It was only after spending two delightful days at the British Museum that Amok III realised the full extent of the problems Africans have faced and continue to face in today’s world. Amok, descendant from a long patrilineal line of Amoks, had thought that a visit to Russell Street, London would help solve one the mysteries that plagued his family. The British Museum established in 1753, as the first national public museum in the world and open, free to 'studious and curious persons' seemed an ideal place to find out the historical reasons why the wider community viewed the Amoks with suspicion. If only he had asked his doctor for an explanation.
The problem Amok had been trying to solve was why the phrase to 'run amok', generally behaviour that is wild or unruly; as in an individual who is irrational and causes havoc; was associated with certain cultures deemed to be backward. In his research he had found that running amok in the English language was a word derived from the Malay word mengamok, which means to make a furious and desperate charge. The explorer Captain Cook is credited with making observations and recordings of amok in the Malay in 1770 during his around-the-world voyage. He described the affected individuals as behaving violently without apparent cause, in his view, and indiscriminately killing or maiming villagers and animals in a frenzied attack. According to Malay mythology, running amok was an involuntary behaviour caused by the “hantu belian,” or evil tiger spirit entering a person's body and compelling him or her to behave violently without conscious awareness. Amok knew from observing his relatives that he was not Malay nor being Kenyan had he ever come across a tiger, real or imagined.
He found that 200 years after Captain Cook described amok behaviour, that scientists had documented amok behaviour across all cultures in the world, the only difference being the method and weapons used in the attacks. A professor of psychiatry, describing the behaviour found that culture in itself was not the cause of the behaviour but a modulating factor, influencing how the attack would happen. In fact amok behaviour is a psychiatric condition with certain symptoms including; psychotic depression disorder or mood disorder especially if bipolar; personality disorders with violent urges such as social and borderline personality disorders; schizophrenia with command hallucinations and a history of obeying them, or violent themes and psychotic thoughts with a history of carrying them out. In summary in layman’s terms such people are ‘mad’. But this is too brief a summary of what are several different brain conditions with different treatment and prevention strategies. Amok realised that the failure of many people to appreciate mental illnesses was a major part of the problem. In his case his story was a simple one.
Descended from a long line of alleged night runners, he had been told that his name came from a great, great grandfather who in his early days in night running school messed up. To excel in night running, one is required to attend theory classes before eventually doing practicals. Kenya Power, despite the name change, has always behaved the same and so even in those days, theory classes were held in the day, when light was available to read. Amok ancestor was reputed to be quick to learn, grasping night running concepts easily and chaffing at the slow pace of classes. It was during one such class that on learning some mundane theory, he sprang up, screamed and ran out of class, darting from tree to tree and behind houses in a state of extreme excitement. Naturally the other pupils, teacher and school administration chased after him, before he could spill out their secrets. In their haste they forgot that one of the characteristics of night running was that one does not wear clothes in order to not be identified. Works well in the dark, not so well in broad daylight. To this day people are scared of night runners and for Amok’s family they were ostracised by both the night runners and conventional society under the illusion that mental illness is directly hereditary.
Most mental illnesses do not have a single cause and many factors genetic, behavioural and environmental play a part and so brain diseases such as schizophrenia are multi-factorially inherited. To get the condition a person has to inherit a combination of genes usually from both parents and then there is a threshold, mediated by the environmental factors that cause the disease to present itself. Because we do not have the language to describe what we see, and know little about the causes and treatment of mental illnesses we tend to ascribe it to culture or religion or simply ‘bad family’. But we need to do more in understanding disease because as population increases so do levels of physical and psychosocial stressors for certain individuals. The result is the dramatic increase in industrialized countries of behaviour that was formally thought of as happening only in “primitive cultures”. In Kenya, a few seemingly random policemen have already take a gun and shot people when ‘annoyed’. Would you worry if Amok was in the armed forces?