Tuesday last week was one of those days when the weight of a particular idea overpowers your will to move onto another. It was the idea of madness again!
Sometime in 2016, with a momentary curiosity about the intriguing subject of madness and in an effort to situate the state’s allegation on Stella Nyanzi, I attempted a cover-to-cover read of the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book - Madness and Civilisation.
My friend Moses Khisa had referred to it in his own analysis of the madness charge as a state tool for delegitimization. That’s how I found the urge to revisit it with new lenses.
Reluctantly, though, for it has often been a rough mental exercise reading Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Friedrich Hegel. I think some writers unnecessarily complicate philosophy; as such, alienating many from the vital discipline.
Oh, wandering is my weakness! Back to the book; somewhere along the way, I had gotten bored and abandoned it. But last week, I was at the book again. There are some friends I suspect to be mad, but I’m not sure if it’s not my own shortcomings, preferences, and experiences that inform my suspicion. ‘Normal’ is a highly relative and contingent concept. And it is often easily a tool for society’s dictatorship on the individual.
That is how it comes to be in some cases that, whereas psychiatric science may be agreed on certain states of mind as universal instances of madness, one society’s normal is another’s madness. Also, count the cases of geniuses that are counted as crazy because, with its cognitive limitations, the rest of society fails to understand their choices and behaviour that fall outside social norms and conventions.
This time round, having gotten historical insights into how societies construct what qualifies as reasonable and unreasonable, normal and abnormal, I put the book aside with a burning longing to talk to some of our ‘madmen’/ ‘madwomen’. I understood the risk, but could not resist the urge for another point of view.
I was chanced to meet him again around Lubaga, after his ‘performance’ at a car garage. It was my third time meeting the man that moves around with some huge thing that looks like the adungu musical instrument, but decorated to dysfunction with all sorts of metals and plastics, and sprayed into army-like camouflage, fetching it a weapon-like look.
It appeared rather heavy, but he ably carried it alongside other excessive paraphernalia he had covered his body with. And yes, it appeared he had had a long holiday away from a bath. Madness? Yes, I would label the behaviour without any hesitation.
I had yet again heard him introduce himself as a rapper and titling his ‘song’ as World War Three. I couldn’t make much from the rounds of rather spontaneous words, but there was some sense of rhythm whose sound I couldn’t hear.
As he walked away, pocketing his Shs 2,000 that was the show’s pay, I prompted him for a chat. ‘Oyagalaki ate, rasta? Oli wa popi, oba oyagala kulyawo buswazzi bwange bwenva okutala?’ (What do you want, rasta?
Are you a police officer or you want to steal my money I’ve just earned?) He retorted, as he visually inspected my appearance. At his request, I handed him my big bottle of water, and he downed it to half as we sat under a roadside tree to talk.
It was all in Luganda argot, with bits of English here and there. I told him I just wanted us to chat because I was amused by his ways and how he didn’t seem bothered by comments thrown at him by onlookers. I had to be careful not to overstretch my intrusion and nosiness.
“Oh, what do you find amusing about my ways? People say I have a short circuit in the head.” I tried not to laugh. But since he had also found it funny, I joined in. He continued: “I’m laughing because I find it interesting for mad people to think that I’m mad’.
Look, I am free! I do what I want without caring about mad people. I bathe when I want, eat what I want and talk when I want... I cut him short when I burst out laughing. I had recalled the crazy occasion when I was talking on phone while driving in slow traffic gridlock. I heard a voice from the car side in ‘northern accent’, “wewe, where is your driving permit?”
I fidgeted, quickly cooking up an excuse. Only to turn, and there was this dirty scarcely-teethed dreadlocked fellow in the window! Noticing my panic, he cackled out loud saying in English: “Look, I got this madman! He is scared”.
Well, wandering is my weakness. Back to our tree chat. In any case, he must have thought I was laughing in enjoyment of his ‘philosophy’ of freedom. So, he was encouraged to confide some more. You see, you people who think I am mad pay to see me sing. You who think you are sane find my appearance funny. Who is mad?”
He stood up, dipped his hand through the tins tied around his waist into his pocket. It came out with a doughnut, which he bit as he asked me: “Can you carry your food in the pocket like me? You are not free. You fear what people will think. You fear disease. I don’t remember the last time I was sick, yet I eat what I want, from wherever I want.”
“If you don’t comb, everyone will remind you to do so. I do not comb, and nobody cares, because they know I’m free to do what I want. You see? What some people call madness is liberation. I am liberated from society”.
Hmm! Sometimes we need a ‘madman’ to get us thinking about our sanity!
The author works with the Center for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University, Nkozi.