Steve Wasserman - Sanity is Where You Find It

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Sanity is Where You Find It
By Steven Wasserman (Nigeria 13)

In 1965, I worked for four weeks in an insane asylum in Northern Nigeria. At the time, the value of those weeks seemed to lie in the break from my normal routine and in the stories I accumulated for long evenings of conversation with other Peace Corps volunteers over beer and palm wine. With the passage of many years, however, the meaning of that brief experience has deepened for me, and now I realize that the asylum was where I first learned about sanity and compassion from a true expert.
My regular assignment was as a teacher in a secondary school in Eastern Nigeria, a region of rain forests, creeks and swamps, and tiny houses with mud walls and tin roofs. The Peace Corps encouraged us to take on projects in other parts of the country during our school breaks, and I chose the North because I was tired of rainy days and eager to experience something different. After a long, uncomfortable train ride, I got off at Kano, a city where the air rippled from the heat of the afternoon sun. I took a taxi from the station to the Peace Corps hostel, and watched with fascination as the driver navigated the dusty traffic of automobiles, donkeys, bicycles and camels. In the distance the slender minarets of the city mosque seemed to waver and dance to a rhythm of their own, oblivious to the noise of camel drivers and street vendors and honking horns.
Bill Weed, the volunteer I would be temporarily replacing, worked for the Ministry of Social Welfare in the district of Kano, which included the largest city in Northern Nigeria and a swath of surrounding countryside. He was being called back to the States to appear before his Alabama draft board to explain why he shouldn’t be drafted and (perhaps) sent to Vietnam. Bill’s duties were varied, and included administrative responsibility for hospitals, mobile health clinics and health worker training programs. He did so much, and knew so much, that there was no way I could even begin to fill his shoes. But he spent three mornings a week at the insane asylum, and I could take care of that one duty for him, and still have a bit of a vacation.
The asylum was on the outskirts of the city, in an area with no other structures nearby. As we approached in Bill’s jeep, I could see that like most of the traditional buildings in Kano, it was made of sun-hardened adobe blocks, which were then plastered over with mud to make a smooth, even surface. No windows were visible in the outside walls. Two soldiers in ragged and stained uniforms sat on a bench under a tree, guarding an arched doorway that was the only way in or out.
Entering through that archway and turning left, Bill and I stepped into a dim little office, where a man in flowing robes sat reading a magazine behind a bare wooden desk. Bill introduced him as Ali Usman, a nurse and medical officer who was responsible for the health and well-being of all the inmates. Ali Usman grunted, shook my hand, and went back to his magazine.
We then stepped into the dazzling light of a sun-baked courtyard. Solid walls of individual cells enclosed three sides of the courtyard, each cell opening into the yard with a wooden door and a large barred opening that served as a window. In the narrow strip of shadow created by one wall, a few inmates squatted, resting their backs against the adobe. Others sat within their cells, arms loosely embracing the bars in the windows, legs dangling between them. One or two heads turned as we entered, but most seemed as indifferent to our presence as they were to their bare surroundings. Bill led me around the courtyard, introducing me to the few people that seemed willing to respond to us.
Hassan Ibrahim was a young man who had suffered a nervous breakdown while studying for a teacher training examination. Standing in the open doorway of his cell, he stared at the ground as Bill spoke to him, a slight smile on his face. With his smoothly shaven head and enigmatic smile, he looked to me like a Buddhist monk, an impression reinforced by the graceful loose-fitting garment that hung from his body, leaving one shoulder bare. He responded to Bill’s questions in a voice so low it was almost a whisper.
“How are you Hassan?”
“I am bettah, sah.”
“Do you think you’re well enough to go back to your family?”
“No, sah.”
“This is my friend, Mister Steve. He will come here in my place until I get back from America.”
“Yes, sah.” A long pause, and then he added, almost as an afterthought, “We will miss you, sah.”
As Bill spoke to Hassan, I became aware of as small man in a short-sleeved white shirt and dark trousers, standing just outside our circle of conversation, yet leaning forward into it, as if afraid of losing his only chance to talk to us. This was Callistus Archibong, a middle-aged former civil servant who (Bill told me later) had murdered his entire family. Callistus had the mild manner and haunted eyes of a Walter Mitty whose fantasy had become a nightmare he couldn’t awaken from. He showed us a letter he had written in his neat clerk’s hand, and begged for a stamp. I learned that he was constantly writing letters to the authorities to complain about living conditions in the asylum. Most of his complaints were justified, but he never received a reply.
Hassan and Callistus were considered harmless, as were a few other inmates I met, and were free to wander in the courtyard. Others were known to be violent, and so were kept locked in their cells. Bill brought me to the window of one cell to meet a man whose dusty dreadlocks dangled down to the shoulders of his ragged shirt. He glared at us as we approached.
“Steve, this is James Adewale. James, I’ve brought someone for you to meet.”
“Go away. If he is a fool like you, I don’t want to know him.” “Now James, be nice to him. He’s here to help you.”
“Can he help me to leave this place?”
“You know you have to stay unless the court lets you go.”
“The judges are fools. The police are fools. You are a fool.” James’ voice got very loud and angry. “You think you judge me, but in judging me, you yourselves are judged and found wanting! I am the judge of this world! When you know who I am, you will beg forgiveness for what you have done to me! Give me a cigarette.
These last words were addressed to me, and I fumbled in my shirt pocket. I passed him a smoke, and lit it for him through the wooden bars. He inhaled deeply, then exhaled.
“Now give me the rest of the packet.”
I refused, angry at his demanding tone.
“You are a fool too, like this other one,” he said, and withdrew into the darkness of his cell.
I was disturbed by the encounter with James, and starting to feel dizzy from the heat and from the strangeness of the situation. Though there was a lot that was crazy in what he had said, I didn’t blame him for not wanting to be locked up. And I had to admit that some of the officials I had met in Nigeria were pompous and foolish and treated ordinary people in a condescending way. Was I like them in assuming I was saner than those unfortunate enough to be locked up in this place? I began to feel very uneasy about the idea of working in the asylum. Bill must have sensed my feelings, because he started scanning the compound with an anxious expression. His face brightened as a young man strode towards us. He greeted Bill and shook his hand in a friendly and hearty way. When Bill introduced us, I grasped the young man’s hand eagerly, like a drowning man reaching for a rope.
And so I met Emmanuel Njoku, who, more than any other person, was responsible for any goodness or sanity that existed within the little world contained by the four walls of the asylum.

    • *

It really didn’t take me too long to get used to the idea of Emmanuel calling the shots, once I recovered from my initial confusion about his status. His energy and good will were in such contrast to the other inmates that I met, that at first I thought he was some kind of orderly or administrator. After all, hadn’t John told me during our first meeting that if I ever had any questions about what I should do, or any problems I couldn’t resolve, I should just ask Emmanuel? But Emmanuel himself was legally insane - a permanent resident of the asylum. He had the full run of the place, but could not go out the arched doorway that led to freedom.
It is important to understand that the asylum was very different from any institution you would be likely to find in the more developed parts of the world. The environment was the barest I have ever seen. There was not a single green plant within the walls. I never saw a book or a picture there or heard a radio play. The only colors were the brown earth of the courtyard and the walls, and the blue of the cloudless sky overhead. There was no therapy, no drugs. Ali Usman was the sole representative of the medical profession on the scene, and I rarely saw him leave his office or talk to an inmate. At that time, in all of Northern Nigeria (a region of over thirty million people) there was not one licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. Individuals were sent to the asylum by their relatives, or they were picked up by the police for “acting mad” and brought before a judge. Once a day, a line of ragged prisoners from the central prison was marched to the asylum, each one carrying a bucket of green stew or a basin of millet on his head. This was the one meal that was supplied by the State. Some of the inmates, like Hassan, kept their strength up with the help of relatives who brought them other food.
Vast linguistic, cultural and religious differences separated the inmates from one another. Some spoke English, but many of them spoke and understood only their tribal language. All the major tribes of Nigeria were represented, and many of the smaller ones as well. Hassan was a Hausa, a member of the conservative Muslim tribe that dominated Northern Nigeria. Callistus was an Efik and had been educated in an Anglican mission school in the mangrove swamps of the Cross River delta. James was a Yoruba who had grown up in the boisterous slums of Lagos, the Nigerian capital city. Emmanuel’s roots lay in the same region where my school was located. He was an Igbo, a member of the tribe regarded by some as the most enterprising and intelligent in that part of the world, and by others as arrogant and dangerous. Though indigenous to Eastern Nigeria, they made up a large part of the professional and commercial classes in the comparatively underdeveloped North.
Sometimes, in spite of the primitive facilities and complete lack of therapy, an inmate would somehow get better. He would feel relieved of whatever demons had possessed him and ask for his relatives to be sent for. They would come and talk to him a bit. A little later, an order would come from a judge to release him, and he would be sent home.
Given the utter lack of resources available and the short stay I had planned, what could I possibly do to improve the lives of these wretched people? I couldn’t even speak to most of the inmates. And I suspected that many of those who could understand English were suffering from some kind of cultural dissonance between their tribal traditions and the demands of modern Nigeria, which I certainly could not resolve for them. Beyond that, I was a recent college graduate with very little practical experience whatsoever. I would have been totally lost without Emmanuel.
With his help, though, we were able to do some modest things to relieve the drabness and poverty of life in the asylum, and perhaps even create more favorable conditions for the spontaneous recoveries that, short of death, were the sole means of escape for any of the inmates.
One day, for example, he told me to go to the Central Prison and ask the warden to send firewood to the asylum, so we could heat water and wash clothes. I wondered what kind of reception I would get, but Emmanuel reassured me with a laugh that when the warden saw my white face he would be eager to help. The next day, I went to the prison while Emmanuel filled an enormous iron pot with water. I returned with the warden’s promise to do what I had asked. We waited a few hours, and then a line of prisoners appeared, each carrying a large bundle of sticks on his head. While I prepared the fire, Emmanuel persuaded many of the inmates to surrender their clothing. As the water came to a boil (to kill lice and nits) Emmanuel dumped armloads of shirts and pants into it. Another inmate stirred the clothes with a big wooden paddle. After cooking them for about ten minutes, the clothes were fished out of the pot with the same paddle and hung, still steaming, on the bars of the cells. More water was added to the pot, and then another load of clothes was dumped in. Emmanuel told me that this was the first time in four months that clothes had been washed in the asylum.
Emmanuel demonstrated an intelligent compassion towards the other inmates that was in great contrast to the official attitude. On one occasion, he brought me to see a young man from a small tribe who only understood his native language. No one in the asylum, not even Emmanuel could speak that language. To add to the woes of the man’s almost complete isolation, he had developed a tropical ulcer on one leg. Each time Ali Usman washed and dressed the ulcer, the fellow would tear off the bandages. So Ali Usman refused to waste any more bandages on him. But Emmanuel wanted me to try. He said the man destroyed his dressings because of Ali’s rough way of speaking to him. Maybe if I did it instead, the bandages would stay on. Emmanuel pointed to me and mimicked the action of wrapping the leg to explain the plan to him. He persuaded Ali Usman to supervise as I cleaned a raw, red sore that looked like it was eating a hole in the unfortunate man’s ankle. After I gently bandaged it, the man put his palms together in a gesture of thanks. After that he left his dressings on, and each time during my stay that I rebandaged it, it looked a little better.
Another time, Emmanuel suggested that I buy razor blades, so we could shave heads and eliminate habitation space for head lice. I was hesitant to start distributing razor blades to crazy people, but Emmanuel had never steered me wrong. I bought about a dozen double-edged blades and gave them to Emmanuel. He got the inmates to sit on the ground facing each other in two lines, and he split each blade in half lengthwise. With cold water the only lubricant, each man shaved the head of the one opposite him, and then was himself shaved in turn. Not everyone chose to have his head shaved, just as not everyone had given up his clothes to be boiled, but those who did not only received the hygienic benefit but also the bonus of useful activity during days that were otherwise stupefying empty.
Once in a while, I asked Emmanuel about himself. Why was he, who was so obviously sane and competent, locked in an institution for the insane? He laughed and said that he became sick when he was outside but was well when he was inside. In spite of his laughter, I did not get the impression that his situation was humorous to him, but rather that it was too painful to talk about. Apparently, he had left the asylum a few times as a cured person, but always returned within a month or two.

    • *

One morning, approaching the asylum on the motorbike Bill had left for me and still about a quarter-mile away, I was amazed to see Emmanuel running towards me, with other inmates I recognized also running in my direction.
“Emmanuel, what in the world are you doing out here?”
“James Adewale has escaped, and we are bringing him back.”
I continued on to the asylum. There, I learned from Ali Usman that James had somehow managed to cut through the bars of his cell (they were just wood) and run right out through the front door of the asylum. Emmanuel had persuaded Ali Usman and the two guards to let everyone else out in order to catch him. About a half-hour later, we saw the group coming back, Emmanuel in the lead. Four inmates followed, each carrying an arm or leg of James, who cursed and struggled, followed by the rest of the inmates, who were laughing and animated in a way I had never seen before. Not one of them had used to occasion to try to escape himself, probably because none of them wanted to miss any of the entertainment. James had a small cut on his forehead, but was otherwise not hurt.
I had one conversation with James after his attempted escape. He still said that in the end he would judge those who had put him in the asylum, but he seemed to lack the same fire of conviction. He had finally been judged, not by the government but by a jury of his peers, and found to be as crazy, or maybe even crazier, than they were. It apparently had a very sobering effect on him.

    • *

Before I knew it, my four weeks were up. And although Bill Weed’s draft board apparently decided they would prefer him to be a soldier than a social worker, I knew that I would have to return to my school to take up my teaching duties again. I thought about transferring to Kano to work full time in the asylum, but I liked my students and my school, and I missed the cozy little town on Lake Oguta where I had already spent almost a year of my life.
At the conclusion of my Peace Corps service, I left Nigeria amid ominous rumblings of an upcoming civil war. The national government, itself in place because of a military coup led by Igbo officers, was overthrown in another coup led by Hausas. The Hausa people in Northern Nigeria chose this occasion to take their revenge on the strangers in their midst, especially the Igbos. -- civil servants, shopkeepers, small tradesmen and their families -- were massacred by mobs armed with machetes, rocks, spears and guns. The survivors jammed trains heading back to their homeland in Eastern Nigeria, but the trains were also sometimes attacked, becoming the site of further massacres.
I never did find out what happened to Emmanuel and the other non-Hausa inmates of the asylum. Were they so marginal that they were ignored by the mobs that roamed the cities and towns searching for more victims? Was the asylum population immune from the madness that swept over the whole society, inoculated, as it were, by milder forms of insanity? Or did they too catch the fever of killing and hatred? That is something I will never know. But thinking back on my experience in the insane asylum, I continue to find useful and even inspiring lessons in Emmanuel’s example: He didn’t wait until his own problems were solved before he started helping his fellow man; he didn’t despair of achieving something, even when his tools and his freedom to act were severely limited; and in the process of helping others, he found help and solace for himself.

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