My Brother’s Journey: From Genius To Simpleton by Marie Abanga is a moving tribute to her younger brother Gabriel, whose life was taken away far too soon by mental illness. It includes not only Marie’s words, but also the words of others who knew and loved her brother.
In the book she shares what a kind person he was with great personal and academic promise until illness entered his life and irreversibly changed him. The “simpleton” reference in the title reflects the challenges he had with performing basic tasks towards the end of his life. The book includes letters he had written, which showed a clear decline given that he had previously done very well in school.
He was diagnosed with epilepsy while he was still in school, and had multiple hospitalizations. He was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. He moved to Germany to further his studies, but ended up being deported because his illness was uncontrolled. Marie shares how difficult it was when he returned home to Cameroon; it was difficult to tell which parts of what he was saying were real and which were not, and she described him as resembling a ghost.
He later was able to get a visa to move to the United States. At the time, it was thought that it would be the best thing for his health, and perhaps the “black magic” that affected him might not be able to cross the ocean. However, his health further deteriorated there. Marie describes the numerous challenges in trying to get adequate care for him, made even more difficult by the fact that his immediate family was back in Cameroon, and Marie was unable to get a visa to go to the U.S.
When the family were informed that Gabriel had died, the cause was unknown. Marie is openly critical of the health care system that let him down. In particular she condemns the institution where he was held after an altercation with police. She shares a letter her mother had written to the institution asking that his medical needs be addressed, but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Marie writes about the stigma around mental illness in Africa, where the subject is considered taboo. Those who are ill may be shunned by their families and rejected by their communities, and may be talked of as being wicked, bewitched, or possessed.
What really stood out for me was the prevailing attitudes in Cameroon regarding mental illness. I’ve heard that ideas such as black magic exist, but this book really brought it to life. It’s also interesting that he seemed to do the best when he was in Cameroon, and worse when he was in countries with supposedly more advanced health care systems. This is a sad story of a very promising young man who fell through the cracks – the very wide cracks – in the health care system.
You can find Marie on Marie Abanga’s Blog.
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