Investigating “Mass Hysteria” in Early Postcolonial Uganda: Benjamin H. Kagwa, East African Psychiatry, and the Gisu

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Abstract

In the early 1960s, medical officers and administrators began to receive reports of what was being described as “mass madness” and “mass hysteria” in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Uganda. Each epidemic reportedly affected between three hundred and six hundred people and, coming in the wake of independence from colonial rule, caused considerable concern. One of the practitioners sent to investigate was Benjamin H. Kagwa, a Ugandan-born psychiatrist whose report represents the first investigation by an African psychiatrist in East Africa. This article uses Kagwa's investigation to explore some of the difficulties facing East Africa's first generation of psychiatrists as they took over responsibility for psychiatry. During this period, psychiatrists worked in an intellectual climate that was both attempting to deal with the legacy of colonial racism, and which placed faith in African psychiatrists to reveal more culturally sensitive insights into African psychopathology. The epidemics were the first major challenge for psychiatrists such as Kagwa precisely because they appeared to confirm what colonial psychiatrists had been warning for years—that westernization would eventually result in mass mental instability. As this article argues, however, Kagwa was never fully able to free himself from the practices and assumptions that had pervaded his discipline under colonial rule. His analysis of the epidemics as a “mental conflict” fit into a much longer tradition of psychiatry in East Africa, and stood starkly against the explanations of the local community.

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