The other day I was eating lunch at my regular spot enjoying some plain rice with tomato stew and fresh vegetables and chicken, but was interrupted by an old man. He appeared abnormal; something about him was off, and I could tell by his shoddy looking appearance and through his face – in particular his eyes. He greeted me (which is quite normal here) as he slowly approached and I reciprocated. He looked as though he was selling some small clothing items like shorts or underwear or something of the like. I felt no threat whatsoever neither did he cause me discomfort, for it is quite easy to distinguish the mentally ill (such as schizophrenics) by their exceptionally unclean appearance. So I continued to eat.

As the old man was walking away a young motorcycle electrician nearby called out to the old man in the local language and him and his friends starting laughing – I assume it was some sort of joke at the old man’s expense and rather insulting based on the proceeding events. The old man came back and walked right over to the guy and started talking in a stern voice with vivid hand gestures, at times he spoke in broken English saying something like “I will slap you small boy!” Some of the things the old man said caused most of the adult observers to burst out laughing at the old man who wasn’t all there upstairs.

In any other situation a younger person would rarely ever say anything remotely insulting to an older person as hierarchy is very strictly socially engrained and enforced, however when someone is considered “mad”, that is, mentally ill, the rules don’t seem to apply. In similar cases, like at the office with a distant Ministry staff that comes in once in a while, I found myself laughing along with all the others at the “crazy” man’s random and comical comments. This time I wasn’t laughing I was rather disturbed, and I don’t write this from a high horse – a few other witnesses showed all but smiles on their faces. I remember a few people gazed in my direction to see my reactions and upon seeing my disappointed face their smile receded a bit almost like being reminded that it really isn’t funny. I’ve been on the other side before, in Canada and in Ghana as I’ve just mentioned; had it been a different day and had I been in a different mood I might well have been laughing along.

But this time I was upset, the dignity of the old man was publicly being attacked by a young guy who was getting a laugh off someone less fortunate. I was happy to see the young man’s face turn from a smile to a look of concern when the old man stood up for himself and threatened to slap the ‘small boy’ – which he has every right to do here in this instance. I highly doubt anyone would oppose this sort of action; if a young person insults an old person you can expect conflict.

The whole time this was happening I could not stop thinking and hearing in my head: “what if that was your grandfather?” The fact of the matter is this man is someone’s grandfather (whether they are proud of it, ashamed of it or somewhere in the middle). It made me think about the mentally ill people here who, in my opinion, are the worst off wandering the streets without shoes, wearing filthy ripped clothing, looking so alone, or the homeless mentally ill men and women in Canada with no social assistance due to 30 years (and counting) of cutbacks. These are people and they need to be treated as such; they are someone’s mother, brother, daughter, father, sister, son, grandmother, or grandfather.

I thought to myself in between bites, “good on you old man, put that boy in his place“. After the old man made his point and had enough arguing, he slowly walked away and his frustrated frown turned to a kind, friendly and innocent smile as his greeted me again while leaving.