Depression Was in Africa Before Colonization


African Perspectives

Throughout my life and working with communities, I\’ve found mental health as a prominent societal concern. In Africa, over 116 million individuals grappled with mental health issues even before the pandemic. This has spurred me to ponder whether this is an indigenous challenge in Africa. Join me, as we delve into deeper understanding for effective approaches and solutions.

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During my research, I unearthed that mental health challenges like stress and depression have endured in Africa since time immemorial, predating even colonialism in some of the ways as follows:

The economic aspect: like in other parts of the world, poverty, inequality and conflict led to feelings of worthlessness as societal respect often gravitates towards affluence. Incidents like property loss due to disasters like fire or livestock demise due to drought and disease outbreaks caused desolation among individuals.

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The social dimension: Occurrences like romantic rejections, divorces, bereavements, domestic strife, and various life scenarios had profound implications on mental well-being. In Elechi Amadi\’s \’The Concubine,\’ Ekwueme\’s obsession with Ihuoma ruined his mind that he would frequently collapse and the mere sight of Ihuoma was his remedy.

The political realm: Traditional forms of governance in Africa, often lacking in democratic representation and human rights protections, contributed to mental health challenges. Repressive regimes, limited freedoms, and arbitrary rule could induce stress, anxiety, and fear among the populace. Some punishments were also inhumane. These conditions, exacerbated by colonial oppression, fostered mental health issues in African communities.

Furthermore, it is essential to explore the diverse cultural perspectives within Africa regarding mental health concerns. What did they think, back then?

Spiritual view: Some believed mental distress could be caused by supernatural forces, ancestral spirits, or violation of social taboos. Like in my culture, it is thought that bewitchment can lead to madness.

Stigma & misunderstanding: while some societies have well established methods for understanding and managing mental health, there were also instances of stigma and misunderstanding. Sometimes if a person behaved abnormally, they\’d be exorcised or isolated and denied food, due to lack of understanding.

Indigenous knowledge: Many indigenous African cultures had a deep understanding of the mind-body connection and the emotional well-being. It is said that the Akamba from eastern Kenya, had already discovered the human anatomy and could even do surgery, demonstrating a high level of medical knowledge.

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Additionally, it\’s intriguing to investigate how Africans addressed mental anguish, considering the absence of psychologists or formally trained experts in the field:

Indigenous practices: practices like meditation, storytelling and music were used to promote mental health and well-being. Art was used as a channel to relieve and also vent our pain.

Community support: African communities traditionally boasted robust social fabric, with tight-knit bonds among residents. Mental health support was community-centric, involving family, friends, and neighbors who offered emotional solace. Esteemed elders and community figures served as counselors, sharing their sagacity with those grappling with psychological dilemmas. This communal approach even finds resonance in Chinua Achebe\’s \’Things Fall Apart,\’ as Okonkwo turns to Uncle Uchendu for guidance during his exile.

Traditional Healing practices: African societies often had their own systems of healing that integrated spiritual, psychological, and physical elements. Traditional healers, such as herbalists, diviners, and spiritual leaders, played a crucial role in addressing mental health concerns.

In some cultures, mental health issues were believed to have spiritual causes, and rituals and ceremonies were performed to restore balance and well-being. For example, in various African cultures, exorcisms or spiritual cleansings were used to rid individuals of perceived malevolent spirits causing mental distress.

Evidently, mental health has been a persistent issue throughout African history. However, its manifestation and handling have evolved over time. To effectively address mental health, we must embrace contemporary approaches that align with the evolving nature of the problem. While preserving our indigenous practices, we should also integrate new and effective methods of treatment.

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