Kasereka’s face reveals a disproportionate fear. A month ago he should have undergone a hernia operation in Goma’s provincial hospital, but as he was being taken to the theatre the 14-year old boy was gripped by such a panic that the doctors decided to take him for psychiatric treatment. When I met him he had spent three weeks in the Centre for Mental Health Tulizu Letu (Our Hope) located in Goma. The medical superintendent, Brother Jean Mbeshi, a soft-spoken Congolese of the brothers of Charity, went to great pains to cheer him up: “Don’t worry, my friend, once you shall be operated you will be fine”.
Although Kasereka’s body shivers and he constantly stutters and keeps lowering his eyes, he is by no means the most serious case in Tulizu Letu. Most of the 37 admitted patients were simple farmers or school children. Until one day armed men stormed their homes and raped their mothers or wives in front of them or hacked their children to death. The trauma caused by these horrors ruined their mental health. Some of the children admitted in the centre were conscripted as soldiers. Others lived in the streets, where they fell victims of cheap drug-addictions, such as glue-sniffing. Since 1996, Goma has been the epicentre of a succession of wars that claimed around five million lives.
Today this area is calm, but the conflict continues in a latent form and its most tragic face is the one made up by the thousands of persons suffering from mental disorders or depression. For many of them the worse is still to come. According to Brother Justin Bashombe, only 4 per cent of all patients get fully cured and are reintegrated into society: “In our traditional society, mental illnesses are associated to witchcraft. On top of that, it is unfortunate that people are valued by their capacity to work. When someone suffers from a mental disorder, relatives and neighbours feel that he or she is a burden, rejection and abandonment follow”. The Brother explains that a patient needs to follow a minimum of four years of treatment, “but as they suffer the marginalization of their communities, very few of them manage to stick to the discipline of taking the tablets daily and coming regularly to the centre for follow up”.
Tulizu Zetu is the only psychiatric hospital in the province of North Kivu, with a population of six million. And if one looks at the general situation of the country, the picture is even more disheartening. A recent report by D R Congo’s Ministry of Health reveals that in the country – with a population of 65 million – there are only six psychiatric hospitals. One of them, in Kinshasa, is run by the government. The other five, all of them upcountry, are in the hands of the Brothers of Charity. In the whole country there are only 38 psychiatric doctors, 36 of whom work in the capital. The centre strives to make up for this chronic lack of personnel with a programme of on-going formation for its entire staff once a week.
The centre for mental health is not the Brothers’ only task in Goma. They also run a centre for physically disabled patients. It started in 1964 by the Goma Diocese and entrusted to them in 2005. Today it hosts 64 patients and renders its services to over 180 persons weekly. The Brothers also run a special education school where 130 boys and girls study different courses. Its services include an orthopaedic workshop that makes an average of 800 artificial limbs per year. Dieudonné, aged 16, is one of the many patients who comes regularly for physiotherapy in order to adapt himself to his new artificial leg. Last year he was shot by rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) near the border with the Central African Republic. His leg had to be amputated.
The disabled suffer a great deal of social discrimination. These religious are decided to fight this mentality by preaching with their own example: about 40 per cent of all employees in the centre are, themselves, disabled. Jean Pierre Kasuku is one of them. He overlooks the transition of students who complete their technical training, making sure that all of them leave with the necessary equipment to begin their own business as tailors, carpenters or cobblers. Walking with the help of crutches does not prevent Kasuku from carrying out this ambitious social reintegration programme.
In 2005 Therese Mabulayi founded ASMA (Association of Solidarity Amka Mlemanu), a local NGO that brings together disabled people. Its name means “Get up”, and is supported by the Brothers’ centre. From her wheelchair, Therese coordinates the setting up of a restaurant that ASMA members opened near the Brothers’ centre. “In our tradition, a disabled woman finds it very difficult to get married, and many end up being victims of all kinds of sexual abuse”, she says.
Therese laments also the government’s lack of attention towards disabled and mentally handicapped citizens: “Our country has not even ratified the International Convention on Disabled Persons”. The Brothers’ main support comes from foreign donors. Brother Mbeshi does not hide his discontent concerning the lack of government support: “In Congo there have been many efforts and much money has been given for war, but not for peace”. Peace that still looks a long way off, particularly from the minds and hearts of the victims of one of the most deadly and forgotten conflicts from our time.
Jose Carlos Rodriguez