No nation is free before everyone is free?
Written by Berrie Holtzhausen
It is my personal point of view that a nation cannot be free if each and every person in that nation is not free. My experiences over the last two weeks have confirmed to me that people with mental illnesses and brain diseases are not free – not because of their illnesses, but because of the superstitious beliefs that surround these illnesses. Beliefs and religions that create the perception that the brain is a “spiritual organ” for supernatural powers. These beliefs and ideologies seem to give people the right to discriminate against a person living with a mental illness or brain disease. Especially if that mental illness or brain disease only appeared later in the life of a said person.
But before I jump the gun, let me start from the beginning.
It started in the last week of January when Deleen, one of our employees at Yakandonga phoned me and told me that one of our ‘patients’, Tanda is spitting blood. I asked Deleen to immediately take Tanda to the state hospital in Otjiwarongo. They needed to admit her for blood tests etc. Two weeks before that, I myself, also had to take Kaputu to the state hospital in Opuwo because she didn’t want to eat or drink anything and when she stood upright, her urine just started flowing.
During the evening of the 31st January 2014, Deleen went to visit Tanda at the state hospital. She phoned me, incredibly upset about Tanda’s condition after a few days in the hospital. Tanda was locked into the isolation room which looked more than a prison cell than a hospital room. There was an opening in the wall with burglar bars but no windows. She was lying on a mattress on the ground, her clothes and bedding completely soaked. It rained the previous night and her ‘cell’ was not water proof. Apparently the hospital did not have safety rails, so they took away the bed when Tanda kept falling off. Her food, which she could not eat by herself, was just standing next to her as nobody wanted to feed her.
Deleen eventually got hold of a doctor and asked him if Tanda had some very infectious disease or why was she locked in isolation? (To me this room only isolated her from people and not the natural elements that certainly did not help her condition!) She needed to be discharged and fairly quickly. Deleen even managed to get an inspector to go and see the situation. And of course we laid a complaint at the Ministry of Health and Social works. When we finally got an answer as to why Tanda was locked in isolation, I was beyond myself. Tanda wasn’t in isolation for her safety and health. No, she was treated in this way because of her dementia. The superstitious sisters (and these are educated nurses!) were afraid of her. According to them, she can only walk when the witchcraft is at work in her. Maybe she will get up at night and start walking – they could not take any risks with a witch in the hospital. Deleen stayed with Tanda until she was discharged later in the day.
In the meantime, Koos phoned me with news on Kaputu. After he tried several times to call the Opuwo State Hospital in an effort to try and find out how Kaputu is doing, he drove to Opuwo to see for himself. Kaputu was gone. “What do you mean, she is gone?” I asked him rather desperately. “She disappeared,” he said. I could hear the frustration in his voice. I decided that I would drive down to Opuwo as soon as I have finished my last assignment for UTAS where I am busy with a course called; Understanding Dementia. The day after I finished my essay, I started to get ready to leave for Opuwo. On my way, and it is a long way from Walvis Bay, Koos phoned again. Rumour has it; Kuputu was transferred to the Oshakati State Hospital, to the mental ward. Now, I know that mental ward – it’s a hell hole to be frank. I overnighted at Epupa and hit the road again the next morning (10th February 2014) and headed to Oshakati. I arrived at 15h00 and headed straight for Ward 16.
Ward 16 must be the busiest ward in that enormous hospital. I started at reception and after I told the receptionist my story and gave a description of Kaputu, she sent me to yet another desk. Here I was told to wait until a nurse could assist me. From where I was standing I looked down a corridor into a grated metal door – exactly as you would find in a prison. Behind the iron doors ten or more women in blue gowns were standing, crying and pleading for attention. In their ward, there was nothing. No beds, no bedside tables and no wardrobes. Not even a glass of water for when you were thirsty. Only a mattress or sometimes even a half-of-a-mattress on a cold cement floor could be seen.
After my fourth attempt in stopping a nurse as she passed me, I found one that worked in that ward. I gave her my description of Kaputu, but she just told me it was past visiting hours. I explained that this is urgent and that I needed to see if she was here and how she was doing. But the problem wasn’t the visiting hours. It was that neither she, nor the nurse inside the ward, knew their patients. They didn’t know a lady called Kaputu Kombe from the Kunene. They walked up and down the ward, but couldn’t find her because they didn’t know who to look for. And then one of the ‘inmates’ as they called themselves, said she knew Kaputu because she helped her to eat and drink as she could do nothing for herself. So she and another inmate went off to fetch Kaputu. They had to carry her between the two of them; Kaputu could not walk by herself. There were no wheelchairs in Ward 16, patients had to be dragged around. In front of the door, they let go of her and she tumbled to the floor like a lame person would do. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was from weakness or if she was completely drugged. I asked both the nurses if she ate or drank anything – they didn’t know. (Or didn’t care?) Her inmate friend seemed to know the most and said that she helped her to eat and to drink. I was incredibly sad and sat down on my knees to look Kaputu into her eyes. I called her name and for a split second, our eyes connected and I just knew; I had to get her out of here.