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Articles on political and social issues in Cameroon, Africa and the world as seen by Njei Moses Timah > Learning From a Mental Patient

17 Nov 2008



Our quest for material satisfaction ridiculed

In Cameroon like in most of Africa, some psychiatric patients usually roam the streets either naked or in rags. They lead the most rudimentary existence. They sleep on the bare floor by the street corner or on the corridors of abandoned structures. They are subjected to oscillating weather conditions. These people are visited by all types of parasites and disease seeding bugs. They mostly feed from the dustbins. Considering the relatively harsh economic conditions prevailing in most African countries, you can guess that nothing quite valuable makes its way into those dustbins.

A few days ago, as I was coming out of a popular bakery in Douala with some loaves of bread that I just bought for my children a young man in his thirties stretched his hand begging from me. I immediately thought that he was routinely begging for money-which is a common practice in big towns. I also noticed that he was unkempt and wearing torn clothes. I rightly guessed that he had a mental problem.

As I moved closer to him, I inquired whether he needed money or the bread I was carrying. He pointed to the shopping bag containing the bread. I opened the bag, took out a loaf of bread and gave him. He happily grabbed it and started moving away. A short distance down the road, a normal man teased him by begging for the bread I just gave him. Surprisingly, without any hesitation, the mental patient stopped and broke the bread into two to share with the man. The guy told him “no thanks”.

As I was driving home, I reflected on the behavior of this unfortunate sick man, especially his willingness to share his loaf of bread with another person. Here is someone who rarely comes across a fresh and clean loaf of bread. At the time I gave him the bread, he was obviously very hungry. Apart from the rags on his back and some worthless items he was carrying in a filthy cloth, this man obviously did not have any other material possessions. Regardless, he was ready to share what was obviously his most precious thing at that moment-the loaf of bread.

I also reflected on my own reaction when the man first approached me. In hindsight, I can conclude that in that particular incident, the mental patient was more socially sophisticated than me. I can remember that my initial reaction when he stretched his hand begging was to be a little bit hesitant. My initial ‘greedy feeling’ was that he was about to reduce the bread ration of my children. That is the typical reflection of majority of us. We are always thinking that we never have enough until we are reminded by someone like this mental patient that we actually have in excess. Try as we can, it seems that one of the most difficult things for us to do is to count our blessings. Materialism has apparently hijacked our sense of judgment and we have become hopelessly inefficient in defining the limits of our genuine needs.

I was in a position to buy hundreds of loaves of bread, yet I was surrendering one loaf to a needy person with hesitation. It was his willingness to share what he could not afford that reminded me that I have more than I really need.



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Njei Moses Timah