I expected to encounter a chaotic situation of people shouting like they were possessed by demons. This is what crossed my mind when I set off to visit a centre for rehabilitation of mentally ill women. But I was mistaken. Far from what I thought, I found a serene place with peaceful people going about their work normally. At Ndera Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital; women of different ages were getting ready for gardening. You wouldn’t tell, that any of them was mentally challenged.
But the bigger story is how those who leave the centre after treatment cope. Those discharged after treatment still suffer discrimination when they return home.
At the peak of this problem in 2013, Claver Hangerimana, a former patient at Ndera, decided to start OPROMAMER, in partnership with Ndera Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital. The organization was created mainly to give assistance to women affected by mental illness in Rwanda.
The organisation supports these women to strive to elevate themselves past the problems they experience.
It also empowers them, and pushes them towards independence through activities such as art, weaving, farming, selling fruits and vegetables, among others.
OPROMAMER’s role is to assist the women once they are done with treatment at Ndera.
According to Haragirimana, most members are mentally challenged.The organisation aims at addressing issues of mental health, justice and, creating awareness about mental illness.
“I started the organisation simply because when the recovered patients are let out, they need assistance on how best to continue with their lives,” he says.
The organisation also deals with a few men, however, women are their main focus because they are the most vulnerable when it comes to stigma and rejection.
According to Emmanuel Ntakiyisumba, a nursing coach at the hospital, the therapy offered by the hospital is to prepare patients to mingle with other people in society, and, be able to do things on their own.
“These activities help them to improve their way of life when out there.This,also, aids them when joining their communities. Apart from that, it’s a way of making them generate income to sustain them when they are on their own,” he says.
Due to stigma, a patient may get frustrated, which in turn could trigger the condition again. But with these activities, Ntakiyisumba says it is easy to keep them occupied and put stress at bay.
Beneficiaries share their experience
27-year-old Aline Uwimana was admitted at the hospital after being abandoned by her family for having mental problems. However, even after treatment, she still faced stigma.
“After hospital, people from my community still didn’t believe that I was okay, they still had the perception that a mad person will never be okay, and that they should not associate with other people in society,” she says.
She later joined OPROMAMER which gave her the assistance she very much needed, and for eight months now, she has been selling fruits in Kimironko market.
“Although I don’t gain as much as I’d want to from this business, I’m glad I have it because it keeps me going and, gives me hope to live. Before, I never dreamed I’d be doing this someday,” she says.
Joyce Batamuliza, a resident of Kimironko suffered from mental illness in 2010 due to the difficulties she was facing as a refugee (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) at the time.
“As a refugee, life was hard with my three children, to make things worse, my husband abandoned us and married another woman, all this contributed to my mental illness,” she says.
Batamuliza says that after she got treatment and therapy from the hospital, she joined OPROMAMER where she got skills in farming. She now cultivates a small piece of land that she uses to grow vegetables that help her feed her children.
48-year-oldJulienne Muhongarike is on medication. After she got ill in 1990, she struggled with mental problems for seven years until her sister came to her rescue and took her to Ndera Hospital.
She attributes the success of occupational therapy offered by Ndera Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital and OPROMAMER to making her well again.
“My condition was already at a very mature stage and there was no cure for it. I was put on daily medication to prevent it from recurring,” she says.
Although she is still on medication, Muhongarike has been able to continue with her studies at Mount Kenya University as a part-time student, majoring in medical laboratory science.
She currently works at Rwanda Military Hospital Kanombe as a clinical lab technician.
OPROMAMER has also been able to place women in various co-operatives across districts that help them save their money.
Achievements and future plans
Haragirimana says people are trying to change their mindset regarding mental problems.
“Society is trying to welcome us back in the community; also, most of them have learned that mental illness is not associated with witchcraft or bad omens, but rather, social issues. People are also trying to understand that this illness can be cured like any other,” he says.
For the recovered patients, most of them are motivated by the organisation to live normally, something which did not exist before. According to Haragirimana, the organisation is planning to have at least two former patients that healed in each village, to represent others in their respective areas.
For the future, the organisation is advocating for the total change of the mindset of people who still think that mental illness can’t be cured, and that once one has the condition, they are rendered useless and that nothing good can ever come from them. This, according to him, should be dealt away with permanently.
Aside from that, most people have started appreciating the effort and work done by healed patients, and this has led to many patients interacting with others well.
The main problem women from this organisation face is the failure to operate and manage their businesses.
This is due to the stigma some people in society still hold, and also, lack of enough funds to expand their business.
“Some patients still don’t believe in themselves, and they are reluctant to take any training to help them survive and fit in society. Also, there is no good law governing people with mental problems, which is also a challenge for them, when it comes defending themselves when faced with a crisis,” Haragirimana says.
How can society do away with poor mindsets regarding mentally ill people?
People mostly need to be compassionate and understanding; they need to embrace all people as equal. Handicapped or not, everyone deserves a chance to have opportunities to develop and a chance to live a fulfilling life.
Lovence Umutoni, pharmacist
A littlesensitisation can be of help; some people discriminate the incapacitated upfront and this is so insensitive. Instead of discriminating them, they need to be helped to fit well in society.
Annet Imbabazi, entrepreneur
We need to be close to the handicapped and be there for them, give them courage in whatever they do so that they are very aware that they can be successful in whatever they choose to do. Discriminating them only bruises their confidence.
Sarah Mbabazi, stylist
The government needs to put up strict laws that protect the disabled and, punish those who mock mentally ill, or handicapped people in general. For example, there was a recent campaign against the ridicule names used to refer to them which led to them being banned, this was good and more should be done.
Yvonne Nirere, businesswoman