A doctor's deeply funny memories

2011-08-24 00:00

DESPITE the cover, this is not a war story. It’s the often deeply funny memories by an accomplished author of his two years of national service as a young doctor, rendering “psycho-genital” services both to army and police members “to prop up the rotting edifice of apartheid”.

Wits-trained Dr Feinstein received his dreaded brown telegram while sitting on a bench in Parc Monceau, “the most beautiful park in France”, where he was being trained on violin by a Korean, who was “Paganini incarnated”.

Penniless in Paris; not gifted enough for the violin; “nor brave enough” to suffer a conscientious objector’s beatings with the pacifist Jehovah’s Witnesses, the young Jewish doctor then makes his way from Monceau to the “squalid hell hole” of Tsandi, a tiny outpost in the enemy’s home ground in northern Namibia.

On the way, he does his officers’ training at Klipdrif, and first becomes fascinated by the “paranoid oddities” and “wounded minds” at One Mil’s psychiatry unit in Pretoria.

At Tsandi he earned both a commendation for bravery in combat — armed only with his medical bag — and practised “a shaky psychiatry” to keep himself and his fellow conscripts relatively sane through the months of blistering days with its “moments of high drama and grave danger”, and nights of “cling-wrap heat”.

The army, he learns, is a place where “the individual is expendable, lower than snake shit”, and “bullies have found their perfect niche in the long shadows cast by patriotism”.

After two years of providing healing to both military and civilian individuals, followed quickly by two camps in Sebokeng and Sharpville (“the same ghastly mess, with the hatred amplified”), the now-married Feinstein responds to the third brown telegram by buying an exile’s ticket to London.

Namibia, however, never lost its hold on Feinstein. He returns many years later, a Canadian and Guggenheim Fellow, to help develop an Oshiwambo rating scale, still used by psychiatrists to check emotional well-being in the field.

Standing at the ruins of Tsandi, Feinstein finally accepts his battle scars and sees the humour in the present. His ironic journey is well-worth retracing, if only for the gentle empathy that saturates every sentence.

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