Trigger warning: Mentions mental health, eating disorders and suicide
“It’s a demon I tell you, a DEMON,” is probably the response I’d get if I told my mother that I cried everyday at 3AM. She would promptly tell me to open my bible and pray the mweyawetsvina, which is dark spirit in Shona, away. I’ve often wondered why avenues of science such as therapy, can’t co-exist with religion in matters of mental health.
My mental health began deteriorating when I was in high school. I stopped eating and assumed it was an eating disorder. In my eyes, that was manageable. There was a physical solution, all I had to do was eat. So, I did. Yet, each morsel of food I let into my body; I felt a violent rejection. So, eating became non-existent. Getting away with it was easy at first. I was a prefect, so I simply slipped in and out of the dining hall unsuspected.
At the peak of my disorder, I didn’t eat for three days.
Then, when I was on duty and calling out the register for lunch, and I dropped. Nearly 6 feet down onto the grey concrete slab below. My body had finally given out. I landed chin first, the flesh splitting in half, bone on full display. I got six stitches and a scar that I still sport to this day.
When I told my mom she simply said, “I told you, you should eat more.”
We never discussed it again.
It wasn’t the end of the problem, only the beginning. I wanted control. Not eating wasn’t because I thought I was ugly or hated myself. I wanted to feel control. So, when a teacher was assigned to watch me eat, I did so gleefully, because I knew when I got back to my dorm room, my two fingers would acquaint themselves with the back of my throat.
I was the happiest sad person you’d ever met.
I didn’t know who to talk to. When I talked to my siblings, they told me I was simply hypersensitive. So, that’s what I assumed. I was hypersensitive.
Happiness at times feels like a ghost unwilling to haunt me.
When I told my mom, I’d thought about suicide as a sweet escape, she said, “when thoughts like those come beat them with the bible Nesta.”
So, I decided to gather proof.
I thought if I could somehow prove how depressed I was she’d understand, she’d help me. Recently I have been waking up crying the emotional toll of online learning, Covid-19 and childhood traumas sinking their claws in at 3AM each night. My cries erupt through me like a stuttering earthquake, tears unrelenting and my lungs fighting for air. And when this happens, I turn on my phone and press record.
I press record because I want my mom to see my pain, to see that this sadness won’t leave me. That it isn’t an imaginary disease I’ve conjured up in my mind. It’s not a demon. But I also do it for myself. I tell myself, this may hurt now, but it won’t always hurt. I try to convince myself that one day I’ll look back on these videos and laugh.
I’ve stockpiled nearly thirty videos and I’m still waiting.
There’s a certain pretense upheld in the African culture. Everyone needs to see you happy, humble and successful. There’s no room for anything else. Emotions are a nuisance no-one wants to talk about or address in African culture. Mental health is like a dirty family secret, people think if they ignore it, then it does not exist.
Mental health is taboo in African culture. Although discussion surrounding depression and anxiety are on the rise it still can’t be said for many families. Conditions like schizophrenia or bipolar are still incredibly polarized. In Zimbabwe people who act outside of convention would immediately be called a mupengo, which translates to mad person. Families will probably distance themselves from these people for fear that they’ll be contaminated. Or a more popular option is locking them away from the public, so no-one thinks you’ve been visiting the witch doctor.
There aren’t enough studies about Africa and mental health. The few studies paint Africans as happy go lucky and devoid of mental illness. The study claimed that Africans couldn’t suffer from depression because their lives were ‘simple’. They didn’t have the multiplicity interlay of European lifestyles, that there was an absence of problems in African communities. The studies claimed in poverty happiness was found.
The study was held in 1963, when many European colonies were seeking independence. These studies were used to justify the continued oppression of African people. These broad sweeping generalizations made over five decades ago still affect African people today.
This is where this misconception was born. That all Africans are happy people. That all we do is dance in the sun, sing, and eat. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I hailed a taxi in England the driver an older white man with a thick Northern accent, immediately asked me where I was from. So, I told him I was from Zimbabwe and he promptly said, “Ah, lovely people, they are don’t complain one bit, they just keep going, always happy.”
These stereotypes are harmful. People think that we have no threshold for pain, but we feel everything deeply. Not only do Africans deal with historical trauma of colonialism, the racism, including issues of the diaspora who fail to integrate.
The field of psychology pertaining to African people needs to expand.
We need experts who’ll identify issues specific to mental health and African people. If we can find a solution and open a dialogue between our elders and equip ourselves with not only a bible but treatment. I believe we could address the issue head-on.
Living with severe depression is hard. Trying to convince those around you that you’re actually depressed, is harder. I’ve found that after years of self-soothing and untangling my own self-loathing at my ‘weakness’, I will survive. I will continue to chase that elusive ghost called happiness, no matter how long it takes.