Challenging Mental Health In Africa: Where hyenas are used to treat mental illness

Somalia has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the world and with a healthcare system devastated by years of war, most sufferers receive no medical help. Many are chained up – to trees or at home. Some are even locked in cages with hyenas. But one man is trying to change all that.

Dr Hab’s advert runs up to three times a day on Mogadishu’s radio stations.

“He’s gone crazy! He’s running away!” screams the actor. “Chain him down!”

The scenario is familiar in Somalia. A man has become possessed by spirits and the only option for his family is to restrain him and call the sheikh. But as the young man protests, a voice that challenges Somali tradition booms out.

“Stop with the chains!” the voiceover orders. “Take him to Dr Hab’s hospital! If he’s having mental problems, take him to Dr Hab. He won’t chain him, he’ll help him.”

Dr Hab is not actually a real psychiatrist. Rather it’s the persona of Abdirahman Ali Awale, a nurse who after three months of specialist training from the World Health Organization (WHO), has made it his mission to rescue Somalia’s mentally ill. He claims he is able to treat everything from post-natal depression to schizophrenia.

But the alternative to a trip to Hab could be a visit to one of Somalia’s popular herbalists or sheikhs who still advocate traditional – and sometimes barbaric – cures.

 

“There is a belief in my country that hyenas can see everything including the evil spirits people think cause mental illness,” says Hab. “So in Mogadishu, you will find hyenas that have been brought from the bush and families will pay £350 ($560) to have their loved one locked in the room overnight with the animal.”

 

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