War-scarred Liberia battles its 'demons'

2013-06-05 10:33

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Monrovia - Elijah Rufus was 10 years old when a spiritual healer in the Liberian capital Monrovia doused him with chicken's blood and declared that his frequent convulsions were the result of demonic possession.

A doctor could have told the scared young boy he had epilepsy, but instead he was subjected to years of spiritual healing, prolonged prayer sessions and fasting as his health declined.

"Elijah was always falling over and often saliva would spill out of his mouth. He was always convulsing," said his aunt Korpo Moiseemah, recalling the onset of his symptoms in 2009.

Moiseemah recalled how she took Elijah, now 14, to a traditional healer who killed a chicken and then spilled the blood in a bucket of water and used it to bathe the boy, pronouncing that he was possessed by demons.

The healer told her to buy him a goat to sacrifice and pay $200 in cash.

"I bought the goat and presented it to him. He killed it and used the blood to bathe Elijah like he did the first time when he killed the chicken," Moiseemah told AFP.

"He gave [Elijah] a liquid concoction mixed with all sorts of things for the boy to drink. With this blood sacrifice, he said Elijah was freed. After using the blood for his ritual, he then cooked the goat and ate it."

As time went on, Elijah's condition deteriorated. A number of other healers were consulted in the following years - always to no avail.

He went from one witch doctor to the other in his mother's home county of Lofa, in northern Liberia, as well as Christian churches in Monrovia, where he lives with his aunt.

Volunteers watched over him as he was forced into long sessions of fasting and prayer for weeks at a time.

Superstitious

Elijah's story is all too common in deeply superstitious Liberia, where epilepsy, a neurological condition which causes seizures, is often perceived as the work of witchcraft or evil spirits.

The Carter Centre, a global human rights organisation, estimates that less than 1% of Liberians have access to mental or neurological health services, with most preferring to consult traditional healers.

The country of four million people has one practising psychiatrist, University of Liberia professor Benjamin Harris; one dedicated treatment centre; and fewer than 100 clinicians working in neurology and mental health.

"Many people here have a misunderstanding of what seizure disorder or epilepsy is. People think that epilepsy is something that has to do with witchcraft or possession by demons or some contagious disease," Harris told AFP

"And so, initiatives for treatment are based on the conceptual beliefs of these people."

Friends saw epilepsy as worse than being possessed

But epilepsy isn't the only mental health issue plaguing Liberia, a country traumatised by a civil war spanning three decades which left 250 000 dead and many more psychologically damaged by the time a fragile peace arrived in 2003.

The Carter Centre says around 40% of Liberians suffer from depression while a similar number have post-traumatic stress disorders related to atrocities perpetrated during the conflict.

Harris said he had carried out a study several years ago revealing that 75% of people with mental health issues or neurological conditions would go to a traditional healer.

"It is still happening. Lots of people still seek traditional or religious interventions before going to hospital for a check-up," he told AFP. 

Stigma

Harris said that while many Liberians practised psychiatry abroad, few would give up lucrative careers overseas to return to Liberia, one of the world's poorest countries where the average wage is less than $700 a year.

Lawmakers are considering legislation to promote the rights of people with mental or neurological disorders, outlaw discrimination and prevent thousands of treatable patients from falling through the net each year.

Elijah was one of Liberia's lucky few who eventually got help.

"When we finally took Elijah to a Chinese clinic in town, he was diagnosed as having epilepsy and placed in treatment," his aunt said.

The clinic, a practitioner of modern Western medicine, prescribed him phenobarbital, a common anti-convulsive, and he quickly began to improve.

Yet even after his diagnosis, Elijah was shocked to find he was shunned by friends and neighbours who believed epilepsy was a far scarier prospect than demonic possession.

"I still had a few friends coming around even when they heard that I was possessed but soon those few friends stopped coming when they heard I was diagnosed as being epileptic," he said.

"The general feeling was that they could come into contact with the disease if they kept coming around me."

The Carter Centre says it is raising awareness of the causes of neurological conditions in Liberia, attacking the stigma surrounding mental health problems and helping the country to develop policies to combat discrimination.

"The stigma against people with mental illness is high in Liberia and all over the world," said Janice Cooper, the organisation's mental health project leader in Liberia.

"We know that many people believe that mental illness is a result of witchcraft or spoiled medicine or may be contagious. These are all things that are misconceptions," she said.

Read more on:    liberia  |  health  |  west africa  |  epilepsy

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