The TRUE AFRICA 100 is our list of innovators, opinion-formers, game-changers, pioneers, dreamers and mavericks who we feel are shaping the Africa of today.
Tobie Nathan is a leader in the field of ethnopsychiatry. In 1979, Tobie Nathan created the first ethnopsychiatry consultation in France in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry of Avicenne Hospital in Bobigny, a Paris suburb. He is the founder of the Georges Devereux Centre, an academic facility providing psychological guidance to immigrant families, which he directed from 1993 to 1999.
Tobie has pioneered psychological treatments with immigrants in France, by incorporating patients’ cultures into their treatment scheme. He is also an accomplished diplomat and novelist. His latest novel, Ce Pays qui te ressemble was a finalist for the 2015 Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize.
What, on your many trips to Africa, did you find particularly interesting about the way Africans define their own identity?
I am interested in the way many Africans define themselves according to the identity of their ancestors. I remember a dear friend, a Yoruba from Benin, who happens to be my twin. He is a psychiatrist like me and we realised he is my twin, after we got to know each other over a long period of time since we were born on the same day. One day, when I asked that friend who his ancestor was, he told me it was a crocodile. I asked him how he knew that his ancestor was a crocodile. His answer was that if he ever ate crocodile meat, he would immediately become mad. That he would immediately lose his mind.
Many of these patients have been abandoned by their own families.
Many years later, I travelled to Benin with that friend, because we wanted to investigate the way psychiatrists in Benin treat their patients who have the most severe mental illnesses. You have to remember that many of these patients have been abandoned by their own families. So we went to the historic town of Abomey and encountered the Association of Abomey Witch Doctors, who said that they knew how to treat patients with mental illnesses and that they also knew how to make healthy people lose their mind. I asked them how they were able to do that and their answer was that they could do it by having people eat their ancestors.
I have to tell people who my ancestor is and then people will understand who I am, because they will know which forces are behind me.
That is when it all started to make sense to me, that was the demonstration. What they meant by that was that everyone needs to know who their ancestor is. In those traditional African cultures, I cannot introduce myself by just stating that my name in Tobie Nathan. I have to tell people who my ancestor is and then people will understand who I am, because they will know which forces are behind me. It doesn’t even matter if those ancestors are not human beings. The real question is whether those forces are strong enough to change the environment that surrounds me.
How do you define your own identity?
I was born in Egypt and lived there as a child when I was growing up in an Arabic-speaking world. Later on I became Italian and then French. So those are three very different worlds. I remember a proverb I used to hear as I child, in the world I originally grew up in. When someone would admonish you, you would say you didn’t care and also say, ‘If you know my father, go tell him what I said.’ That meant that you didn’t care what people were telling you about your morals, because your father was not around and his reputation could not be tarnished by the words you had just pronounced. It’s crucial and helpful in understanding identity.
Early on I was tasked with treating patients who spoke languages that I didn’t understand, who grew up in worlds that were different from mine, whose cultures were different from mine.
In my case, my identity was shaped by the fact that I wrote my doctoral thesis and studied under Georges Devereux, a unique and remarkable individual whose career as an academic had become a bit chaotic. When I met him and decided to study under him, he was about to retire from academia. Professor Devereux had established a practice that was based on understanding The Other, on relating to people who came from other worlds, other cultures. Early on I was tasked with treating patients who spoke languages that I didn’t understand, who grew up in worlds that were different from mine, whose cultures were different from mine. I had to learn how to treat those patients effectively with new methods, while remaining true to my profession.
Who is your African of the year?
Lionel Zinsou, without a doubt. He is a great guy. A great banker in France who is now serving Benin, his other country, as prime minister. I admire him immensely. I hope he runs for President of Benin and wins.
Follow Tobie on Twitter @tobie_nathan
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