If you've ever spent some time in a Ghanaian town, such as Kumasi, in Asante region, you will occasionally have seen people half-clothed in filthy rags, hair matted with the red-brown dust thrown up from the laterite earth, wandering the streets largely unmolested; talking, perhaps, to themselves; begging sometimes; or scratching through rubbish heaps looking for something to eat. When I was a child in Kumasi we were taught to fear these madmen and women, whom we called bodamfoo. When we were naughty we would be threatened with a visit from them. Indeed, there is an Asante proverb which runs: Obodamfoo se ne dam ko a, na nye ode hunahuna mmofra. (If the madman says his madness has gone, that doesn't mean the thing he uses to frighten children.) Among adults, I think, it would be more accurate to describe the attitude to bodamfoo as one of mild contempt. The only other people I can think of who are regularly treated with a similar contempt are what we would call alcoholics (though these even children will mock). But (to quote another of our proverbs) Odehyee bo dam a, yefre no asaboro - if a royal goes mad, we call him a drunkard - because, obviously, it is worse to be a drunk than a lunatic.
LRB 7 September 1995 | PDF Download