HOBENI, SOUTH AFRICA —
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.
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 .
“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 . 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.
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.”