By Eric Lungai
Luanda Market on the Busia-Kisumu highway is a throbbing, fast growing urban centre, but it also has an inordinately high number of persons who appear to suffer from mental illness
It is exactly 3:30pm. As I stand at a shop in Luanda town in Vihiga County, a middle aged man emerges out of nowhere with a huge decorated club in his hands. He removes his ragged cap and tucks the club beneath his armpits, and bows for the building two times before he marches away without saying a word to anyone.
In all descriptions available, he looks like a very healthy man. He is wearing on an old black anorak, a faded brown trouser and akala shoes.
Moved by his supposedly polite act, I ask the shopkeeper in the building why the man did that.
“It is his routine to come to this place every day at around 3:30pm and perform his ritual. He says that he respects this building so much because it is the oldest,” says the shopkeeper.
That is just one case. On a normal day, Luanda market is abuzz with many mentally disturbed persons, doing all sort of weird things.
It seems that the market, apart from being a busy economic hub in the county due to its direct linkage to Kisumu and Busia towns, has been known to be home of many mad persons than any other.
A few months ago, there was a story on television about one Mr Daudi Otieno, a self-proclaimed mad man in the town who only acts mad during the market days to solicit for food for his family from the businesspersons.
He often comes to the market on Tuesdays and Saturdays. On any other day, he is a very normal man, fending for his family by doing small time menial jobs.
He is not alone. There are many other people with peculiar behaviour loitering around the market who residents don’t bother about for they are long used to their antics. They move from place to place, sometimes nagging people to give them food or money. Others are peaceful and keep to themselves as they mind their own business.
A few weeks ago, another woman caused a scene when she camped outside Equity bank branch in the town as she demanded anyone leaving the bank to drop something in her metallic cup, which she kept rattling vigorously with a nail.
She didn’t, however, want coins to be dropped in it. Anyone who attempted to eject her, including police who man the bank, was turned away by her noisy wails. She, however, left later after her collection cup was brimming with bank notes.
When you talk about madness in Luanda town, residents find it ‘normal’. In fact, they are used to it.
Many of the local people that we interviewed, but who not experts, pointed accusing fingers to overuse of drugs of which bhang is the most commonly abused.
“Drug abuse is an epidemic in this region, with the drugs coming from Busia and Uganda. We are really trying to control the problem to our level best, but so far, it has not been an easy ride,” a security officer who is not authorised to talk to the press confided to this writer.
The officer further claimed that there are many loopholes, which lead to the drugs being brought into the area, and they have been working on curbing the menace with very little success.
“Abuse of bhang in this area is an open secret. It is not a new thing altogether. It is one of the most abused drugs in this area,” the officer confirmed.
And true to his word, while walking in Luanda, you meet groups of people liberally smoking weed, while clad in Rastafarian colours.
“This is our small Jamaica in Africa. It is where all those Jamaican reggae musicians originated from, and they have taken long to come back home,” one youth said, puffing out smoke like a chimney.
In the last year, Luanda Police Station was involved in an operation dubbed Operesheni Wazimu Rudi Nyumbani which to some extent has borne fruit.
As the situation stands now, the number of mad persons has greatly reduced and most of them only do a technical appearance at the market but go back home. But the officers allege that people in the region don’t make any effort to take their relatives to hospital for treatment.
The local administration helped the police a great deal in looking for the relatives of those affected and urged them to take their people back home, during the operation.
“Many of those who continued staying in the town were arrested and their relatives later resurfaced and took them home. They have at least been contained,” the officer said.
Residents in the region, however, hold divergent views regarding the state of madness in the town. Some claim that those people found roving aimlessly in the town come from the neighbouring towns.
“The levels of poverty, coupled by the fact that Luanda is a small town with a high population density is likely the main reason why some have to pretend to be mad, to earn a living by soliciting for food,” says Mr Japheth Omonde, a businessperson in the region who operates a clinic.
Omonde notes that bhang is not grown in the area because of the high population and the small size of the farms, but it is imported from the neighbouring regions.
He further says that this state of affairs is a big worry to him as a medical practitioner because it portrays the town negatively whenever people visit. However, he is quick to point out that most of the mad persons come from Kisumu.
“We are very close to Kisumu city and thus we accommodate the bulk of those people who cannot be accommodated in that city because of their state of mind,” he says.
Victoria Angeyo, 20, a hotelier, confesses that indeed there are many cases of people who walk around in the town who are apparently mad.
For some people, however, Luanda town is just like any other market which has mad people but because of its small size, it always appears like they are so many at a given time.
“Luanda market is just like Kisumu, with many mad persons although Kisumu is larger and thus they are scattered allover the place,” says Josphat Matindi, a sports organiser in the area.
Although Matindi acknowledges that some cases are hereditary, he notes that bhang and the overindulgence in use of illicit brews in the region could also be a cause. He has, therefore, invested in sports in the area to help curb the situation.
“Most of our youth have been growing up in a culture where drug usage is ‘normal’. It is very difficult rehabilitating them now, through things like sports can help,” says Matindi.
Associate Professor of Environmental Resources Conservation, Prof Inonda Mwanje, the Principal Policy Analyst at Africa Public Policy Institute (APPI), a research agency, says that mad persons in Luanda are just a common feature like in any other town.
However, the academician says that the government has neglected the case by not putting in place measures to curb the situation.
“The Government should build a rehabilitation centre in the Western region to cater for the people who are mentally disturbed because they are human and need to be incorporated back into the society with decency,” says Mwanje.
Prof Mwanje observes that if the government can provide free maternity care for the women, it can also rehabilitate its people who are disturbed and allow them live decently.
“What people don’t understand is that individuals who are mentally disturbed fall under the category of those who are vulnerable and thus should be taken care of. Mathari Hospital is too far from here,” he says.
Mwanje further notes that drug usage can be tamed in the region only if there are concerted efforts from all quarters concerned.
Area commissioner, Wambua Muthama, said that there was a time when drug use in the region was rampant but it has now been reduced.
“The situation is not as bad as people from other parts portray. In any case, there is a proposal in place to equip the region with facilities,” he said.
So far, he says, the government has employed many mechanisms to contain the situation, such as organising for seminars, and educating people in public barazas. They are also trying their best to cut down on the supply chain so that the drugs cannot be easily accessible in the region.
But Mr Wambua also cites family issues, genetics and some people who pretend to be mad causes of the problem.
Luanda Mission Refuge Centre is the only facility around that helps in rehabilitating children with mental disability but it’s facility are insufficient.