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"This kind of illness cannot be cured anywhere and by anyone else, except in Baatonu land and by Baatonu healers."

Legs MIPRecently, Fr. Dominic Xavier Vincent, defended his thesis entitled « Anthropological Questions related to the care of mentally ill people in the land of baatonu (Northern Benin)". This study was carried out in the north of Benin, particularly in the departments of Donga, Borgou, and Alibori. The population studied is called the Baatombu (the Bariba) who are mostly farmers, herders, and hunters. It has a population of about 1,240,000.

In four chapters, he explores and presents anthropological aspects related to the local understanding and the treatment of mental illness among the Baatonu people.

In the first two chapters, he begins by presenting the two therapeutic practices used for the mentally ill people: a modern one carried out at the Saint Camille Center of Djougou and the other practiced in the traditional Centers in baatonu land. In the third chapter, he elaborates, through the history of patients' lives, the local proverbs, traditional prayers and the daily conversations of the population, the understanding of the universe and the understanding of mental illness among the Bariba people. The fourth chapter focuses on the problems associated with mental illness or the medical care of mentally ill persons.

The study makes some suggestions and recommendations to improve the quality of medical care for mentally sick people.

It was his missionary experience in the north of the Republic of Benin that led him to venture into this research. " As a Catholic missionary priest in the north of Benin, I lived among the bariba people for seven years." While in mission in Pèrèrè, he developed a very good relationship with local and national leaders, including the king of baatombu as well as traditional healers.

Nkd MIPHe was particularly influenced by the visit of Grégoire Ahongbonon, the founder of the Association of Saint Camille. «During his visit, we found a naked woman tied to a tree…" Grégoire inquired about the woman and her mental illness. He proposed that he could handle her situation in better condition. He assured the family that the cost of treatment, transport, and upkeep of the woman would be fully covered by the association. But the patient's family categorically rejected the offer and concluded that "this kind of illness cannot be cured by anywhere else and by anyone else, except in Baatonu land and by Baatonu healers."

It is in the quest to understand the origin and interpretation of mental illness among the Baatombu as something greater than a psychological dysfunction that prompted Fr. Xavier to reflect on certain specific questions:

  1. Why is it that the Bariba people do not consider all illnesses as natural?
  2. What are the criteria used by the Bariba people to determine an illness as unnatural, supernatural, or induced through witchcraft?
  3. What is the underlying concept of mental illness in Bariba land?
  4. Why do they think that certain illnesses should be treated in traditional centers?
  5. What are the factors that make the Bariba people reluctant to use modern medicine for mental illness? »

In order to answer these questions, he decided to study different therapeutic practices.

GrégoireThis is why the survey begins with the study of medical care at the Saint Camille Centre of Djougou and then the traditional centers in the Baatonu land.

His curiosity and interest helped him to discover through patient surveys, the study of the life history of patients, interviews with informants, "I was able to identify first, the four factors that the Baatombu observe to determine the nature of mental illness: 1) the mysterious origin of the mental illness, 2) the duration of the illness, 3) the ineffectiveness of the remedy, and 4) a kind of coherence between the experience and the word of a seer, the defiant words, a conflict, a dream, a warning sign in nature... » 

Secondly, he found out that when the patient or the patient's family did not have a clear answer on these four factors, the Baatombu believe that it was an unnatural or an illness caused by witchcraft. Consequently, they prefer traditional treatment as the first and best option. If the patient recovers, he or she goes home and resumes his activities. In the event that traditional treatment proves to be ineffective, this is when the Baatombu will resort to modern treatment.

Thirdly, he established that this approach among the Bariba is a therapeutic process. Everyone from the bariba community naturally follows this procedure, which begins with self-medication, traditional treatment, and finally, modern treatment, and in certain instances the resumption of traditional treatment.

Touching on the two therapeutic practices of the mentally ill, "I have been compelled to address certain anthropological problematics such as physical torture, social exclusion, drug overdose, identity, and self-esteem through work and the notion of obligation among the Bariba people," he noted.

2019 Benin Parakou SMA NIKON 0688The aim of this study, according to Fr. Xavier is to highlight cultural elements such as the representation of the worldview of the Bariba people, the social organization, and the conduct of personal and collective life. At the same time, he sheds light on the concept of the origin of mental illness in bariba land, perceived as a disturbance and an imbalance in relationships, hence the importance of looking at the mentally ill person holistically and taking into account the social, symbolic, and spiritual aspects in order to get to the root of evil and heal the ill person. However, the psychiatric center of Saint Camille has a different conception and a different approach from traditional centers.

In the fourth and last chapter, he offers some proposals for better health care for the mentally ill. Broadly speaking, he makes two recommendations: 1) that the Benin government should supervise and coordinate the individual efforts of healers and therapists, and 2) that modern medicine should take cultural, social, symbolic, and religious elements into account in the process of treating mental illness. This is according to him is his “small contribution to understanding mental illness as conceived by the Baatombu and to improving the medical care of the mentally ill.”

Fr. Xavier is grateful to the “SMA Generalate who proposed to me and encouraged me to do a master's degree in cultural anthropology. My sincere thanks to the SMA province of Lyon for welcoming me, sponsoring, and allowing me to do this study in a better condition. Thank you to the SMA province of India for the support throughout my training."

                                                                                                                                              By Dominic Wabwireh, SMA