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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Anna Bouman (Founder, Tanka Tanka Foundation)

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After taking him to a hospital, one thing led to another and good Dutch woman ended up setting up the Tanka Tanka Foundation which built Tanka Tanka, the only psychiatric hospital in The Gambia. In this edition of Bantaba, I began by asking her how it all started.


Anna Bouman: The Tanka Tanka Foundation was not started because of [the] Campama [Mental Home]. I came here just like everyone else in January, 1996 for a 10-day vacation and we stayed at Senegambia Hotel. Then on a Sunday morning some man who was working with a machete in a tree and cut off his finger. Everybody was so afraid they did not do anything but I was trained. I took up the piece and put it in his mouth and then we went out to take a taxi to go to the closest health centre at Bakau. There was one man there to stitch the finger back again but there were no anaesthetics, no medicines and no gloves. Nothing was there. The wounded man squeezed my hand out of pain. That is why I decided to come back to The Gambia a couple of months later with my son. I brought gloves and other materials to donate to hospitals. I took many of them to Bakau Health Centre, Serekunda and Sukuta. Then after one year, I came across two big boxes of underwear and I took them to the prisons but they didn’t want them. Then I found out about Campama through the taxi driver. I went there and I knew I had my work cut out for me and I have not stopped since.

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What exactly did you see at Campama that moved you so much?

Many, many people. Almost no beds, broken mattresses and leaking roofs – it was a prison. There was nothing for them. The people who worked there were very committed but they couldn’t do anything. It was too distressing and depressing a building. So I decided to do something. After bringing beds and materials we started the Tanka Tanka Foundation. We decided to set up a new building and I sent a fax to President Jammeh on a Friday. I was very amazed when the president replied to me. I knew Sering Modou Njie who used to work at State House and he promised me the president would do something and it was true he did. He said in the fax that if I was ready to come back to The Gambia I should go to the State House together with the Minister of Lands and find a suitable place for the hospital. It took us almost five years to raise enough money for the building because to raise almost 500,000 Euros is not easy. We got a lot of help from Westland Cruisers who came with lots of cars and donated 17 cars to hospitals in the country to be used as ambulances. Mental problem is a big problem which can happen to anybody but like a broken arm, it can be cured. The president has awarded me [national honours] twice for my work for which I am very thankful. I am able to do my work the way we do because the president is always behind me.

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What services do you offer at the hospital?

We made a vegetable garden for the people. Tanka Tanka is a place where people with mental illness are welcomed. They go there and stay for a short while. We give them medicine to take and when we feel they are ready to go back to society we release them. We hope they don’t come back but most of the time they do. They go back to drugs because it is an addiction. The staff know very well how to deal with them and give them good advice. What is the most important thing is the knowledge so that people are not afraid of people with mental illness anymore. The biggest cause of mental illness here like   everywhere else, is the problem of drugs. Many young people think Cannabis sativa is something light but when you take it you can get psychosis. When you leave, it can go, but the damage remains and any time you go psychotic again the damage will be worse. That is a big problem.


Some people here blame mental health on fetisheurs and black magic instigated by jealousy or envy for whatever reason. Do you agree?

The reality is actually different. Depression caused by loss of a mother or child can cause mental illness in some cases. It takes time but it can be cured. Cocaine is very expensive and less dangerous because people hardly use it here but all the other drugs are very dangerous and can cause mental illness. Young people should avoid them. When people get old they sometimes also suffer from dementia. Some people also inherit the genes from their parents and it runs in some families.


Running a hospital for mentally ill people must be very challenging and not by any means inexpensive. How do you meet those challenges?

We are still under Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital. They pay the salaries of the staff. It is a really a big wish of mine that the mental health aspect of the hospital is on its two feet. You do not have health insurance here but in the future you will and I hope we can use that to pay the staff better. It is not easy to work in a mental hospital. It is not easy and they [the staff] have to travel to go there because it is not in the city which is really not easy. I hope that one day all the hospitals have mental health training for their staff. When people come to visit their relatives at Tanka Tanka, they only come to show love and do not bring food or other materials unlike other hospitals. So we have to do the washing and other things which is a challenge so we need a washing machine. Trust Bank gave us fantastic support that I hope many will follow because it is a safe place to be when you are ill.


But with the increasing number of people developing mental illnesses as a result of drugs and depression, do you have the capacity to take in all these people?

We have the capacity for hundred people. It is not like they stay there forever. You can have people for six weeks and when they get better you can release them.


What is the gender ratio of the people you take in?

There is of course more men than women. In fact, it is 80 percent men and the rest are women. The major cause of mental health problems for women is depression because it is not easy to be one of three or four women or lose your child. It is not easy to take care of everything. Women here do not have an easy life. I admire them very well because they work hard. I saw a woman coming from Africmed this morning crying and crying. Something serious must have happened. It is very depressing. In such circumstances if you do not have support at home you get depressed and it worsens till you have to go to the hospital. It is not an African disease or so. It is a universal human thing.


What future do you envisage for Tanka?

I am very old and I will not live forever. I hope one day there will be a rehab in the same area as Tanka Tanka. That is what I want to see running now but there is no money for it yet. Who is going to pay for the cost of building? There was a hotel on Banjul Highway Palm Grove hotel which I thought will make a fantastic rehab. Also in the prison you have people who do not belong there. They committed crimes because of something wrong in their heads.


Have you taken up that issue with the government?

Of course, they know. But they cannot also break iron with their hands. We are so dependent on money coming in so it is not easy. It is not only in The Gambia but the whole world is not easy. When we look fifty years back it was the same thing in Europe as it is here now. We are used to the stigma attached to mental health and we can handle it. But they deserve much better. The president helped to give us a plot of land in the first place .That shows he is really aware of a hospital for mental illnesses. And the minister we have now, Dr Omar Sey, is very good. He is very much aware of things and doing a good job.


Then you have to work with the government on that?

That is not my job to do. I can point out things but they can handle them perfectly well. That is not my job.


How could it not be your job?

No, no. Let me just come with the knowledge and leave the rest to them. They can handle it. That is what I promised to do. Edward Francis Small Teaching Hospital is helping a lot with the maintenance of the hospital. We have trained staff who have a bit of training in psychiatry.


You have been domiciled in The Gambia since 1996. What are your observations and impressions of the country?

It is really developed. It is going ndanka ndanka but it is doing well. I hope it does not stop with the cars and cell phones. It is more than that. There have been improvements of course .There is a university which was not here before. All the tourists that come here want to help the schools but most of the schools they help are in the rural areas.


Finally, what has been the enduring charm of The Gambia that has kept you here all these while?

It is what you are doing -smiling and being friendly. The people are very warm and welcoming. I hope that continues and I stay hooked. I am 73 and had a heart attack here last year but I didn’t know. I had an open heart surgery and heart by-pass. They told me I am living on a volcano but thank God I am still living. But when you get older you have all this rubbish. You are not there yet, but you will get there and you will know. [Laughs] I really pray for my health, for my sanity so that I can stay longer.


With Sainey Darboe


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