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31.03.2009 Feature Article

‘Close To The Maddening Crowd: All The World Is Mad’

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Psychiatrists are a bit like philosophers: They pretend to look at the broader picture and make statements of facts, often passing off their hallucinations as truisms. When they dare document these hallucinations, they become theories which guide present and future generations. They, especially philosophers, are usually very weird people who see things differently. For instance, my favourite philosopher, whose life is for me what the canvass is for the painter, lived the life of a responsible married man but he refused to share the same bedroom with his wife. His reason was that feeding into the eyes of a woman in the morning made him too happy, and that comfort affected the natural expression of his creativity. Eventually, he begged his wife to divorce him because he was making him too comfortable in a world where many people are paying a punitive price for mere existence.

Well, psychiatrists are not philosophers; they are just 'psychic.' They have their own problems but they are fairly normal folks who would break bread on a Sunday without considering whether the dough was stolen or borrowed, just like all of us. Perhaps, the only time they really become different is when they try to convince us that the chair on which we are sitting is not really a chair, because it is not where we think it is. Yet, when you ask them to run 'through' the chair, they would stand arms akimbo, and instead sing theories about space and matter, and how matter doesn't exactly occupy space. Other than that, psychiatrists are nice professionals. So, when I heard one of them say on radio that 40% of Ghanaians have mental health problems, I thought he was perhaps only being charitable. Well, the figure includes those suffering from stress and depression, as well as those of us who walk naked, preferring to keep our clothes in a polythene bag.

I have never been a psychiatrist in my troubled existence, except the few times that I tried to be very analytical, if you know what I mean. And, why should I bother with such a 'corrective' discipline when I struggle to correct myself whenever I confuse manicure with pedicure? Already I am counting the losses, having put an intellectual enemy like Law into my brain to steal my journalism, when in fact, all I need to tell my story is the latter. Yet, I believe in psychiatrists very much. So, I have been trying to locate where all the mad people in Ghana live. The psychiatrist who made the revelation may know the situation better. From those suffering some form of schizophrenia to the stressed-out civil servant, there are too many issues to consider when defining a mad person. Our interest in this issue, however, is not the schizophrenic or the psychotic; it is the way things are done in our country, which sometimes make us wonder how sane we are.

“Kwasea, when did you start driving? Didn't you see me enter the inner lane?” “You too kwasea, do you think the road belongs to your mother in the village? I don't know why they give crazy people like you license to drive on our roads. I don't blame you; I blame Ghana”, the other driver will chide in. Incensed, the first driver will retaliate: “Do you know when I started drving? I was drving long before the Nifa-Nifa conversion. Kwasea, go back and learn how to drive.” “No wonder you are jumping lanes, we now drive on the left, old man”, the other will submit. Soon, they are trading insults like crazy people who have no brians. Olookers begin to wonder why drivers carrying passsegers would be so uncivil behind the wheels. Somebody from the crowd pretends to speak the concensus of the gathering: “The thing is, Ghana is becoming a crazy counry. Anybody can get a licsense through the back door and jump on the roads. God help us.” Before he would complete the sentence, a young michievious driver zooms past, tooting his horn like the siren of a police car, faking an emergency. All he wants to do is avoid joining the long traffic. He is given way to pass. When he gets to the other side of the road, he sighs and exclaims: “Nkwaseafoo, I tricked all of you. Crazy people.”

Lately, while perusing a development literature I chanced on at the reception of a Charity organisation, I stumbled on a rather startling definition of madness: Doing the same thing the same way all the time and expecting different results. That is the madness that is afflicting us in this generation. Is it not madness that 2.2 billion of the world's population have no access to toilet facilities? Does it make sense to anybody that a billion people do not have access to good drinking water? What about the 2Million children who lose their lives everyday to water borne diseases? The literature gave more terrible statistics about the condition of the poor in this generation. In the dying pages of the report, it lamented how much money has been spent on Iraq, a war that shouldn't have been fought in the first place. The madness was not the war per se and the fact that it was lost; the real laughable issue is that the intelligence that gave reason for the war was purported to have come from somebody's PhD thesis. Equally mad is the public hanging of a tyrant who terrorised the whole of the Middle East. In what way is the death of one man placatory? How does that answer to the needless deaths of thousands of young soldiers who were plucked from their mother's bosom to combat a made-up enemy, it asked?

There were other interesting facts about Africa and the developing world. So, what has changed in the situation of the poor in the last forty years? That we have gotten poorer is total madness. It is unacceptable that we have to borrow to sustain our economies when we have abundant resources. That is plain crazy. The development literature compared that to a father who takes a fat salary every month and goes borrowing money from friends to feed his children. What will his wife and family think of him? These are the crazy things that should concern us. See how much confusion an office space for an ex president is causing? Should that happen? Does he need an office to work? Yes he does. Is that a national security issue? I don't know, but I doubt it. Now, women in his home town are daring everybody that if the state cannot provide the man an office, they would honour him with one. They would foot the bill all the same if he decides to rent a mansion in Accra for an office. All good, but seriously, do we need to be talking about this? By the time the man settles down to work after the brouhaha (a word I hate so much) had died down, he is already too exhausted to do anything. Then the BMWs! The former president is fighting a war that the generation before him should have fought when he was still president. Somebody is not thinking like a generational thinker.

Well, at least, we have a better situation than Madagascar, which in fact, makes our case worse. That is also plain crazy. Then Darfur! Then Somalia! Then Zimbabwe! Then Dagbon! Yes Dagbon. Then me! Are we going to go on like this forever? Things have to change. But, how do we get things to change? To change things, things will have to remain the way they are. That is as paradoxical as saying that if we want things to remain as they are, then things will have to change. If that also sounds crazy, then consider this: As I pen this issue, a thirteen year old girl has just been sold into prostitution in Cambodia. She is made to service men who are twice the age of her grandfather. Her virginity is sold to pay for the crime of poverty. Before she is sixteen, she is made a virgin again, by having her hymen re-stitched. Then she is sold to another prostitution gang for a higher amount. She is pricier if she is a virgin. She lives this life until she is old enough to hire other children to work for her. Her situation is not any different from the girl-child in Africa who sells on the streets, instead of sitting in a classroom to learn the theory of marketing, so that she would be able to sell in greater quantities in future for better profit. Her motivation to continue selling is that her age mates who are lucky to go to school have no tables to write on. When they close from school, they join her to sell on the streets, instead of going through her school work with their parents.

If we look at ourselves in a good mirror, we would say that nearly 80% of us are mad, twice the figure that the psychiatrist gave. What happens to the 20% who are sane? Well, they will soon go mad too, because, unlike stomach-ache, madness is quite infectious. If all of us go bonkers, what a fine world that will be? The drug trade will thrive, so will prostitution. Coupists will rise again and old wars will be fought anew. Poverty will rule us like never before. For now, we have to do that which has to be done. And we can do it, because it has been done before. We can continue to use all the old clichés, just that we should do what they say. We would not change the way our institutions work; we would just get them to perform the basic functions for which they were set up. We would get governments to do more than just govern: We would have them act and provide.

Still, it is important to ask: How did we get to where we are now? Have we been mad all along? No, there are those who go into the jungle when they are 12. They come out from the jungle at 17, and they are rich. These are the visionaries. Prof George Ayittey calls them Cheetahs. They are those who have succeeded because they make sure that the systems and processes they oversee work. They are those who, in the words of Arthur Miller, never deal fair with strangers. The most important stranger we have to deal with in this generation is poverty, perhaps not so much the madness, because in many rich countries the stark crazy live quite well. They have shelters over their heads, and they drink beer. We are not just going to move a category that are poor to another group and designate them non-poor, as the statistical service has it. We are going to make the poor live in relative comfort, access the things the rich take for granted and have a right to life.

These, methinks, are what we should be paying people ex-Gratia for.

If this does not happen soon, we risk having a situation where the very poor people on our planet will beg the rich kill their children for pleasure and pay them a pittance to buy a bicycle. Sounds mad, but this has happened before. I was told a sad story by a Scottish fellow who worked in one of the poorest countries in West Africa. He accidentally run over and killed a middle-aged man on a bicycle. The victim's family mourned the bicycle, their only property, more than dead fellow. They would bury their dead, but they will need a few more bicycles as compensation. I don't know how psychiatrists would term this kind of madness. Well, it seems everybody is mad until we manage to solve some of our many problems. Maybe the mentaly insane is even better off.

Benjamin Tawiah lives in Ottawa, Canada.
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin
Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, © 2009

The author has 235 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KwesiTawiahBenjamin

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