Saturday, August 18, 2012

Being schizophrenic is no fun anywhere, but…

Normally I try not to write so often because I’m afraid you all will stop reading, but I got inspired this morning and wanted to share with you. I’m hoping you’ll decide this is interesting rather than filing me as spam.

Today I went on an exploratory visit to some tiny villages near Ambovombe, looking for sites where my NGO can start doing screenings. Our first stop was Mahavelo, which is about a mile from Ambovombe. What I wasn’t told before going there is that it’s not actually a village in the traditional sense, but a treatment center for the insane.  The story as it was told to me was that in 1992 a Malagasy pastor from the Lutheran Church came here and built the church, around which, as word got out, a town slowly built up composed of “crazy people” and their families.

In fact, however, these people aren’t really “crazy” but possessed by devils, anywhere from one to hundreds, who speak through them, often in tongues. Sometimes the devils bring translators with them, so you will hear the devil speak first and then the translation in Malagasy. Treatment lasts from three months – if there is only one devil inside – to much longer if you have to expel hundreds of them (and their translators). The treatment consists of an intense period of prayer, starting at 4am on Monday and continuing all day every day throughout the week. On Saturday afternoons at 2:30, they all get dressed up in white outfits, burn traditional medicines, and make gestures as though they are slapping the spirits (although apparently they don’t make physical contact) and yell at them to “get out in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The woman pictured here was a “new arrival,” who had just come in today and apparently was likely to run away. As you can see, they have bound her hands and ankles, and I found her lying in the dirt talking to herself, which was, of course, proof that she really was possessed by devils.  To be fair, she was the only one I saw tied up. Most everyone else was working – pounding corn and such – or lying around on mats.

According to several relatively well-educated people here locally, this is all 100% true, both the possession by devils and the efficacy of the treatment. Apparently there are psychiatrists here in Ambovombe, but I was told that only people who “don’t go to church” see the psychiatrists, and those who go to church just go to get their demons exorcised in Mahavelo.

So it looks like there is a niche to be filled by a psychiatric NGO if anyone is inspired, and yet another reason to be thankful for what we have, because as bad as it sometimes is in America, it could be worse.

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