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Individuals Suffering From A Host Of Mental Illnesses


Individuals suffering from a host of mental illnesses and conditions collectively referred to in various Igbo dialects as ‘ara’, ‘ala’, ‘igiri’, and ‘isi mgbaka’ (which all translate roughly to ‘insanity’ or ‘madness’) have been traditionally spurned and confined to the dregs of society for their unfortunate status. In the religious scope of Igbo society, insanity was commonly perceived as an abominable condition resulting from one’s involvement in nefarious activities. Were someone to be the perpetrator of ‘aruru ala’ (an abomination), as retribution for his crime, the deity which his actions offended would strike him with madness—which could either be curable or incurable, depending on the severity of his crime. In such cases, after a series of intricate, laborious rituals in which the individual, through labor or suffering, would have sufficiently displayed his sincere desire for atonement, a dibia (a native doctor or priest) would be sent for to initiate the healing processes, in the hopes of curing the patient’s madness. Although curable, madness has several implications which cannot be erased. Primarily, insanity was believed to be hereditary: families with histories of multiple persons suffering from insanity were believed to possess a “madness gene” and were thus made the subject of social stigma. In title-taking regions, individuals cured of insanity, although somewhat restored into society, could not take titles or participate in activities that might yield community-wide honor. Ubiquitously, individuals suffering from mental illnesses were ostracized from the rest of society. If such a person’s relations were kind enough, they would restrict him to a secluded part of their familial compound where they would attend to his daily needs until his death. In general cases, madmen were often disowned by their families and allowed to roam the streets and marketplaces unbothered. Individuals who proved troublesome, either by the consent of their families or the community, were restrained in chains and kept in local “insane prisons”. The marketplace was and still is a popular destination for mentally-ill individuals such as the woman in this photograph, who—with her tin cup—roams about relatively undeterred by the throngs of empathetic and generous marketwomen and shoppers who regularly fill her cup with alms and food. It is noteworthy that, today, many interesting preconceptions regarding madness still remain. In accordance with folklore, many believe that impregnating a woman while standing up would yield an insane offspring. With the advent of smoking in the 20th century, Indian hemp also became recognized as one of the chief catalysts of juvenile mental illness.#igbohistory

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