11-08-2020 by Freddie del Curatolo
The "madmen" of Kenya, for a simple observer, are particularly intriguing creatures.
One does not tire of following their movements, their looks, their gestures.
They surprise you with their tireless work, their vitality as opposed to sudden cathartic moments in which they cancel themselves out and lose contact with everything and often even their senses.
You see them interacting with Nature, for better or for worse: walking in the middle of busy roads careless of trucks and motorbikes that brush against them, dropping down at the corner of an intersection or crossing without looking.
You catch them eating bush leaves, rummaging through garbage or sucking on coral stones. Some would like to touch you or stare at you intensely and then explode into an invective or laughter.
I've been seeing one of them almost daily for thirty years now.
There are the perennial walkers, dressed in multi-layered rags, the half-naked ones wrapped in a blanket of earth and dust with beard and uncultivated hair, the cripples and stutterers, the epileptics who roll in the fields and the shy ones who howl and run away if you get too close.
There are the women who eat earth and shell rosaries of alleged spells and curses with words unknown even to tribal dialects and the girls who sow threads of drool with barred eyes and beg.
Personally, they immediately referred me back to certain Italian neorealist literature and cinema of the 1950s and to the stories of my grandparents.
Post-war Italy was still full of "village idiots" and the "madman" in the house to keep well hidden or to show the priest was a custom, especially in the villages farthest from the civilization that was appearing and the future looming, made of a new, clean sociality.
But Africa is at stake here, there are centuries and centuries of tribal traditions that, in the space of a few years, have encountered progress, even globalization.
For a week, on behalf of the Documentary Institute of East Africa (DIEA) we joined an unusual caravan, set up by the Kenya Research Medical Institute (KEMRI) precisely to understand the evolution of a social situation that adds to mental discomfort and popular beliefs the conflict with modern life in a country that is changing rapidly and that in many areas risks creating a gap between past and future, swallowing the present of millions of people, especially the weak and invisible.
Because the "madmen" I'm talking about can be seen, but for each one of them there are other hidden and suffering creatures that are considered spirits of the devil, that for a simple epileptic crisis are kept in chains all their life, that from an early age are raised like animals in the villages because of anomalies, autism or even curable diseases.
Kenya is only now realizing that the mentally disabled are human beings and is beginning to support initiatives in line with what should be, also in many other fields, the sustainable evolution of a society.
This is how KEMRI has created an intelligent and far-sighted awareness campaign in which it has chosen as a partner the cultural association MADCA, which for years has been involved in safeguarding the cultural and social traditions of the Mijikenda people and whose vision, passionate battles and lucid, desperate, saving dedication we have witnessed many times in these spaces.
Under the name "Difu Simo", which in giriama means "Free yourself" and which takes its name from a game that even today the children of the coast are used to play (a sort of "you've got it" which at a certain point is contrasted with the cry "free for all!" to which the expression "Difu Simo" refers), was created an itinerant tour in the villages between Malindi and Kilifi, setting up a show in seven stages, in compliance with the rules of non-assembly dictated by the Coronavirus emergency.
Something really unique that we feel the duty to tell, through writings and images: it's difficult to see psychiatrists, herbalists, popular storytellers, dancers, researchers, rappers, diviners, poets, documentary filmmakers, traditional healers, social workers and deejays in the same area.
Yet, day after day, the cheerful caravan not only focused on making the people of the villages understand how unfair it is to treat the mentally ill as plagued or possessed, but also managed to interact with relatives of retarded, schizophrenic and epileptic people, to be told on the microphone, in front of everyone, their stories and the difficulty of managing their lives and their affection within the community, to collect questions and give suggestions, invitations, hopes.
We have seen and heard stories and situations that it is difficult to enclose in a single article.
We will do it in installments, because through those stories there is a cross-section of Kenya today.
For now I tell you that "Difu Simo" was a first episode of fundamental utility and it was a privilege to be able to participate in it.
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