I remember going to primary school with a girl named Lydia. She was light in complexion, so light it made her stand out. There were many rumors about Lydia, strange stories about her were whispered by students and occasionally even by the teachers. It was said that she was possessed by evil spirits, some said she was a witch. Her complexion gave value to these rumours, in some local cultures being light skinned is associated with being a witch.
Lydia did not have many friends if any at all, outside the classroom she would always be alone and lonely. As if that was not enough she was an obvious target for bullies who would taunt her and call her names, occasionally being shoved to the ground or worse. People were afraid of her, they even hated her, but looking back I can only imagine what she felt.
Occasionally we would get a reminder of how the rumours about Lydia had started. Once or twice a week, usually in class, she would fall off her chair and start having repeated jerky movements of the arms and legs while frothing at the mouth. It was scary and everyone would move as far away from her as possible, even the teacher.
As time passed she became absent from school on most days, the taunting and bullying did not stop, but it never stopped her from coming back. Maybe her parents forced her to, but I would like to believe that she was strong and determined. One day, after she had been absent for a few weeks, the school headmaster announced during assembly that she had died. Even after her death stories were still told about her ghost haunting the school. She was misunderstood both in her short difficult life and in death.
Years later I got to understand that Lydia was epileptic, I don’t know if she was being treated or not, but looking back I know that her condition was poorly controlled. I don’t even know if she knew she was epileptic or she believed she was a witch, or cursed or possessed. Whenever I think of her I cannot help but feel ashamed of myself and humanity. How an innocent child was tortured for her whole life. Even those who felt sorry for her like myself cannot truly be blameless. We could have said ‘hi’, maybe asked her how she felt or even walked with her on the way home, the little things that humans are supposed to do for each other.
What hurts me most today as a medical doctor is that I still see the ignorance people have where mental health is concerned. And that ignorance comes with stigma. It is sad to imagine that out there another child is going through what Lydia went through twenty years ago. When will people learn, whose responsibility is it to teach them and whose responsibility is it to protect the victims
Dr Tendai (MBChB)
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