The conversation about mental health that shook us up at Ake Festival


This year, the 4th Ake Arts and Book Festival, set out to address the issues that affect us beyond the skin. The art exhibitions by Ayobola Kekere-Ekun and Fati Abubakar; the selection of books on focus this year and importantly the conversations were all curated with a view to exploring as many issues that affect us ‘Beneath this Skin’.

There were book chats -at least two every day of the festival – conversations, panel discussions, a feedback session with the director of this year’s film showcase, Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy and finally, to wrap things up, an interview with the great literary icon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o where he thrilled us with laughs while reiterating his position on the need for African literature to be dominated by African languages.

img_7993-2The goal this year, it appears, was for us Africans to discuss the issues that truly affect us as a people -both local and those in the diaspora. Kicking right into the meat of it, Dami Ajayi, the medical doctor and poet moderated a session on ‘Exploring Mental Health in African Writing’ with Adebola Rayo and Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, author of Memories We Lost, the 2016 Caine Prize winner as panelists. The panel discussed the issues of secretiveness we attach to discussing mental issues as well as the spiritual connotations that overshadow our understanding of the various layers of mental wellbeing. We discussed stereotypes and stigmas such as the “the left” in Nigeria.

Going even deeper into the subject, the panel discussed the often blurred intersections between the misunderstood leanings of creatives and mental instability.  It’s not unlikely to associate a creative person’s need for personal space and sometimes quirky behavior with some mental instability or vice versa.

Finally, a question from the audience confirmed how much the topic resonates. It was an observation about how women are under more pressure than men to keep issues of mental health under wraps. It turns out men have a lesser chance of being mentally ill than women in Nigeria as a result of societal pressures yet the latter are under even more pressure to keep their issues under wraps.

In writing about mental health, Rayo defies societal scorn and the disdain with which many of us will approach any piece of writing that comes from a troubled mind on her blog: Fragments of a Flawed Soul. On his own part, Lidudumalingani’s prize winning story Memories We Lost details the lives of two sisters: the one emotionally charged who acts as the protector of the other whose mental illness causes a consternation in a South African village. His story explores how South African (as is the case in many African countries too) use traditional means to tackle mental health problems -even when they are as dire as schizophrenia.

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