News / Africa

Mentally Disabled Women Endure Intense Abuse in South Africa

Darren Taylor
This is Part Five of a five-part series 
on the mentally disabled in South Africa   
Continue to Parts:   1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 

The shimmying and swaying women are singing about God calling Adam in the Garden of Eden. The song tells the story from the Christian Bible of evil slithering into the world in the form of a serpent.
“The snake, the evil, has never left since!” they exclaim, with incongruous joy and exuberance given the words that are leaving their mouths.
But the message is appropriate for these women, because evil has been a central force in their lives.
They’re mentally ill or disabled, suffering from conditions such as cerebral palsy and fetal alcohol syndrome.
The women are at Ikhaya Loxolo, “Home of Peace,” a collection of mud huts in the district of Hobeni in a particularly isolated part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

  • Residents of Ikhaya Loxolo, or "Home of Peace," sing and dance. (VOA / D. Taylor)
  • The home is run by a highly trained mental health therapist, Alex Gunther [right] and her husband Michael (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lungiswa Xangase suffered intense abuse before she arrived at Ikhaya Loxolo (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lungiswa was burned when she was younger, but she has since overcome her fear of fire and cooking (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lungiswa eats in the background, watched by her daughter, Lulama (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lungiswa warms at a fire at the home, with a fellow resident. (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lungiswa and her daughter, Lulama, share a meal at Ikhaya Loxolo (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lumka Zenani is paralyzed and has cerebral palsy, but is always joyful and exuberant. (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lumka proudly displays a page on which she’s written her name. (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lumka must walk with the aid of a crutch, but she often falls and hurts herself (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lumka must walk with the aid of a crutch, but she often falls and hurts herself. (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Lumka colors in with a few of Ikhaya Loxolo’s younger residents (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Sinesipho Makala writes her name, watched by her grandmother, Nozinzile (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Sinesipho displays her name (VOA/ D. Taylor)
  • Sinesipho performs household chores admirably at Ikhaya Loxolo (VOA/ D. Taylor)

Run by a German mental healthcare expert, it’s the only facility within hundreds of miles that offers shelter and care to mentally disabled people. More often than not in this area, the heartland of the Xhosa ethnic group, mental illness isn’t recognized as a medical condition. Those afflicted by it are considered to be cursed or bewitched. They’re untreated and neglected, left to wander the bush in rags and sometimes endure intense abuse.
“It seems to be the women who have the most terrible stories to tell. In this area women are still thought of as second class citizens, even more so if they’re mentally disabled. Most of the residents here now are women and girls,” said Alex Gunther, director of Ikhaya Loxolo.
Starved and sexually abused
Gunther gestured towards a woman in a jersey and a long dress eating a porridge breakfast with a little girl. “The woman’s name is Lungiswa Xangase. She’s 22 and the girl is her five-year-old daughter, Lulama. Lungiswa has an alcoholic mother who never looked after her properly,” she explained.
Lungiswa was born brain damaged and needs help to look after herself and her child. “It’s suspected that Lungiswa is mentally disabled because of fetal alcohol syndrome, although she’s never been officially diagnosed because her mother never took her for treatment,” said Gunther.
Lungiswa arrived at the home three years ago.
“She was brought to us from hospital, by hospital [workers] who found her abused and neglected and burnt, from having to cook at home on the fire and not knowing exactly how to,” Gunther explained. “The medical people told me her clothes caught alight on the cooking fire and that’s how she got burned. She has quite a lot of scars.…”
She added that Lungiswa was also sexually abused as a teenager.
“An older man told her that he loved her and so on that basis Lungiswa formed a relationship with him. He was a married man and obviously his motives for being in a sexual relationship with a mentally disabled teenager were dubious, to say the least.”
The state provided a monthly disability grant of 1,000 rand [about $100] and a child grant of almost 300 rand a month to Lungiswa when she was a child. But Gunther said, “Her mother and her family made sure she never saw a cent of this money. They would take her grant money and buy meat and not even give her any of it, although it’s her money…. And also they have built a house at home with her grant money.”
Gunther said Lungiswa was “literally starved” when she was younger, and that this has affected her mentally.
“If we don’t stop her she will eat until she bursts,” said the educator. “Her child wouldn’t be in a hurry to finish the food, but then she would say, ‘No, she’s full,’ and she’d just finish the child’s bowl by herself…. Sometimes she doesn’t even feed her child.”
Gunther said at mealtimes Lungiswa fills her cheeks with food like hamsters do, or she hides food in her clothing to take to her room.
Another patient at Ikhaya Loxolo is Lumka Zenani [23].
“Lumka’s mother brought her here to keep her safe. She said, ‘One day I am sure she will be raped so please let her stay here with you,’” Gunther explained.
Lumka has cerebral palsy and got meningitis when she was seven, paralyzing one side of her body. She needs a crutch to walk and often falls. Her legs are permanently bruised and grazed, her clothes dirty. But she’s fiercely independent and refuses help when it’s offered to her.
Mama ka Blondie is one of Lumka’s caregivers and a Hobeni community elder. Like most people here, she believes the young woman’s disability is the result of witchcraft.
Ka Blondie explained that when Lumka was a little girl, she went to the river to fetch water with some friends.
“On the river bank Lumka shouted to her friends, ‘Look at this beautiful bowl I’ve found!’ But her friends couldn’t see it. Lumka started scooping water from the river with this invisible bowl. As soon as she did this, she fell down having convulsions. She was never the same again,” said ka Blondie.
She added, “This now is when Lumka became mentally ill. A witch destroyed her brain. Lumka’s mother told me, ‘It’s because Lumka was very clever at school. The whole community knew that the girl could go far in life. This witch, whoever it was, became jealous of this….’”
Accident with hot food
Lumka’s good friend at the home is Sinesipho Makala [17]. Her mother abandoned her a long time ago; the teenager’s grandmother, Nozinzile Makala, is now her guardian.
Gunther said Sinesipho suffered “some kind of brain damage” when she was a girl, but the origin of her disability is not known because she was never taken to hospital for a medical examination.
But the girl’s granny is adamant that a childhood accident is responsible for Sinesipho’s mental disability. “When she was two years old, she was playing when a pot of hot maize and beans fell on her. It burnt her head. From then on she had mental problems,” said Nozinzile.
She described the accident as mysterious.
“I don’t know how it happened. That heavy cast iron pot was on the fire on the ground. How did such a small child manage to lift it in such a way that the boiling food spilled on her? Something very strange happened there….”
Again, the grandmother suspects that a witch cursed her granddaughter.
“It’s an evil spirit that harmed the girl. I say that because there is no way that Sinesipho could have moved that boiling pot. Even if you are a strong man you will struggle to lift that big, heavy pot filled with food,” said Nozinzile.
Personality dysfunction
Because she’s intellectually disabled, Sinesipho can’t tell the difference between right and wrong, said her granny, and can’t take care of herself.
“If she menstruates and she bleeds, she won’t clean herself. She will walk around in those bloody clothes all day long,” Nozinzile explained. “If you leave her at home and tell her to look after the property, she will just leave the house open and walk to the shop. You can’t give her any responsibilities. She forgets everything.”
Gunther said Sinesipho is adept at household chores, but can’t do schoolwork.
“She basically came to us because she was thrown out of school,” said Gunther.
Nozinzile said, “After three years of being taught here at Ikhaya Loxolo, all the girl can do is write her own name. The very small children, they know much more than she does.”
Gunther added that Sinesipho “has very little own personality. But she takes on the personality of another person. She behaves like someone else and you can see that someone else in her. And tomorrow she behaves like another person….”
But the therapist emphasized that the girl is always “very nice” and not aggressive at all.
Sinesipho said before she was brought to Ikhaya Loxolo her life was terrible.
“My brother was beating me whenever my granny was not home, every day he hit me. My body was in so much pain. He was drinking all the time. If there was no food for him, he hit me with his fists and kicked me,” she said softly. “He hit me all over my body with a big stick until there were black bruises all over me.” Nozinzile blamed alcohol abuse for her grandson’s violence but Sinesipho said, “I can’t say it was the alcohol that made him like this because even if he was not drinking he beat me. He still hits me when I go back home. My brother, he hates me and I don’t know why. I have always tried to be good to him.”
Her mother now lives in Cape Town and Sinesipho said she misses her a lot. Then she added, “But she never comes to visit me. But I know she loves me because she is my mama. All mamas love their children.”
When told of these comments from her granddaughter, Nozinzile began crying. When asked if she’s angry at her daughter for abandoning Sinesipho and leaving her with the responsibility of caring for a mentally disabled person, Nozinzile replied, “That’s my daughter and I love her. But soon I will be dead, and they must not tell my daughter. They must just bury me. Then when she comes back here, she will find that she killed me a long time ago.”
The grandmother weeps again when talking about her granddaughter’s future.
“When I’m dead there’s going to be no one who will pay to keep Sinesipho here at Ikhaya Loxolo. I don’t know what will happen to her then,” she said.
But Sinesipho isn’t concerned about the future. She lives in the here and now.
“I want to sew. I want to fix clothes when I’m finished learning at Ikhaya Loxolo,” she said. “I am sure I will get a good job one day when I leave here and then I will go visit my mama in Cape Town. I hear it’s such a nice place. My mama and I will have fun there.”

Mentally Disabled Women Endure Intense Abuse in South Africa
Mentally Disabled Women Endure Intense Abuse in South Africai
|| 0:00:00

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syriai
November 26, 2015 5:21 AM
Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs