know. In the end, I went to the hospital and I survived. That was the beginning of my relationship with hospitals and by the end if it all, I was dubious about witchdoctors. I believed they were quacks. So, as my father declared that Jones be taken to a witchdoctor, the whole of me was against it. I would rather take him to a hospital so he could be treated by a medically trained professional. But I could not voice this. I had been trained never to question my father.
“I will be back tomorrow or the day after. Let me go look for a witchdoctor. There are so many fake ones nowadays, so I have to ask around for a recommendation,” Father said before leaving.
Mother and I both sighed with relief when he was gone. She was just as tense as I was. Jones was oblivious of his environment. He did not register that Father had been there in the first place, so it did not make a difference to him when he left.
“The pastor in my church says that we shouldn’t go to the witchdoctor,” Mother said.
“What does he say you do instead? Because everyone here goes to the witchdoctor,” I countered.
I did not like the churches in the village. The pastors had too much power over the people. Like my father in our home, the word of the pastor in my mother’s church was the law. No one dared oppose him. My mother now faced a dilemma: she did not know whether to disobey her husband or her pastor.
“He says we go to him and other prayer warriors in the church,” Mother answered.
“Then how will they treat the patient?” I asked, very amused.
“Through prayer and laying of hands. It works,” Mother said, though she did not sound convinced.
“Have there been people that this hasn’t worked for?” I asked.
“A few. The pastor said it was their time to go. God had willed it.” Mother sounded even less convinced.
We both looked at Jones. He was now slapping his ears vigorously. I went to restrain him for I thought he would hurt himself. He saw me and cowered, shaking like a leaf in a storm. He started screaming while hiding his face from me.
“I suggest we take him to hospital,” I said. “They must have psychiatrists there. They will treat him.”
“But it is too far. And they charge a lot of money. People die in hospitals, too,” Mother protested.
“I will drive him. It won’t be far if we are driving. I will pay the fees. On death, don’t people die here in the villages? Even when they visit the witchdoctor or the pastor and his prayer warriors?” I probed.
We left for the hospital soon after. They received us warmly and within no time, Jones was admitted to the psychiatric ward. The psychiatrist told us that first impressions pointed to schizophrenia and that it was very treatable. That is what we wanted to hear. We had to leave him there for a few weeks, though.
Father was not impressed when he heard that Jones was at the local hospital. He had made a beeline for my mother when I bellowed at him. I was ready to face the curse of madness that came with disrespecting my father. After all, the local hospital treated such cases. I had a way out. I also thought of Jones and how respectful he was to Father, yet he still became mentally ill. This curse business was all hogwash, I thought.
Father soon left, vowing to sue and curse me should anything happen to Jones.
Nothing bad happened to Jones. When we went to pick him up, he ran to us and embraced us warmly. He was not fearful of us as he was when we brought him there. I was overjoyed to see him mentally well. Both Mother and I shed tears of relief. The psychiatrist talked us through his care plan and we were more than obliging to follow it through. As we walked to the car, Mother said, “I need to tell a few people in the church about the hospital. I need to. They could be helped.”
I was smiling as I sat on the driver’s seat with Jones next to me. Jones was going to be the testament of change in the village. Because of him, people would have confidence in the hospital. They did not have to fear it anymore. We needed that transformation in mindset.
ASAYYA IMAYA writes about African experiences juxtaposed with the modern world, examining people of diverse cultures and how they approach issues. He holds a Master’s degree in Literature and has traveled extensively. He currently lives in the multicultural city of London.