West Africa

Faith, prayer and mental health in Ghana: Harper's magazine provides even-handed story

Faith, prayer and mental health in Ghana: Harper's magazine provides even-handed story

In this month's issue, Harpers magazine has a piece about mental health care (or the lack thereof) in western Africa that touched quite deeply on religion and the efforts of some religious leaders to deal with the mentally ill.

What I thought would be an exposé on the gullibility of the ill who are taken in by religious charlatans actually turned out to be about a system where the only people with a plan to help the mentally ill are those same religious leaders.

Now, there have been exposés on Ghana’s horrific mental health facilities, but this piece took a different tack. The fact that certain Ghanaians' idea of healing involved prayer instead of medicine matters less than the fact that the places offered by these leaders are the only places to which the mentally ill can go with any hope of being cared for. Ghana is many decades behind the rest of the world in terms of any mental health care at all. The piece is called “A Prayer’s Chance: The scandal of mental health in West Africa” tries to show what those in the "prayer camps" are doing about it.

Samuel Donkoh had just turned ten when he began to slip away. His brother Martin, two years his senior, first realized something was wrong during a game of soccer with a group of kids from the neighborhood. One minute Samuel was fine, dribbling the ball, and the next he was doubled over in spasms of laughter, as if reacting to a joke nobody else had heard. His teammates, baffled by the bizarre display, chuckled along with him, a response Samuel took for mockery. He grew threatening and belligerent, and Martin was forced to drag him home.
The episode marked the onset of a frightening metamorphosis. Martin couldn’t understand what was happening to his brother, for although he had seen many abodamfo (“mad” men and women, in the Twi dialect) on the streets, the conventional wisdom was that such maladies afflicted only those who deserved it — excessive drinking or drug use was a popular explanation — or were otherwise spiritually or morally compromised. Samuel, the sensitive, well-behaved son of devout born-again Christians, did not fit that mold. 

The article goes on to describe how his mother prays over Samuel – even reprinting the exact psalm she turned to – and sets up how the rest of the story will go.

What was to be done? The approach advocated by members of the Donkohs’ church — prolonged fasting and that brand of combative, focused prayer known as spiritual warfare — had brought little respite, but pursuing a medical route seemed fraught as well. Two of Agnes’s aunts had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and repeated stays at Ghana’s largest mental hospital, in the capital, Accra, had not helped them. Infamous for its chaotic atmosphere and rampant abuse, the hospital, built in 1906 by the British colonial regime as an asylum for the criminally insane, had rather aggravated their situation. One aunt died alone, a vagrant outcast; the other subsisted on the margins of her hometown. Agnes resolved that a similar fate would not befall Samuel.
A family friend suggested a drastic course of action. He urged them to seek treatment at Nazareth Prayer Centre, a distant religious retreat, or “prayer camp,” renowned as a place where people struck with madness could be cleansed of the demonic forces holding them captive. Spurred by the Pentecostal revival that swept West Africa during the 1990s, these rural camps — some of which allowed families to stay for months or even years on end — had come to serve as alternative sites of care in a region where health services, particularly mental health services, were notoriously scarce and underfunded…

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Climate change will heat up West Africa's religious conflicts -- and a whole lot more

Climate change will heat up West Africa's religious conflicts -- and a whole lot more

Africa presents a host of formidable problems that limit quality coverage by Western -- and in particular, American -- news outlets. That means there's a gaping hole in the information needed to understand in significant depth Africa's huge role in global social changes and conflicts.

Some of the problems are physical; the continent's colossal size and relatively poor transportation and communications infrastructures, for example.

But some are attitudinal. Press freedoms overall are more limited in Africa in line with the continent's generally less than stellar political profile

Close to home, Americans also have been shown, repeatedly, to favor domestic over international news. And those of us who do pay closer attention to foreign stories tend to prefer those originating in nations with which we have greater historic, geographic and cultural affinity, or substantial national involvement -- which is to say, Europe, the Middle East and, increasingly, Latin America.

What coverage there is of Africa tends to concentrate on the catastrophic -- civil war, terrorism, Christian-Muslim religious conflict, poverty, disease, government corruption and African migrants desperately trying to flee their homelands for Europe.

Here's a sampling of journalistic, think tank and academic pieces that address why Africa coverage is below par. There's a lot here, so read them at your leisure. Click here, and here. And here or, finally, here.

Now, let's narrow our scope to just one region, Africa's sub-Saharan west.

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Are they crazy? Despite Ebola threat, Texas missionary couple planning return to Sierra Leone

Are they crazy? Despite Ebola threat, Texas missionary couple planning return to Sierra Leone

The Ebola threat can't keep Tom and Becky Brockelman, a Baptist missionary couple from Texas, from returning to West Africa.

That was the theme of a fascinating Dallas Morning News feature over the weekend:

For months, Ebola had been a faraway worry, a concern but not a threat to the Brockelman family.
Then, one by one, relief workers started to leave Sierra Leone. Medical workers. Support staff. Other missionaries.
When Ebola finally landed near their home in a rural part of the Freetown peninsula, the Brockelmans decided it was time to return to Texas.
“We love Sierra Leone. It is our home,” Becky Brockelman said recently at her mother-in-law’s house in Sherman. “But as this thing began to spread, the rumors began to flare.”
The deadly Ebola virus was erupting throughout West Africa, with Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia and Guinea the hardest hit. The disease was virtually uncontrolled and thousands of people were dying across the region. The meager medical centers were overwhelmed by the disease, and the Brockelmans realized they would have few options if they became ill.
The couple, Baptist missionaries, came back to Texas in early August with the Sierra Leonean boy they are adopting. They isolated themselves for 21 days, to ensure they had not contracted the deadly disease, and tried to wait out the epidemic.
But their hearts won out. Not even Ebola can keep them from their life’s work in West Africa.

But why?

Why do they feel such a strong calling to return to Sierra Leone? That was my question as I kept reading. 

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It's a 'miraculous day' for Ebola patient Dr. Kent Brantly, but what role did prayer play?

It's a 'miraculous day' for Ebola patient Dr. Kent Brantly, but what role did prayer play?

Here at GetReligion, we frequently refer to holy ghosts.

Holy ghosts are important religious elements of news stories that often go unnoticed or unmentioned by the mass media.

In watching today's news conference on the release of Ebola patient Dr. Kent Brantly from Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, the faith angle was impossible to miss.

“Today is a miraculous day," Brantly said. "I’m thrilled to be alive, to be well and to be reunited with my family.”

He also said: "I can tell you, I serve a faithful God who answers prayers. … God saved my life, a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.”

Just a few weeks ago, after Brantly contracted the often-deadly virus while serving as a medical missionary in Liberia, a fellow doctor characterized his prognosis as "grave." But "thousands, even millions" of people around the world prayed for him, Brantly said at the news conference.

But will Brantly's focus on prayer make it into news reports?

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A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts

Absolutely horrific news out of Nigeria today. From the Associated Press:

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