Photographer Robin Hammond on story behind Nigeria picture

  • 18 December 2012
  • From the section In Pictures
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Rehabilitation facility outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt Image copyright Robin Hammond/panos pictures

As 2012 draws to a close I have invited five photographers to talk about the story behind one of their pictures taken this year.

Today photographer Robin Hammond looks at the events surrounding a picture he took at a rehabilitation facility outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt as part of an ongoing series entitled Condemned, which explores mental health issues in Africa.

It's a tough piece of work, hard to look at sometimes, but one that shines a light on an important issue so be sure to check out more of Hammond's work on his website once you have read the story in his own words.

Robin Hammond

They are hidden in the dark forgotten corners of churches, live out their lives on the filthy floors of prisons, and lie motionless, chained to rusting hospital beds. They rarely complain - life has taught them that they will not be heard, and they do not ask for help, they know none will come.

I first met Africans with mental illness in countries going through crisis while covering South Sudan's referendum for independence. It should have been a story about a hopeful future, but what I saw was the legacy of a violent and destructive past.

In Juba Central Prison men and women that had committed no crime were shackled to floors. Some of them had mental disability before the war and others were traumatised by it. Without a hospital or any other provision for them, prison had become their home.

This started me on a journey that took me to Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and most recently to Nigeria. I discovered a people abandoned by their governments, the aid community, and entire societies.

Nigeria is not in war like some of the other places I went to. It is an exceedingly wealthy country. The oil industry that has brought billions of dollars into the Nigerian economy though, has arguably been a disaster for the Delta region from where it is extracted. Corruption, mass inequality and violence have plagued the area ever since the discovery of the resource.

I visited this so-called rehabilitation facility (pictured) outside the Niger Delta city of Port Harcourt. It is run by the state government and holds over 170 people with mental illness or mental disability. It was originally designed as a facility to assist widows. In 1999 it was converted into a place of incarceration for homeless people with mental illness. They were cleared off the streets in a 'clean-up' in anticipation of the Fifa World Youth Soccer Championship.

The staff told me that no children stayed here but I soon found one mentally impaired child about eight years old sleeping on the floor in the room for the "high risk" male inmates. Staff changed their story and said the child had been there for three months but they weren't sure what to do with him. Then I found another child about 14 was sleeping on the floor in the same room.

My fixer distracted the staff while I hurried through other buildings on the premises. I saw a young man who had one leg amputated, his other leg looked to be rotting. The smell was confirmation. Many patients were in chains. One man was in handcuffs so tight that his wrists were badly swollen. Staff became worried about me being there. I had permission to visit but they didn't want me taking photos. My fixer told me that earlier he'd seen one of the staff driving away a corpse in the boot of his car.

From his enormous office table in his equally outsized office, the state minister responsible for the facility blamed foreign non-governmental organisations for not providing them with the help they needed to provide proper mental health care.

In the Niger Delta, like many other regions in Africa in crisis, it seems mental health is no-one's problem.

Robin Hammond is a member of Panos Pictures.

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