Time of the signs: Truth in a torn society

2013-03-31 10:00

Black people are hurting, we don’t have the language to acknowledge it and it’s ruining our lives.

In cosmopolitan suburbia, the practices of modern psychology have become quite normalised.

By accessing therapy and popular psychology, exploring and verbalising one’s “mental health issues” is not only considered acceptable, it is, in fact, quite trendy.

But for many black people I see, confronting personal pain and the complexity of its causes is rather more difficult.

In my practice, a great number of my black clientele struggle to understand why their lives and families are a mess.

They attribute these to personal failure, ancestral displeasure or witchcraft.

And these tend to be the preferred frameworks to explain their anxieties and pain.

Without discounting these, I must say I do note that there is a common strand in the individual stories they tell about their families and social relationships that makes me feel we need to confront one of the major unspoken problems – irrecoverable loss.

A pervasive theme in people’s personal histories is multiple experiences of major loss and deprivation.

Their family histories are characterised by painful stories of relatives dying unnecessarily through disease and violence.

Anguished memories where jobs, homes or land were lost, resulting in the terror of sudden impoverishment.

Disappearances of family members, especially fathers, who pick up and leave, searing into the family members’ hearts a feeling of having been abandoned and rejected.

Although people are resilient and often adapt, the generational narrative of our society is one of disintegration and fragmentation.

One need not repeat the already-known history of the disintegration of black community life.

But what is strange is how, in the present, the individual psychological effects of this “generational disintegration” are just not dealt with as part of the collective trauma of a societytorn apart.

Black people experienced hostility not only in the broader social structures, but it penetrated the very soul of our families, where psychological anxiety and uneasiness flourished, but were never actually recognised as legitimate trauma.

Look at most of our families.

There is intense strife and conflict over resources (food and money especially) that in many cases translates into accusations of witchcraft and umona (envy, jealousy, selfishness).

This is the type of laundry that we don’t like to air – but the depth of family strife is probably one of the reasons why a TV series like Khumbul’ekhaya not only remains popular, but has an endless list of drama to draw on.Even in fictional TV drama, these issues are always central to the plots but they are there to entertain, instead of help us find the vocabulary to further the conversation.

But why do black South Africans struggle to recognise or acknowledge emotional and mental malaise?

Could it be that the black experience is so associated with struggle and suffering that it has become normalised and an accepted aspect of our reality?

Or is it that there is no room for expressing dissent, loss or anger in this so-called miracle, rainbow nation?

Or maybe depression and trauma are foreign concepts to black people, and are thus “un-African”?

After all, black South Africans are constantly told to “get over it” and put the past behind them.

Is this because we should be more concerned with material issues such as jobs and “service delivery”?

Perhaps my clients choose the particular cultural frameworks to explain their “issues” because they have not been given permission to just say: “My family has never been stable, we do not know how to fix this, it is a burden and it feels like there is no way out.”

Fortunately, there are some recent books that are delving into this terrain in ways that resonate emotionally with many black people.

My sister insists that I read McIntosh Polela’s My Father, My Monster, which deals with domestic dysfunction from a child’s point of view; and

Eyebags and Dimples, a book by Bonnie Mbuli that tackles the issue of depression.

Perhaps these authors’ generation has decided it is now time to have that conversation.

»?Mkhize is a sangoma

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