A few decades ago, a curious scene was regularly staged in the dusty schoolyard of a rural village near the town of Malindi. On the end of the lessons, a small crowd of villagers gathered around a skinny student who gave proof of being a brilliant orator and a talented foreteller, the boy’s name was Changawa. His family had a reputation in the whole district for giving birth, through generations, to some of the most influential and powerful traditional healers among the Mijikenda. Due to his genealogy, Changawa was seen by the local people as a predestinate, and the early manifestation of his powers confirmed that a new member belonging to the group of authentic traditional healers like his father, the charismatic super witch-catcher Kahindi wa Kadzomba, was finally born.
At that time Kahindi had a successful career and lived a healthy and somehow prosperous existence with his large family in the fertile homestead bordering the river near the village of Baricho, but regretfully, despite the professional acknowledgement, his life was troubled by the problematic relationship with the son.
Some witnesses say that Kahindi felt his fame was overshadowed by the growing success of the son and probably he felt challenged by his superseding powers. As a result of this he became jealous, and even though he loved Changawa, a rivalry emerged between them and their relationship deteriorated. Some others say that Changawa should have waited for his father’s approval before thinking of an independent career as a traditional healer. According to them, he had been impatient and disrespected the father, breaking the customary law. The results of the enduring conflictual relationship were that Changawa became sleepless and started to see strange visions, he also turned to be aggressive and began to speak in tongues and shortly after, the signs of his mental problems manifested dramatically.
In this period, the family took great care of him; they consulted several traditional healers and took Changawa to a hospital in Malindi, but the spiritual and medical care he received was ineffective. Finally, after treatment from a herbalist did he regain his sense of self, and for some time, he seemed to be back to normality. It was the time when he got married, and his wife conceived and gave birth to a baby girl called Dama. Sadly after a while, Changawa regressed, and one night he left his house and ran away into the bush where they found him after an exhausting three-day search.
A few years back, members of Malindi District Cultural Association (a Giriama community-based organisation) with the approval of the family, encharged women diviners to commence investigations in a last attempt to heal Changawa. The controversial information acquired led to complex traditional treatment that lasted a few years and involved healers with different specialisations. Even though Changawa did benefit from the care and attention received during this time, he was still afflicted by a chronic and severe mental disorder.
In this context, diviners who were treating Changawa suggested the family consult a doctor. Therefore, the rescue team requested and obtained the collaboration of Prof. Charles Newton and his colleagues at Kenyan Medical Research Institute (KEMRI Wellcome Trust) in Kilifi.
The final chapters focus on the medical diagnosis and the interaction of Prof Newton’s medical staff with Changawa, his relatives and the traditional healers who took care of him during these years, and explores alternate perspectives of mental ‘illness’ – medical diagnosis and Mijikenda traditional medicine version. It is an in-depth exploration of the territories of the human mind free from preconception.
The case of Changawa fosters study on the understanding of the cultural perceptions of the mental illness in the local population and examines ways that medical researchers can work with the community to raise awareness of mental illness and possibly improve the quality of life of people affected by mental problems through biomedical and cultural means.