4 Jun 2014

Somalia mental health: one story of hope

Last year, we filmed with Abdullahi, a mentally ill Somali man who had been in chains or 17 years. But one mental health nurse has changed his life forever.

In August last year, Channel 4 News filmed with Abdullahi – a mentally ill Somali man. He was chained for 17 years in his tin hut, like an animal, 24 hours a day.

His family kept him locked up saying he was a danger to himself and to others. He was unwashed, ignored and isolated. Abdullahi’s case is not unusual. In Somalia, there is little understanding or treatment of mental health illness. Men like Abdullahi are the forgotten people of Somalia – known simply as ninka waalan or “the mad man”.

He used to spend most of his days watching the world moving before him – placing his chest on a cemented floor, his elbows supporting his hands under his chin.

But after 17 years as a chained man, Maryan Hassan, a mental health nurse, came to his rescue.

She removed the shackles of his life and gave him a life full of hope. She took him to a clinic where she works. He has been there for the past eight months.

That’s the end of the chain – you won’t be chained ever again. Maryan Hassan, a mental health nurse

With the treatment he received at the clinic, Abdullahi’s life is transformed. He is a healthy man.

We went back to film with Abdullahi on the day he was being discharged from the clinic.

“Abdullahi, you are leaving this morning; you are going home,” said Maryan, giving him the news. “That’s the end of chain – you won’t be chained ever again.”

Maryan reassured him that life as a chained man was now behind him.

Before he left, he went around wishing his friends luck, but Maryan quickly reminded him that she was keen to move on – to take him to his family.

“Let’s go, Abdullahi,” said Maryan, as she smiled.

Watch below: Jamal Osman’s film with Abdullahi from 2013.

Returning home

Although some of his friends were sad to see him go, Abdullahi was excited to begin a new chapter in his life as a free man. He quickly got into the car waiting outside for the short drive through the city.

But as he got closer to home, Abdullahi became anxious – not sure what to expect. Perhaps eight months was not long enough to forget the ordeal he went through at his family home over the years.

The tin hut, where he spent many years of his life, is still there – a reminder that he could be chained again. But on arrival at the family home, Abdullahi walked away from his past. His old roommates, goats, were all on their own.

His father Yusuf Jama received him, keen to know Abdullahi’s experience.

“How was the place?” he asked.

“It was a good place,” said Abdullahi, putting his dad at ease.

Expressing his admiration, Mr Jama told his son: “It has done you good. You look well.”

However, the children of the family were nervous about Abdullahi’s return. His niece and nephew have always been warned to stay away from him. And they are too young to see the changes in their uncle’s condition. Abdullahi knows it will take them time to feel safe.

For the first time in many years, his family welcomed him inside – into the living room – a place he was forbidden from entering.

“So you are home now. What are your plans, Abdullahi?” asked Maryan.

“I just want to be part of society. I don’t have any other plans at the moment,” he replied.

Overcoming the stigma

It may sound simple, but Abdullahi knows he faces huge challenges in overcoming the stigma he would face in his daily life.

Maryan left Abdullahi with his family: “Uncle Yusuf, here is Abdullahi. He’s well but we are not going to leave him. We will continue monitoring his progress.”

Maryan waved as she got into her car, saying to Abdullahi: “Stay well.” She has been kind to him and in fact saved him from a life of waiting for death chained in a tin hut.

With Maryan gone, his dad tried to reassure him that things have changed. “You are not going back in there,” he promised.

But the presence of the tin hut was clearly bothering Abdullahi.

Later that afternoon, his mother came back from work. He’s very close to his mum, Nimo Geelle. She used to visit him every Thursday at the clinic.

“I haven’t missed a single visit,” she said. “He’s good now. We pray to God to improve his health. The goats have his room now. It’s their shelter.”

Abdullahi is no longer isolated. The children were starting to relax around him. And he is able to chat over a simple cup of tea. Abdullahi is now a member of the family: a son, a brother, an uncle.

But will society accept him? He will always be called: ninka waalan – “the mad man”.