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Kenya's disabled given voice

By David McKenzie, CNN
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Slide show: Locked up in a Kenyan slum
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CNN's "Locked up and Forgotten" threw a light on the lives of Kenya's disabled
  • One columnist who said Kenya has other urgent problems to deal with had support
  • But many Kenyans wree shocked by the report and are demanding action
  • CNN correspondent: We did the story for the families who never seem to get a break

Editor's Note: In the documentary "Locked up and Forgotten" CNN's David McKenzie exposed the plight of Kenyan mental health patients. It sparked debate in newspapers, on the radio and online and not all were sympathetic. Here he explains the mixed reactions -- sometimes touching, sometimes dismissive -- and how this taboo is now in the spotlight.

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN) -- Why tell a story like "Locked up and Forgotten," our investigation into Kenya's decaying mental health system?

It's not a 'sexy' subject. There are no dropping bombs, fleeing dictators, or strutting celebrities.

And it is not generally a subject people want to talk about at all, let alone watch. Mental illness and disabilities can make people uncomfortable across the world.

Put it this way, you wouldn't hesitate to tell your colleagues you are going to the doctor, would you? But would you blurt out: "Hey, I am off to the psychiatrist -- I think I have a mental illness!""

Psychiatrists will tell you that many mental health issues are as 'medical' as, say, smacking your knee on the corner of the bed or getting a headache. But that is just not the way many societies views it.

And often Kenya it is no different.

"We have many urgent things to worry about and who lost their marbles is not one of them," wrote Edward Indakwa, a columnist for the popular Daily Standard, referring to the documentary.

He entitled his column: "Lock away and forget."

Joseph's grim story
Mental health patients locked away
CNN crew locked in hospital by medics
Gallery: Locked up and forgotten
RELATED TOPICS
  • Kenya
  • Mental Health

At first, Facebook comments weren't far off. "Why are they always looking 4 negative stories from Africa," wrote Emily. "Don't they have problems in their own country?"

"This is a denting image to this our country!" exclaimed Hansam.

So why bother? We did this story for families like Eudias and Kennedy Wambui -- to show how Eudias struggles alone to help Kennedy, who has cerebral palsy.

Read how Kennedy's mother struggles to cope

We did it for the tens of thousands of families who never seem to get a break. We did it for the patients in Mathari -- for the men who rushed to the fence of Ward 9, their fingers grasping through the wire, desperately wanting to tell their stories.

"They give me so many drugs, that I crash like a Pentium 1," one patient told me through that fence.

We did it to expose hard truths about a hospital nobody in Kenya wants to visit -- even if it meant getting locked up ourselves.

As the documentary started airing, even before, the debate online changed.

"What priorities does the government have when health care privileges are severely neglected,' wrote Grace on Facebook.

"I am so infuriated to imagine that this happens to poor sick people," wrote Linda.

Jamie asked: "What is the government doing." "Hope things are going to change," added Josphat. And Kevin said: "Let the truth be told Kenyans."

Rights groups accuse Kenya

On Tuesday, I went into the studio of Kiss 100, a popular radio station in Kenya. Each morning Caroline Mutoko, Larry Asego, and Jalang'o keep Kenyans stuck in traffic entertained on their wildly popular breakfast show. They also often take on tough issues.

We talked about the things that Kenyans don't normally like to talk about. About the children locked away, the families struggling to survive, and the NGO's trying to help.

The response was huge.

Asego probably put it best: "You know, I told my online followers that we would talk about this. Immediately someone wrote, "Why is McKenzie doing this bad story?" Then someone responded "It is the truth, right?" A serious debate on the issues followed." International organizations, local rights groups, and ordinary citizens are demanding that things change. And the government is taking notice.

Ordinary people are also trying to help. The Kenyan Society of Mentally Handicapped has been flooded with e-mails. It admits the problem is so huge that far more resources are needed. Scores of people have asked me how Eudias and Kennedy is doing.

Eudias came into our bureau Wednesday. She told us that after our first visit, a well-known neurologist at a private hospital in Nairobi has agreed to see Kennedy. "Kennedy is progressing well," she told us. "The doctor says the medicine might be able to help him to calm down. He has given him three different medicines to take."

But after years of medical neglect, it is going to be difficult to help Kennedy. But that doesn't stop her from trying.

Why did we tell this story?

Because people like Eudias and Kennedy exist; their story should be told. And talked about.

 
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