Hawa’u’s Story: A Case of Mental Health

Sonya and I met Hawa’u (you say it pretty much like Hawaii, only with a ‘u’ at the end) when we made our tour of F*lbe communities back in December, 2017. We were getting a general picture of the communities and trying to assess basic needs. We saw several people who were ill in one way or another, and most we were able to help with very basic medicines (Sonya is a Mom, after all) or to provide the means for them to get to the nearest hospital, about an hour away.

Hawa’u, however, was a different case altogether. She was not ill in a physical senseof the term. Physically she was functioning, but her behaviour for the past year or so, we were told, had been very strange. When we saw her, her hair was not plaited (very odd for any Fulbe woman over here), her face was dark and dirty, her clothes were slightly dishevelled, and she had a wild-eyed look on her face, that went with a wicked-looking and scary kind of smile.

While we were visiting with her family she was relatively calm, and seemed to like the attention she was receiving, but when we went to leave she decided she would follow us out the door, and she was soon running out of control. At the end of that episode she was rolling in the dust and dirt, trying to escape her would-be captors. It was heart-breaking, and the image stayed with me.

All the rest of that month, and into January, I was praying/thinking about Hawa’u, saying something like, “O Lord, what in the world are we going to do? How can we help this girl?” I really had no idea what was wrong or how to help, but I kept on praying that an answer would come.

Finally, in January we were to go on a ‘mandatory retreat’ in Bamenda to meet with other missionaries there. (I put it in quotations like that because at the time I was chafing at the bit – being made to go on a ‘retreat’ when we had only just arrived!). Down in Bamenda we met lots of great folks, but Hawa’u would not leave my mind, and I kept pestering God about her. Then one afternoon, during one of the sessions, one young woman named Mary stood up and let the rest of us know that she and her husband were both doctors specializing in mental health and BOOM – I knew I had my answer.

Later that afternoon I introduced myself to her husband, Dr. Bryan, and explained the situation to him. He was interested and compassionate, but the timing of my next trip up north was a little too quick for him to accompany us (I was leaving the next week). He did say he might be able to diagnose the girl over the phone, if we were able to talk to the family there, so I latched onto that.

Our friend Suleymanu and I drove the two-day, 15-hour journey to Hawa’u’s village the next week, and we met with Hawa’u and her family once again. This time she was morose and mostly unresponsive, and the family looked almost as depressed! With her mother and father, we reached Dr. Bryan on the phone, and he began asking them questions about their daughter’s behaviour: he would ask me, I would ask Suleymanu, Suleymanu would ask them, and then back up the train again.

Given that this was way out in the bush, where Hawa’u would not be receiving any other medical attention, this was excellent treatment for her, and we got a good, comprehensive picture of her condition. From the information gathered, Dr. Bryan was able to give a diagnosis and (after ascertaining that the family could afford and sustain them) prescribe medication for her.

So far so good, but getting mental health medicine turned out to be not the easiest thing. They were not available at the nearest government hospital, nor at the pharmacies where it was. Back in Banyo, however, our CBC hospital proved to have what was needed, so Suleymanu and I, with the help of the mission doctor there, managed to buy the meds and send them off with a taxi driver (7 hours drive away at this point). Then we prayed and waited.

The drugs would take about two months to show a difference, we had been told, so the next couple of months were really a case of “Be still and know that I am Lord” trusting that God knew what he was doing when he put us in contact with Drs. Bryan and Mary.

I am not the most patient type, so after a while I would pester Suleymanu to call up and see how Hawa’u was doing, and eventually we were told that she was talking to people, she was happy and peaceful, and doing the things she and they wanted her to do (it used to be, for instance, that in the morning they would send her to fetch water, and she would spend the whole of day down by the river).

I could hardly believe it, and was counting the days until we could go up and see her again. This time, though, we wanted to go one better and actually take Dr. Bryan with us. He also was wanting to go, since he was anxious to see his patient in person, and see how she was doing.

So – to make a long story a little bit shorter – we arranged to travel north during our semester break. Dr. Bryan’s hospital allowed him to take the time off (not an easy thing), and we made a very quick trip (3 days’ travel, with 1 full day in the village) up.

The doctor was making his rounds with Suleymanu, seeing a lot of people with what might be called general health issues (saving one man’s life in the process, but that is another story). At one point I lost them, and decided to go to Hawa’u’s compound and wait for them there. I was welcomed in and sat chatting with four women there (my Fulfulde is not real great, but it is enough to do that so far). While I was sitting there I took a closer look at the young woman sitting near the door – she looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure.

“Are you Hawa’u?” I asked her. She smiled and nodded. I could hardly believe my eyes. Her hair was plaited and covered, her face was clean and shiny, she was well-dressed, had a nice (not scary) big smile on her face, and just looked like a bright, happy 15-year old. The change was truly incredible, and I praised God for the difference.

Given the culture and context, I am told that a very specific diagnosis is not easy to come by, but Hawa’u’ condition places her on the schizophrenia spectrum. When the doctor came he began to talk with her, and she responded shyly but fully rationally. As far as I could tell, the change was complete.

But the story is not quite over . . .

Later that afternoon we saw another young woman, 23 years old this time, who was in much the same condition Hawa’u had been in. Two years before Salamatu had begun shouting at the things and people around, and one year after that she stopped talking altogether. She had been mute all that time and now we were sitting before her. This time Dr. Bryan could cut out one of the middle-men (me), and ask his questions to the family personally. They did not think Salamatu would take oral drugs, so he injected her with a medication (please know that though I am not reporting it here, he gave advice concerning possible side effects, and all the other things a responsible doctor will do), telling them it would take three days to see any change in her.

The three days were hardest on me, as we had to travel down south the next day, and I was on pins and needles waiting. I will not delay you now though – the folks up there tell us she is now talking, taking care of her children and herself, doing all the things she might normally do, and is very happy with the changes she is experiencing. They are calling it a miracle, and, knowing the various ways that God is able to work, I agree with them.

Since then I have talked to friends in Nigeria who tell me there are more cases like Hawa’u’s and Salamatu’s over there, so I am hopeful we will be able to do some good there as well as time permits and God wills. Dr. Bryan was not able to immediately help everyone he saw, but he certainly helped these two young women – blessing them, their families, and their communities, and I am praying he and his wife will be able and willing to continue the work. Please join me.


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