Monrovia - Elijah Rufus was 10 years old when a spiritual
healer in the Liberian capital Monrovia doused him with chicken's blood and
declared that his frequent convulsions were the result of demonic possession.
A doctor could have told the scared young boy he had
epilepsy, but instead he was subjected to years of spiritual healing, prolonged
prayer sessions and fasting as his health declined.
"Elijah was always falling over and often saliva would
spill out of his mouth. He was always convulsing," said his aunt Korpo
Moiseemah, recalling the onset of his symptoms in 2009.
Moiseemah recalled how she took Elijah, now 14, to a
traditional healer who killed a chicken and then spilled the blood in a bucket
of water and used it to bathe the boy, pronouncing that he was possessed by
The healer told her to buy him a goat to sacrifice and pay
$200 in cash.
"I bought the goat and presented it to him. He killed
it and used the blood to bathe Elijah like he did the first time when he killed
the chicken," Moiseemah told AFP.
"He gave [Elijah] a liquid concoction mixed with all
sorts of things for the boy to drink. With this blood sacrifice, he said Elijah
was freed. After using the blood for his ritual, he then cooked the goat and
As time went on, Elijah's condition deteriorated. A number
of other healers were consulted in the following years - always to no avail.
He went from one witch doctor to the other in his mother's
home county of Lofa, in northern Liberia, as well as Christian churches in
Monrovia, where he lives with his aunt.
Volunteers watched over him as he was forced into long
sessions of fasting and prayer for weeks at a time.
Elijah's story is all too common in deeply superstitious
Liberia, where epilepsy, a neurological condition which causes seizures, is
often perceived as the work of witchcraft or evil spirits.
The Carter Centre, a global human rights organisation, estimates
that less than 1% of Liberians have access to mental or neurological health
services, with most preferring to consult traditional healers.
The country of four million people has one practising
psychiatrist, University of Liberia professor Benjamin Harris; one dedicated
treatment centre; and fewer than 100 clinicians working in neurology and mental
"Many people here have a misunderstanding of what
seizure disorder or epilepsy is. People think that epilepsy is something that
has to do with witchcraft or possession by demons or some contagious
disease," Harris told AFP
"And so, initiatives for treatment are based on the
conceptual beliefs of these people."
Friends saw epilepsy as worse than being possessed
But epilepsy isn't the only mental health issue plaguing
Liberia, a country traumatised by a civil war spanning three decades which left
250 000 dead and many more psychologically damaged by the time a fragile peace
arrived in 2003.
The Carter Centre says around 40% of Liberians suffer from
depression while a similar number have post-traumatic stress disorders related
to atrocities perpetrated during the conflict.
Harris said he had carried out a study several years ago
revealing that 75% of people with mental health issues or neurological
conditions would go to a traditional healer.
"It is still happening. Lots of people still seek
traditional or religious interventions before going to hospital for a
check-up," he told AFP.
Harris said that while many Liberians practised psychiatry
abroad, few would give up lucrative careers overseas to return to Liberia, one
of the world's poorest countries where the average wage is less than $700 a
Lawmakers are considering legislation to promote the rights
of people with mental or neurological disorders, outlaw discrimination and
prevent thousands of treatable patients from falling through the net each year.
Elijah was one of Liberia's lucky few who eventually got
"When we finally took Elijah to a Chinese clinic in
town, he was diagnosed as having epilepsy and placed in treatment," his
The clinic, a practitioner of modern Western medicine,
prescribed him phenobarbital, a common anti-convulsive, and he quickly began to
Yet even after his diagnosis, Elijah was shocked to find he
was shunned by friends and neighbours who believed epilepsy was a far scarier
prospect than demonic possession.
"I still had a few friends coming around even when they
heard that I was possessed but soon those few friends stopped coming when they
heard I was diagnosed as being epileptic," he said.
"The general feeling was that they could come into
contact with the disease if they kept coming around me."
The Carter Centre says it is raising awareness of the causes
of neurological conditions in Liberia, attacking the stigma surrounding mental
health problems and helping the country to develop policies to combat
"The stigma against people with mental illness is high
in Liberia and all over the world," said Janice Cooper, the organisation's
mental health project leader in Liberia.
"We know that many people believe that mental illness
is a result of witchcraft or spoiled medicine or may be contagious. These are
all things that are misconceptions," she said.