Somalia: Hyenas Treat Mental Illness


Dr Hyena

Somalilandsun: Omar, a 21 years old boy, all bloody with open and fresh wounds, a lost expression on his tear stained face, so thin that the ribs can be counted, has been sharing the windowless room with a wild and hungry hyena for the past 2 days and will do so for the next couple of days, until he is free of the evil spirit.

Omar lives in Somalia. In his country, hyenas are believed to be the best cure for mental illness.

Somalia is in East Africa and shares its boundaries with Kenya and Ethiopia. It is one of the poorest countries of Africa, where 80% of the population are nomads or semi-nomads. Because of their age old addiction to Khat narcotics, almost 1 among 3 Somalis suffers from mental illness. With no stable government, there are close to no qualified doctors or any medical facilities available to the Somalis. And when it comes to mental illness, it is not even recognised as a disease. Most Somali people believe that mental disorder is because the person is possessed by evil spirits and can be treated only with the help of Koran and scientific medicine is not suitable to treat the illness. Some believe that people with mental illness (usually depression or schizophrenia) have the special powers given by God and hence they should be respected. Still others believe that the people with mental illness possess black magic powers.

Lack of medical facilities and money has forced them to believe in superstitions that a hyena can see through the ill person and chase out the evil spirit from him. And hence they lock the mentally ill with a hyena in a room for several days. By biting and clawing the person, the hyena is believed to chase away the evil spirit inside and hence cure the person’s illness. Many are only children when they are subjected to the cruel act, and sometimes that even proves fatal. But even the hyena treatment can be costly for the Somalis, sometimes costing more than $500. In that case they just chain-up the person to a tree and abandon him for his fate to take responsibility for him. In the wilderness of Somaliland not even a day passes when some wild animal kills and eat that ill-fated man.

Dr Hab, a nurse who trained with the WHO for three months, has made it his mission to rescue the mentally ill in Somalia. With a group of few others, have six centers across Somalia and have treated 15000 patients till now.

Every cloud has a silver-lining they say. Dr Hab is that to them. But even he is short of resources. With a population of nearly a crore and one third of them mentally ill, the responsibility is huge.

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