French King Charles Vl (1368-1422) was a madman with an affliction that was quite widespread in his time. He believed, as did quite a number of other people, that he was made of … glass! This mental state caused him to avoid any physical touch, and his courtiers had to keep their distance lest they cause royal shattering.
It seems the illness afflicted men of high social standing, such as poets, philosophers and artists, who were comparatively sophisticated and were “in” with advances in science and innovation. Glass was then new and mystical, it being incomprehensible to the medieval mind that such a base substance as sand could be so magically manipulated to produce such a thing of wonderment.
Now, it would have been okay for Charles to enjoy his glass delusion privately, as this would not have harmed anyone. His family and close friends alone would have had to make the appropriate accommodation and protocols to follow when approaching him.
But, alas, this was a king and as such had to attend to matters of state, and there are records that his mental infirmity did cause harm to many people. His whimsical disposition meant that he put many of his knights to death at the slightest provocation.
That was a long time ago. Since then, the world has been ruled over by madmen, and recent history has recorded their mischief to the present day, although often their actions are surrounded with divergent interpretations that too often take on political and ideological connotations.
However, one thing that comes to mind every time I consider individuals or groups of individuals who have been put in positions of responsibility over other people is their state of mental wellbeing. How do we assess the mental and psychological balance of the people we place in authority and who make decisions which govern us and direct our future?
I sometimes feel like we spend far more time selecting the sheep to slaughter for tomorrow’s feast than we spend choosing those who govern our lives.
This lackadaisical attitude percolates in so many areas. It manifests in many areas, big and small. For instance, look at the area of mass transportation, where fleets of buses carrying hundreds of people are entrusted to “drivers” whose state of mind we have no inkling about and whose rest the night before we have no interest in knowing.
The driver could have spent the whole night drinking before sitting behind the wheel to drive 80 people for 600 kilometres without a stop. What we get is what we term “accidents,” but these incidents we have almost surely planned.
Take another area. In many cities and towns throughout our region, we have all adopted the institution of the “house-girl,” the domestic help we collect from the rural areas, barely having cleared primary school, and put them in charge of our children at home as we go off to join the rat race “to make it” somewhere else.
Often, these ayahs are poorly remunerated and could spend months unpaid because their wages are being “borrowed” by the parents without the girls’ permission. And there are other forms of abuse into the bargain.
Little do we seem to realise that these girls, in fact, form the foundation blocks of our basic education as the teachers of just so many of our children. Had we understood this crucial fact, then we would have paid more attention to their education, training and remuneration, turning their occupation into a cadre of public service providers worth of respect.
And, of course, that begs the question of the other teachers, those in the formal education system, at primary and secondary levels, the backbone of our school system.
Back in the day, the primary school teacher was the cornerstone around whom everything in the village or small town revolved. He was, of course, the teacher of the little learners; he was the adviser on health issues if the children or their parents fell ill; he was at hand to offer advice on agriculture when needed. He enjoyed prestige and respect, and was looked up to as a role model.
One could feel that the morale of the teacher was enhanced, and that gave him or her the strength to carry on, even when dealing with “difficult” children.
Not only have we now devalued our teachers by not remunerating them as they should be — which is important —but we also have relegated them in our estimation. Psychologically they do not find satisfaction in their work, whose heavy load has, for all that, not been lightened.
All these categories of people in the public service are groups whose importance is immense, though we tend to ignore them. They have the ability to affect us in so many different ways, but we do not seem to mind.
Taking care of them is necessary, both in their material needs such as living conditions, remuneration and other needs, but all that must go hand-in-hand with caring for their psychological and spiritual wellbeing.
This is an area that has not been dealt with in any serous way by many African societies in which mental health issues do not occupy our conversations, though we witness people unravelling before our very eyes without knowing how to help.