As Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe is laid to rest this weekend, my mind hovers over a few others of his African presidential band who left this world with controversial legacies. These include the “Osagyefo” Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, the “Ngwazi” Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, le Maréchal Mobutu Sese Seko, l’Empéreur Ahmed (Jean-Bédel) Bokassa and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Apart from their presidential rank, these were men of various backgrounds, achievements and weaknesses. But they all seem to have suffered from a common tragic flaw, which contributed to their dubious ends. This is what is called delusions of grandeur, or simply megalomania. But I do not want to talk about megalomania in African leaders.
My point is that megalomania, a mental disorder in which a person is obsessed with false images of her or his own importance or greatness, may be closer to us ordinary mortals than we think. Indeed, just about this time of year four years ago, an acquaintance of mine had an acute attack of megalomania.
Megalomaniac patients have thoughts and make statements about their irrationally perceived importance. They also undertake or indulge in actions and projects, some of them quite grandiose, based on their own pathetically distorted image of greatness. I base my comments on the narrated experiences of my now happily “recovered” acquaintance. But similar and comparable cases can be cited from many different fields.
In literature, the best-known case of a megalomaniac is Don Quixote, comical “hero” of Miguel Cervantes’ picaresque novel of that name. In the early 17th century Spanish narrative, the character, who has been reading a lot of heroic narratives, begins to imagine that he himself is a “knight errant” (a wandering warrior) riding around the land on a lofty mission to fight evil opponents and rescue needy and distressed characters.
In his chivalrous pursuits, Quixote is seen in such ridiculous acts as charging full tilt at windmills, which he mistakes for evil hostile knights, and glorying in his “liberation” of a band of goatherds. This unforgettable Don (meaning “Mr” or Bwana) has given us the English descriptive “quixotic”, meaning grandiose and big-sounding but having very little to do with reality.
Megalomania is, however, quite a dangerous condition and it can have serious consequences not only for the individual but also for those around him or her. The complications can be physical, social and even financial. We will illustrate with a few anecdotes from the narrative of our acquaintance, who shared his experiences during a spell of relative relief from the attack.
Briefly, our acquaintance started by imagining that he was in excellent health. He, in fact, declined his personal doctor’s suggestion of a routine check-up. A few weeks down the road, our acquaintance was admitted to hospital with a life-threatening condition.
Another instance was that our friend, who is a writer of sorts and had at that time just published a slim volume of creative writing, wanted his publishers to hold a grand launch and signing occasion for his book. He also envisaged holding similar events across the region in the promotion of his opus magnum. So convinced was he of the “greatness” of his work that he even wanted his publishers to produce a special edition, for a copy to present to the Pope, who was visiting Kenya at that time.
When the publishers demurred, our friend accused them of inefficiency, laziness and poor marketing skills. He, indeed, proceeded to buy from the publishers all the copies of his work, at several hundred thousand shillings, intending to retail them himself. He says he hoped to sell his books at “memorial festivals” that he planned to hold in honour of departed authors in each of the major cities and towns in the republic, like Kisumu, for Grace Ogot, Asenath Odaga and Oludhe Macgoye, Kakamega for Francis Imbuga and Nakuru for Barnabas Kasigwa. Indeed, our friend tried to embark, at considerable expense, on preparations for some of these festivals.
Let me regale you with two last juicy bits from the many episodes of this quixotic saga. One, the creative friend wanted to organise a competition for his readers to identify the real-life people behind his literary characters. Two, he was going to start a worldwide cultural organisation with a “chapter” in every major city of the world. The adventures and projects were, indeed, endless.
According to our narrator, three things pulled him back from the brink. The first and most immediate one was the financial disaster. Our friend went simply, plainly and completely broke. Even at the barely “planning” stage of his projects, all his accounts had been cleaned out.
The second was the dramatic, though mercifully temporary, collapse of his physical health. As hinted earlier, our friend ended up diagnosed with serious complications and hospitalised for a few weeks. He says that it was, indeed, as he lay in his hospital bed that he realised that the hyperactivity and grandiose “plans” in which he had been lately indulging were probably symptoms of a condition that was prompting his brain to race ahead and away from realities. I will not hazard a medical term.
Finally, our friend gratefully acknowledges that the understanding, patience and even occasional frankness of those around him during his troubled times helped in his return to reality. Most of the social problems and embarrassments of megalomania, you see, arise from the fact that it tends to strike people of reasonably high status. They are usually men and women of middle or advanced age, with considerable educational, professional and economic achievement.
Realising that these dignified people may be exceeding the bounds of reality, and especially pointing this out to them, is a necessary but delicate labour of love. In any case, some opportunists and sycophants prefer playing on the delusions of these unfortunate victims of megalomania for their own nefarious ends.
How can you tell a mere mortal that he will rule people even from the grave?