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Mathari: From isolation centre to mental asylum

THE NAIROBIAN
By Nairobian reporter | June 7th 2013

By Nairobian reporter

Mathari is Kenya’s largest referral and training psychiatrist facility that attracted media attention recently when 40 patients executed a sanely planned escape – ‘prison break’. They decried lack of basic care, neglect, dilapidation and overcrowding.

Mathari,pronounced ‘Mathare’ after the famous slum bordering it, has three divisions: the civil wing for general psychiatry, the rehab for druggies and the Maximum Security Ward for mentally deranged criminals. The other two such hospitals in East Africa are Muhimbili in Tanzania and Mutabika in Uganda.

Did you know the hospital began as a smallpox isolation centre?

Well, after an outbreak of smallpox in 1910, the colonial administration quarantined, but gradually turned it into a mental institution for soldiers with yellowing grey marbles from the vagaries of World War I in 1914. After World War II the facility got more inmates who were racially hosted: Europeans were mostly alcoholics, while Asians and Africans were, from 1933, admitted on the basis of an outdated Indian Mental Health Act of 1858 stipulating inability to co-exist with society as reason for being a boarder.

The 1989 Mental Health Act that calls for voluntary treatment is currently in force.

From Nairobi Lunatic Asylum, it was called Mathari Mental Hospital from 1924 to 1964 to the current Mathari Hospital. Did you also know the 700-bed plus hospital was at one time headed by Dr James Cobb? The friend of the Prince of Wales came from a good family, but was of suspect sexuality, eccentric and an alcoholic who kept two pet lions there. Besides, he entertained drunken friends late at night by showing off  “the more interesting” patients, according to Jock McCulloch’s 2006 book, Colonial Psychiatry and the African Mind.

Dr Cobbs, who according to McCulloch, screwed the pet lions on the hospital lawns, was retired on the sound grounds of ill health.


 

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