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The Longest Night

An abridged excerpt from The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression. Simon & Schuster, 2015. ISBN: 9781501123887.

People travel from all over West Africa to take part in the mystic ndeup ceremonies practised by the Lebu people of Senegal. The ndeup uses grain and livestock, which the Lebu believe have special powers, to treat a wide range of illnesses, including psychiatric conditions. I decide to undergo the ritual in an attempt to ease my depression.

The mother of a friend of the girlfriend of a friend of mine knew a healer who could conduct the ceremony and, as a result of this elaborate connection, late one Saturday afternoon, I arrive in Senegal. I take a taxi from the capital, Dakar, to the town of Rufisque and the home of Mareme Diouf, the old woman who will perform the ceremony.

She is barefoot and wears a headdress and a long, batik robe. She takes us behind her hut, where, under the spreading branches of a baobab, there are about 20 large clay pots and phallic wooden posts. She explains that the spirits she brings out of people are placed in the earth beneath, and that she feeds them through these pots, which are filled with water and roots. If people find themselves in trouble during the ndeup, they bathe in or drink the water.

She takes my hand and looks at it closely, as though it has writing on it.

Then she blows on it and has me place it on my forehead, before she begins to feel around my skull. She asks me about my sleeping habits and wonders if I have headaches, and then declares that we can appease the spirit by sacrificing one white chicken, one red cockerel and one white ram.

I am instructed to remove my shoes and sit on a mat with my legs straight out and my palms upturned for the divination. Five women remove my shirt and put a string of agates around my neck. They rub my chest and back with millet. They ask me to strip down to my underwear so they can rub my arms and legs with the millet. Finally, they collect the millet that has fallen around me, wrap it up in a piece of newspaper and tell me that I should sleep with it under my pillow for one night, then give it to a beggar with good hearing and no deformities the next day. Incongruously, the radio is playing the theme music from Chariots of Fire during this entire procedure.

Five men begin to play the tama drums. There has already been about a dozen people hanging about and, as the sound of the drums spreads, more gather until there are perhaps 200, all come for the ndeup. They form a circle around a grass mat. A ram is produced and his legs are bound; he is looking rather bemused by events. I am told that I must lie down behind him and hold him to me, as though we were spooning in bed. I am covered with a sheet, and then with perhaps two dozen blankets, so that the ram (which I have to hold down by the horns) and I are in total darkness and stifling heat.

The drums get louder and the rhythms more inexorable, and I can hear the voices of the five women singing as they dance around me in a tight circle. I embrace the ram, and they keep hitting us all over with what I later discover is a red cockerel. I can hardly breathe and the smell of the ram is powerful (he has relieved himself in our little bed). The ground is shaking with the movement of the crowd and I can barely hold down the ram, which is squirming with increasing desperation.

At last, the blankets are lifted and I am raised and invited to dance.

Diouf leads the dancing and everyone claps as I imitate her stomping gestures and her swipes toward the drummers. I am dizzy, and Diouf holds out her arms to me and I nearly collapse into them.

When I am out of breath, the drums abruptly stop. I am taken back to the sandy area and told to remove my underwear and put on a loincloth. The ram is lying down and I have to step over him seven times in each direction, then stand over him. One of the men who has been drumming comes and places the ram’s head over a metal basin and slits its throat. He wipes one side of his knife on my forehead and the other on the back of my neck. I am instructed to bathe my hands in the blood, then the women cover me with the contents of the basin. The blood has to be placed on every inch of my body.

When I am fully covered, one of the women offers me a Coke, which I gladly take. My loincloth is soaked through, and thousands of flies begin to settle all over me, drawn by the smell of the blood. I am told to sit down again, and the women fasten my arms and legs and chest with the intestines of the ram.

Then we divide the ram’s head into three parts and put a piece in three separate holes around the hut. To my spirits, I chant: ‘Leave me be; give me peace, and let me do the work of my life. I will never forget you.’ It is time for me to be washed. When I am completely clean, the drumming begins again and the crowd returns. This time, the dancing is celebratory. ‘You are free of your spirits, they have left you,’ one of the women tells me. Everyone gets a piece of the ram and then follows my taxi as far as they can before waving me goodbye.

The ndeup impresses me more than many forms of group therapy practised in America. It enabled me to think about depression as a thing external to, and separate from, myself. Also, the effect of any ritual – being covered in the blood of a ram or telling a professional what your mother did when you were small – is not to be underestimated. The mix of mystery and specificity is always enormously powerful.

The Inuit people of Greenland suffer very high levels of depression and have one of the highest rates of suicide in the world. During their three-month winter, the sunlight vanishes and Inuit families, which are usually very large, tend to stay indoors, often in one room. There is little room for talking one to one. Perhaps for this reason, the Inuit have a taboo against self-pity. I_ent to meet three women who had broken this taboo to talk of their pain.

Each had suffered terribly. I visited them during their summer, in the remote village of Iliminaq, population 85. The first, Amalia Joelson, the village midwife, could not have children of her own. Her husband had gone mad with grief.

Karen Johansen’s mother, grandfather and her older sister had all died in quick succession. Then her brother’s twins died and his only remaining child drowned. Her husband had hanged himself in despair.

Amelia Lange was the church minister. When still young, she had married a tall hunter and they had eight children in rapid succession. Then, during a storm, his neck was broken and he was left paralysed. He tried to starve himself to death so that he would not be a burden on his wife. She had to care for him, their children, then go out to hunt for food. ‘I would do my work outdoors and cry the whole time while I did it,’ she told me.

These three women were drawn to one another’s difficulties and, after many years, spoke about the depth of their anguish. In church one Sunday, Lange announced that the three women had formed a group and that they wanted to invite anyone who wished to talk about their problems to come to see them individually or together. Such meetings would remain entirely confidential.

She told the congregation: ‘None of us needs to be alone.’ In the course of the following year, all the women of the village, unaware of how many had taken up the offer, came to see them. They were women who had never told their husbands or their children what was in their hearts.

This form of therapy is frequently discussed in the West as though it had been made up by psychoanalysts. Depression is a disease of loneliness, and anyone who has suffered it knows that it imposes a dread isolation, even for people surrounded by love – in this case, an isolation caused by crowding.

The three women elders of Iliminaq had discovered the wonder of unburdening themselves and of helping others to do the same.

Different cultures express pain in different ways, and members of different cultures experience different kinds of pain, but the quality of loneliness remains the same.