I thought moving to Ghana would improve my appearance. I imagined closer proximity to the sun kissing my honey-brown face with kindness, bringing out the natural coppery tones of my fiery complexion, dulled to a pasty, doughy-yellow from too many years of living in England where the sun never shines.
I saw myself moving among the beautiful coal-skinned blackness of Ghanaians virtually unnoticed. But after only a week in the bright and stifling glow, the heat had not been kind. My face had become drawn and ashy. My eyes, those windows to the soul, sunken like dried craters, where less than seven days before, a more fleshy youthful skin shone out to greet the world in colder climes. And these eyes, my dear departed mother’s orbs, have always had a tendency to attract the passing glare of others. But now when men and women looked, they recoiled in momentary horror—for they knew not what sickness they may have seen there, lurking between the blink of an eye.
At first, I blamed it on the sun. Landing at Katoka International Airport has always had the effect of stepping inside a giant conventional oven. That feeling of being enveloped by intense dry heat, sucking out every morsel of the body’s moisture. But this time around, I had come prepared. To compensate for the roasting effect of living in a virtual furnace, I had drank more water in one week than I had consumed over a three-month period in England. For once, my body was fully hydrated, my liver never felt so healthy, and there was very little chance that my skin was somehow drying out from a lack of fluids or any overexposure to the sun. Some other explanation had to be found for my increasingly gaunt look, and this general sense of unease I felt.
I told myself it was the new job. This new country; the new environment; and these totally new experiences daily. New languages all around me. New colleagues to get used to in a completely new industry, where I was the new boy in town. No wonder I was feeling anxious, jumpy, and generally on edge. But this anxiety, I told myself, it too would pass soon enough, given time.
Yet the more I tried to console myself with soothing thoughts of recovery, was the more my nerves took flight. I wasn’t just feeling jumpy anymore. I was feeling progressively out of sync with every passing day. Was I having a nervous breakdown? Was I in the throes of a burnout brought on by too much stress? Lord knows, I was no stranger to psychiatric disorders, having had to section my mother and watch my sister, and a former partner of mine, go through years of mental health hell. Once you’ve seen mental disorders showing up in your family, you can’t help but wonder whether insanity might be a heredity condition that could some day blight your own mental wellbeing. Up until now, my theory on the subject had always been, “If you can cope with all the madness you’ve seen in your life, and still keep your sanity, Paul, then I don’t think you’re fit for the Loony Bin or have anything to worry about, mate.” But I was rapidly beginning to doubt my own thoughts.
Quite apart from living the expat life, suddenly transplanted to a foreign country where everything was new, what else was I doing differently? Had anything else changed in my life in these past few weeks? These were questions I began to ask myself, and that’s when the penny dropped. My doctor had been very specific, “You must take one of these once a week beginning at least one week before travel and for every week you’re abroad,” she had said. And I remember thinking then, but that could be for a very long time, and become a hugely expensive habit. “Can’t I acclimatise over time?” “Do you want to get malaria?” she had fired back, adding that “Lariam is the best on the market,” as she scribbled off a three-month prescription that would cost me a small fortune at the chemist.
It should have occurred to me earlier. Wasn’t I the one who had persuaded my mother that if the pills are doing you more harm than good, you should stop taking them immediately? Poor dear was locked up in Guy’s Hospital for months, being over medicated and dribbling like a fool, unable to hold a coherent sentence or speak to anyone with her tongue heavy and twisted in her mouth. Years later, she would credit me for handing out advice that saved her life, but I could never escape the personal guilt of having signed the document that had put her there in the first place.Now here I was, suspecting a daily dose of antimalarial tablets for my own sudden burst of anxiety, and a new unwillingness to meet people’s gaze. Come to think of it–hadn’t I read somewhere once that mefloquine hydrochloride, more commonly called Lariam, is known to cause depression? It would be just my luck to be that “one-in-a-million” for whom this commonly prescribed antimalarial pill has a severe adverse side effect.
On 7th March 2011, three weeks after I’d started taking mefloquine hydrochloride, I decided to go Bushman style. Just over a week after I’d stopped taking mefloquine hydrochloride (aka Lariam), my anxiety issues vanished. I’ve been living in Ghana for nearly four years and have had malaria twice. When I was a boy, I would watch mosquitoes land on my skin, sucking up as much of my blood as they could fill, before I’d slap them dead with a childhood vengeance. My childish game has left me with no immunity to the deadly diseases mosquitoes spread, but malaria is still curable last time I checked, and prevention isn’t always better than cure.
As of 29 July 2013, here’s what the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is advising the public about strengthened and updated warnings about neurologic and psychiatric side effects associated with the antimalarial drug mefloquine hydrochloride.
The neurologic side effects can include dizziness, loss of balance, or ringing in the ears. The psychiatric side effects may include anxiety, paranoia, depression, agitation, restlessness, mood changes, panic attacks, forgetfulness, hallucinations, aggression, and psychotic behaviour.
These side effects can occur at any time during drug use, and can last for months to years after the drug is stopped or can even be permanent. See the Drug Safety Communication for more information, including a data summary.
As a “Big Man” in Ghanaian society the trick is to marry early. Give your wife at least two children sharp. After the firstborn, and certainly by age thirty or so, on a diet of oily, starchy foods and sweet cakes with no exercise, she should have already turned into “Big Mama.” You know, grossly overweight with everything hanging out. You may have already seen the American caricature on screen; huge sagging breasts, big belly, giant thighs and an even bigger behind.
What does it matter that the once slim young woman you married now waddles in fat and can barely walk anywhere? Or that your children may inherit the obesity trait and your daughters will most likely follow in their mother’s untimely footsteps to deadly diabetes and heart disease?
Here in Ghana, where we equate size with wealth and power, the hefty mother of your children is already seen by all and sundry as the wife of a very rich man indeed–a “Big Man.” And as long as you can afford to keep her latest hairdo done, and provide a “home used” 4×4 all-terrain vehicle for her to roam about in at will, she’ll be happy enough to just play “de madam” of the house for the rest of her natural life.
Leaving you with enough time on your hands to go chase the young skirts, and maybe even a few tight trousers, too. For your wife and you now live very separate lives, still under the same roof but in separate bedrooms. You may come together for church, but only on Sundays and funerals. Not that you would have it any other way. You have finally arrived. You are now a “Big Man.” No more small boy-ooo.
Vibrant, evocative, expressive; a European Christian religion fuelled by the rhythms and traditions of West Africa, yet totally indigenous to Trinidad; the Shouter Baptist faith has emerged from a history of persecution to occupy a unique place in Caribbean culture.
Once ‘Shouter’ was a dirty word in Trinidad, a term imposed on its followers by a mainstream society that saw their practices – dancing, shaking, falling to the ground, loudly invoking the spirit of the Lord – as unseemly and anti-Christian. Today its status in Trinidadian life is reflected by the observance of an annual holiday on March 30th to celebrate the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance, the law that forced thousands of Shouter Baptists to practice their faith in secrecy for years, for fear of brutal reprisals by the police.
Much has changed. There is some dispute over the origins of the Shouter religion – various theories place its roots in Africa, North America, St. Vincent and Grenada – but what is beyond dispute is that it has evolved and grown over time to become entirely unique and indigenous to Trinidad, a rich conflation of the many, often competing, cultures of the island and unaffiliated to any foreign religious organisation.
While, at a local level, the organisation and hierarchy of the Shouter Baptist faith can be incredibly complex (with countless ranks and positions, such as Leader, Mother, Shepherd, Watchman, Captain and Healer), there has traditionally been no formal organisational structure. Churches – or ‘camps’ – were founded according to the guidance and instruction of the Holy Spirit. The faith blossomed as hundreds of independent churches were established all over the island, each practicing their own local variation of the faith. Today, a degree of organisation has developed, with the three main archdioceses being incorporated in 1985. However, many churches still remain autonomous, either under the umbrella of one of the archdioceses or functioning in complete independence. It is a religion that remains spontaneous, unpredictable and driven by the unseen hand of the Lord.
The once-shameful ‘Shouter’ label can be traced back to the influence of this unseen hand. Shouter services are at once highly ritualised and incredibly spontaneous. They traditionally begin with the ringing of a bell and the lighting of candles, followed by the recitation of a liturgy, the singing of hymns and ritual handshaking and the touching of all those gathered. The ‘Leader’ delivers a sermon and there is more singing and praying and, all the while, the worshippers clap hands, stamp feet and cry out in praise of the Lord. They clap, stamp and build up into a religious ecstasy until they ‘catch the Spirit’ – the Holy Spirit visits the worshipper, who begins to sway, shout, speak in tongues and eventually fall to the ground in a trance-like state.
Another fascinating practice of the Shouter faith is that of ‘mourning’, a period of ‘Godly sorrow’ lasting for seven days or more, in which the ‘mourner’ prays, meditates and is forbidden from speaking, eating, bathing or any other comfort, lying for the duration on the bare floor of a mud hut. In a ritual derived from the religion’s African influence, the mourner is ‘called’ by the Leader to go though the mourning period, which is meant to symbolise death and resurrection, a spiritual journey from which the mourner emerges cleansed of their ‘impure’ being and possessed of spiritual gifts. Or, as Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke, of the Ark of The Covenant Spiritual Baptist Church in Laventille puts it: “In psycho-biological terms, the rite of ‘mourning’ actually involves a period of intense physical sensory deprivation as the initiate is deprived of light and movement and receives minimal sustenance.”
It was such practices as ‘mourning’, as well as the loud and expressive elements of Shouter services – which drew disapproval from mainstream society for ‘disturbing the peace’ – that led to the colonial government of the time banning the Shouter Baptist faith from 1917 to 1951. While conservative elements of society deemed Shouter rituals and practices barbaric and ungodly, it is now felt that underlying this was a sense of embarrassment and distaste for the vivid evocation of their African roots – now considered ‘uncivilised’ – that these practices involved. The shame and self-hatred bred by their colonizers led the Trinidadian people to suppress a unique and vibrant tradition in an attempt to flee from their past.
The Shouter Baptists suffered 34 years of suffering and persecution, forbidden from worshipping and beaten and arrested if suspected of doing so. Yet they survived, slowly organising themselves from a disperse company of individual churches into a body – The West Indian Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith, under the leadership of the Grenadian-born Elton George Griffith – that was able to successfully lobby for the repeal of the Shouters Prohibitive Ordinance in 1951.
Now they practice freely across Trinidad and have spread their unique brand of African-flavoured Protestantism across the Caribbean and beyond-to the United States, to Canada and to England. Singing, dancing, hollering: the Shouters are here now too. Catch the Spirit.