Let He Who Is Without Sin…
March 6, 2013
This afternoon, my sitemate Jamie and I were walking to the market to get some snacks when we came across a mob of elementary school students running away from the elementary school and towards us. As we got closer, they stopped running, and began running back to the school. They all seemed fixated on something at the school, and as we got closer, I noticed they were all staring at a man standing under a tree. The kids were yelling and throwing rocks at him, and he was screaming and throwing rocks back.
I suddenly understood what was happening. Jamie had told me there was a mentally ill man whom a lot of kids in town like throwing rocks at, because he loses his temper and throws rocks back. It’s like a game to the kids: they get close to throw rocks, then run away as he throws them back. Then the process gets repeated. They get a huge kick out of him losing his temper, so they intentionally provoke him. I had already stopped the kids once before, at Jamie’s school. I yelled at the kids and told them that it’s not funny to throw rocks at the mentally ill, and they stopped. That time, anyway. I also tried telling the man that he shouldn’t throw rocks back, but I don’t think he was paying any attention to me.
While mental illness is misunderstood in the States, the misconceptions here in Mozambique are so ridiculous it’s almost comical. There just aren’t any resources to help the mentally ill in my town, so they are left to wander the streets and are either laughed at or completely ignored. When I’ve asked coworkers about the mentally ill people in town, they always claim drug use caused them to get sick. What kind of drug is never specified, just “drugs” in general. People are receptive when I tell them that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, but that’s not common knowledge here.
In the case of this man who throws rocks, all the children I stopped and talked to claim that he’s a “bandit” and a bad person. But as far as I could tell, he only throws rocks in self-defense. I have seen him and talked to him in the market when he wasn’t feeling persecuted, and he seemed very friendly. The logic that a lot of Mozambicans apply to the mentally ill seems to be the same logic that is applied to dogs: They are bad because they hurt you, so we should hurt them back. Dogs are routinely abused: children and adults alike kick them, throw rocks at them, and so forth. The dogs get angry and threaten them, which reinforces the abuse even more. Most people seem oblivious to the vicious cycle that arises when they abuse a mentally ill person or a dog.
So today, I watched these small school kids throwing rocks at this mentally ill man, and the man flying into a rage and arming himself with his own rocks. There were dozens of children, maybe even more than a hundred, and I knew I had to say something, even if it didn’t work. So I began yelling at everyone present that the man was sick and that it’s not nice to be mean to sick people. Yes, he throws rocks, but only because you throw rocks at him. Leave him alone and he’ll leave you alone. However, the hooting and hollering and rock throwing continued, so I decided to talk to the man. As I got closer to him, kids began warning me that he was dangerous and that I shouldn’t get near him. When I was only a few feet away, he began biting his own arm in a fit of rage. I decided to try an approach I sometimes used with some of the clients at the mental health clinic I used to work at. I put on a sad face and told him his actions were making me very upset, and asked him if he would please stop. He seemed to calm down a little bit, and stopped biting himself. He put down the rock he was holding in his other hand, but a few seconds later a rock was thrown by one of the bystanders and the man flew into a rage again.
I decided to try to find some schoolteachers to help. Jamie and I were at the elementary school, yet no teachers could be found. We walked over to a classroom to find a room full of children armed with rocks, but no adults. We asked where the teachers were.
“They left,” was the only response we received.
I told the kids not to throw rocks, and they denied that they had been throwing rocks, and that it was “some other kids who already left”. I told them and another group of kids that were outside the classroom to gather round and explained what a mental illness is and how most mentally ill people are only aggressive if you are aggressive to them. I told them to leave the man alone; he woudn’t throw rocks at them if they didn’t throw them at him. After that, Jamie stayed with the kids while I went back to the man to try to talk to him again. I told him that the kids wouldn’t stop throwing rocks, so he should just try to go somewhere else. He wasn’t listening to me, so I got closer; he suddenly threatened to throw a rock at me, yelling at me to stay away. I guess this was the point where the children would retaliate, but having worked with schizophrenic clients who would sometimes threaten me with violence, I knew it was best to be kind, yet firm and direct. I told him that I wouldn’t get any closer, but that it would be best if he left the school. He stopped viewing me as a threat and refocused on the mob of people taunting him.
Feeling unable to do anything else, I walked back over to Jamie. She told me that after I had left, one of the kids tried to get closer to throw a rock, but was reprimanded by one of the kids who had heard me explain about mental illness. Jamie felt that there was nothing we could do to stop the mob, but that we could talk to small groups and try to persuade them to persuade the others to stop. So I spent a few more minutes talking to a handful of kids. Some of them seemed to listen, but others definitely did not. Eventually I moved on.
I know that that man will continue to get rocks thrown at him wherever he goes, just because people think it’s funny that he feels the need to defend himself. It was fortunate that today no one seemed to get hurt, but who knows what will happen in the future? One of my orgs has a kid’s club that sometimes meets on Fridays, so after this incident I asked my supervisor if I could talk about mental illnesses at the next meeting. I may not be able to provide the resources that the mentally ill of Mecanhelas require, but I can try to change people’s attitudes, little by little.