A Place of No Dignity

Over the past few months, the media has been filled with reports on the injustices that  occurred when mental health patients were transferred from Life esidimeni (place of dignity) to unlicensed and ill-equipped NGO facilities. This has resulted in over 100 deaths of those patients. There has been little to no time to grieve for their families as the death of their loved ones is  in the spotlight, treated with no dignity. When a member of parliament requested a moment of silence on the day of the State of the Nation Address, the national speaker of parliament decided there was no time to have a moment of silence to mourn these lives and that it could be done in another week. Once again the poverty of black people with no access to private health care has been thrown in their faces,  it has humiliated them to death and used as a reminder of how cheap black lives are, especially that of  marginalised groups such as those with mental illnesses. So this post is to express my anger and my sadness. It also reminds me of my own encounters, how it has affected me and my loved ones. Below is a bit of my story, a story that is not entirely mine to tell but one I have  permission to share.

“If she wants to bang her head there is nothing we can do about it”

I have visited my friend in mental health facilities many times. She was usually calm and in moments where she wasn’t, we could still have a conversation and laugh. But then Thursday the 3rd of September 2015 was a bit different. I called her during the day to confirm that I would be visiting that evening and as usual, I asked if she needed anything. “They are after me, come now!” was her response. A part of me thought, oh ‘it has started again’ – assuming she was having ‘an episode’, vocabulary I found on Google when I was trying to explain to my friend’s mother what was happening. My husband and I hurried to the hospital as fast as we could and walked in the midst of her altercation with the nurse. We asked the nurse what happened, the nurse said “ask her, she knows what she did”. She kept asking to speak to her doctor, and the Head Nurse came out and said “No, you will not be speaking to your Dr, you cannot get your cellphone, you lost all those privileges when you did what you did last night. Tell them what you did last night and about what happened to your neck and about the guards and everything”. My husband and I still confused, and my friend convinced something out of space hurt her neck, I asked my husband to go talk to the nurse while I tried to calm my friend. The nurse stormed out of the nurses’ office and shouted “I don’t have to tell you anything, I will not tell you anything… the ambulance is going to come fetch her now and you must not be here when it gets here. You can go visit her to where they are taking her…. They are taking her to New Somerset Hospital”.

We found contact details and the address and went to visit  my friend at the New Somerset Hospital . Attempting to find the psych ward where we assumed she would be, we asked a security guard where the psych ward was, to which he responded ‘you are looking for there…’ as he pointed his index finger at the side of his head and drew a circle a couple of times. A sign for ‘crazy people’… When we got to the psych ward, the nurse said the ward is full and no new people had been admitted. She then suggested that we  check the casualty/ emergency ward. The nurse at the casualty ward did not know who I was talking about until I said she was a psych patient. To which regardless of how my husband and I ignored her, she kept asking what she has… ‘but what does she have’. ‘Is this the first time’ ‘shame’… Two days passed with my friend sleeping on the couch in the casualty unit because there was no space in the psych ward.

“You are behaving like a one year old child”

On 07 September 2015, I walked in to visit at almost 3pm and her mama, who flew down to Cape Town was sitting there with her daughter. My friend now had a cold and a bump on her forehead to which the nurse explained away by saying  she had tried to hurt herself. Mama said she does not understand how this happened to which the nurse replied, “There are too many patients, we cannot focus on her. If she wants to bang her head there is nothing we can do about it”. The 30 minutes I had left for visiting hours felt like 30 seconds I guess as it always does in a hospital when you want to spend time with your loved ones. Although visiting hours were over, we hung around at the hospital with her brother  while mama was talking to the doctors. My friend did not understand why she could not continue talking to us through the gate if we were still in the hospital. The security guard explained that visiting hours were over, which we understood. But my friend still did not. While we were waiting outside, the security guard was shouting at her telling her to sit down and that she could not see us. He kept looking at us almost as to justify his behaviour and would say “You see how many times these people hurt me here. When they want to go home these people hurt me so I must say no and I can’t stand by this door.”

We hung around the hospital waiting for the next visiting hour at 7pm. As we were approaching the ward fro this next visit, we could already hear screaming and banging. Afraid she might be hurting herself, we ran towards the door and found her crying and shouting asking why she had been pushed around. There was a stream of tears down her face, her eyes were red, her neck and face were slightly bruised, with fresh hand prints. My friend continued screaming that the staff was being complicit and letting security guards manhandle her just because she has a mental illness. At first I was not recording the incident but took out my phone to record when the argument between my friend and the security guard got heated. Responding to my friend she said:

Security: You were trying to kill yourself, I saved your life… I was taking the cup from you… and you are lying now, you are supposed to be thanking me!

My friend: Are you serious, how did you do that?
Security:  You tried to hang yourself also… but I was not here… you tried to do that during the day… there is a report here, there is an entry about you… whole day you were busy giving the staff here troubles.
My friend: Let’s talk about when you were here; let’s talk about when you got here. When you got here I understand that I had a mug… but to use that mug to kill myself, that is wrong… but you assumed because previously I had a mug and I broke it that I was going to break that mug… you took it… how did you take it? How did you go about doing it?
Security: I took the mug and I put it there
My friend: How did you go about taking the mug? What did you do, I was standing… how did you take that mug?’
Security: We took it and we put it here
My friend: That is not what you did, you pushed me and pushed my head against the wall
Security: Don’t lie, no one pushed your head against the wall
My friend: You are lying
Security: You are behaving like a one year old child

At this point mama tried to calm my friend down and set her down. My friend continued crying and explaining that the security guard pushed her and slapped her. Mama talked to the security guard about treating mental health patients, appealing to them to treat patients with dignity to which the security guard continued to say that my friend is troublesome and concluded by saying “okay fine whatever, if your daughter wants to kill herself again, I don’t care, I won’t do anything, if she wants to walk out she can just walk out and kill herself, I won’t do anything. Because we are trying to save her life here”. Not realising that I speak IsiXhosa, the security officer said to the other security officer ‘ndimqhwabile nangoku” (I slapped her)… . I just stood there shocked and then asked the other security officer what had happened. His response was “uyasokolisa lomntu” (This person is troublesome).

The other patient in the isolation room where they put ‘misbehaving’ patients continued banging the door asking to be let out. My friend went to the door and explained to the other patient that he must not make noise or they will not let him out. Mama called my friend to sit down. As she left the other patient banged the door even louder, to which the security officer who hit my friend stood up and went to the door and shouted: “… stop behaving like a child. If you don’t keep quiet, you will not get food, you will starve there. The more you make noise the more I am keeping you there”.

In my opinion the exact details of what happened are not the most important here especially since the lack of these details is what is often used to remind mental health patients that they could not possibly remember what happened.  I am not a doctor. I am just a friend who saw what I saw and watched a mother see what she saw. I could go on about the conditions of the hospital, my friend sleeping in a couch for 2 nights, sleeping next to two guys  with no sufficient covering, sleeping next to a coughing patient to which the nurses attending to him wore masks but she had no mask, the fact that she had no shoes on, or the fact that there is no barrier between women and men who are man handled every now and then because they are ‘dangerous’, or a patient falling and a nurse walking past and not offering assistance, or the security officer who kept telling patients that they were behaving like little children and that she would not give them food if they kept making noise.

PhDing While Black: the Academic Dream and ‘Black Tax’

20160102_093715

black-tax

So keDecember boss, the crazy festive season where we flock to the shops to spend what we don’t have, max out credit cards, get an overdraft, and accept that instant loan that your bank has been dangling in front of you all year.

This year I am in the Eastern Cape eQonce and meeting my in-laws who are based here. With the exception of my concern that I would not be able to get much work done here due to lack of access to fast internet, printing, scanning, faxing and stuff, I was actually excited to be coming this side. I was worried my husband and I would over spend in Johannesburg and that we would be better off in King Williams Town but here we are, many traditional ceremonies taking place, many expectations from me as a makoti who will work every day like crazy (no time to work on my PhD) and also my husband as the guy from the city of Gold, an accountant who obviously has lots and lots of money.

Except for the excessive drinking during this time of the year that I personally hate spending money enabling, I really wish I could do more for our families. During the year it is easier to go along with your day and you are just too busy to stress about the possibility of your family not having half of what you have. December forces you to see how much your family doesn’t have; it reminds you of all the dreams you had when you started your first qualification. The stuff about how your family would never be hungry again, how you would make sure they have the best Christmas ever, how you would build them a nice house (leya ine-upstairs), how your mom could do with GreenCross comfortable shoes after working so hard all these years in cheap uncomfortable shoes, how you would buy a washing machine and dryer so your mom never has to hand wash again, especially now that her arms are failing her, how you want your mom to go on an all expenses vacation and fly for the first time, so many dreams. But then here you are; three qualifications in and chasing hopefully the last one so that you can fulfill your academic dream. You are a broke PhD student relying on unreliable funding, wondering if your funding will come in first thing in January or if you will have to wait until April again. You are constantly checking out available student jobs that you can apply for, playing around with the idea of getting a full time adult job and convincing your heart that it is okay if you finish the PhD in 5 years’ time and not the 3 years you had hoped for because you really do not want you mom to be too old/sick to enjoy your money and some of the dreams you have.

It can be so easy to dismiss our parent’s needs, wants and desires as black tax. We make jokes about it and it is a conversation starter for us young working blacks. Surely everyone is allowed to have needs, wants, desires and dreams even if they are black, retired, without a pension/retirement fund and without tons of chilling generational wealth. Yes maybe our parents are terrible at using money and maybe they live beyond their means using you as insurance/well of never ending funds, maybe they don’t understand that my being a PhD student actually means that I am super broke most of the time and relying on my husband and part time lecturing and research gigs. The knowledge that my husband is an accountant gives off the perception that we are drowning in lots of cash and they do not understand that doing articles is entry level and you work crazy over time, making money for big corporate companies and taking home way less than you thought when you were in first year of your commerce degree. They may not understand that renting is not ideal, it is not fancy, it’s a waste of money and you would really like a house but you do not meet bond requirements because you’re a student, you are drowning in all sorts of debt because you are blacks and you are the insurance for everything.

BUT, being here, away from the noise in the city and the comfort of my own space has given me so much time to reflect. After really deep discussions with my mama and my mama in law, I am learning about how damaging the perception of black tax as a burden can be, because in essence, we are saying our parents are a burden. It has also reminded me that it is our responsibility to take care of our parents, even if we think they have made terrible decisions. It has also gotten me so confused about whether or not I should get a job and work with my husband in supporting our families because honestly, it would be great to make some of my dreams for our parents and their dreams come true.

We should totally work on changing the perception that after graduation you will come home and change everything for the better with your first salary, maybe we should also work on changing the perception that a graduate is ‘uZanemali’, maybe we should change the perception that when your child is a graduate, you can start spending recklessly. Maybe we should tell our parents that their expectations are hurting us and maybe we should realise that seeing them as burdensome is hurting them. Maybe we really need to start communicating with our parents. Maybe we should stop throwing random R100 notes, house furniture on credit, expensive gifts we can’t afford to our families and start thinking about more sustainable ways of investing in our families, ways that can continue being useful to them when we die. Maybe then it can go back to feeling like assisting our families with love and joy instead of the frustrating ‘black tax’ and maybe in the end, reaching the academic dream and assisting your family won’t feel like they are mutually exclusive.

Also, don’t get me started on wanting to be a great wife, who is good a helpmate to her husband (with no time after stressing about PhD all day and jumping from one piece job to the next), being broody for days, wanting to travel, wanting to have nice things, having doubts about my PhD program, and, and, and, Too many competing demands and stresses nje in life but we soldier on!, right

“At PhD level…”

“At PhD level…” has been my supervisor’s soundtrack in my life. I have never felt as dumb as I do now as a PhD student. English can show you flames and shame you in ways you have never imagined. Coming from a school where we joked about our English teacher teaching us English content/stories in IsiXhosa and not being able to pronounce words and names in our short story book, I have come a long way with my English. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to things in order to learn this language and so that I never embarrass myself when speaking in public. It sucks though, because after all the online English classes, the novels, the debate team, the ‘English time at home’, your PhD supervisor can still say, “At PhD level, I expect your writing to be…”
After my struggle of writing an honours thesis and driving myself crazy in the process, I realised that I did not need not to stress myself so much with English and that it was okay that I did not write like a first language speaker or sounded like one. I made a commitment to never even try to sound or write like one. I did it to free myself from all the anxiety that came with presenting at conferences, speaking in seminars, tutoring, and lecturing, writing essays and so on. The anxiety from comments in your papers that read ‘what do you mean’ and you are just not sure if it is content related or if it is because your language makes no sense. So when you read ‘at PhD level, I expect your writing to be…’ you panic because you do not know if it is grammar, content or style that you need to work on. It turned out my supervisor meant I need to own my statements and ideas more, to have some authority in my writing. But hey, how do you own ideas you’re not sure if you’re even articulating properly in English.

There is the anxiety that comes when you finally convince yourself to speak in a seminar and after a few ‘uhms’ and ‘like’, you finally finish talking and the lecturer says ‘okay’ without acknowledging your ideas. Then a white male who is a first language speaker pretty much talks about the same ideas but uses big English words and ‘academic’ language and so the lecturer comments on how great his ideas are. You forgive the lecturer and convince yourself that they are not sexist or racist and that they are just probably not trained to listen and to hear people who speak or sound like you. They genuinely just could not listen or hear you. There is the anxiety that comes when someone asks you to repeat yourself and you immediately think “oh no, there goes my credibility, I must have mispronounced something or used the word in the wrong context, that’s why this person did not hear me”. Then you quickly translate what you said to IsiXhosa to check if you used the word in the right context and just nje, to check if it makes sense. You watch your student’s faces for confusion and you are so scared when your students who are first language English speakers raise their hand because you are thinking, “I hope she does not speak too fast, I hope she doesn’t use a word I am not familiar with, of my goodness these kids will never respect me if I mess this response up, there goes my credibility as a tutor/lecturer”. Then you quickly prepare the dictionary in your head.

That was not healthy, I needed to stop it for my own sanity and be okay with the fact that English was not my first language and that did not make me stupid or an unworthy teacher. I also needed to stop for all the other kids/students who do not have English as a first language and who struggle with English; so that they know that it is possible to write academic work using simple language and that you can have intellectual/academic conversations as a second language speaker because academia and intellect are not English. When I am giving a lecture in my accent and code switch for fun, to feel like me and also because I genuinely do not know which English word to use, I want my students who have English as a second/third language to feel that they have a lecturer they can relate to, lecture slides they understand and also to remind them that that English is not a measure of intelligence. When I use IsiXhosa words or statements or proverbs in class and I ask the IsiXhosa speaking students to help me translate because I can’t think of a translation, I intentionally want to engage those students who would otherwise not speak because forgetting English words in class is awkward and not speaking ‘proper’ English in the right accent makes you dumb. I want to draw in those students who feel that if they cannot speak and think in English, then that is enough reason to silence themselves and all their great ideas and contributions to the classroom. The students who feel that in order to avoid the shame that comes with not being able to articulate themselves in English, it is best to shut up. I have had my share of that, and it pops back every now and then, but it is my duty to work against it, because it is just not right for students to feel that their thoughts and contributions can be left unsaid if they can’t be said in English.

Conferences: What a Boost!

 

As mentioned in one of the posts, I  presented at the Contemporary Ethnography Across Disciplines (CEAD) conference last week. I presented  in two panels…Yay!

The first presentation was interesting enough inspired by my blog post about my PhD struggles and specifically, language issues. I thought CEAD was a very welcoming and creative space where one could experiment with different kinds of writing and presentation styles (Another presenter did a fabulous role play). Anyway, the presentation was well received and provoked a lot of important discussions about power, race, language in academia, decolonising the curriculum, identity and so on. It could have been super lit if we had enough time but we still had a great discussion after the panel presentation and I got to network with amazing people. I will post the presentation as my next blog post.

The second presentation was based on my Masters research which draws on the concept of risk management to demonstrate that in a world where life is precarious due to illnesses, poverty and other social ills, child care revolves around sustaining the life of an infant. The chapter I presented at CEAD suggests that mothers are being pulled by different ideas on child care, from health professionals, family and friends and that  access to these multiple ideas forces mothers to choose who they trust and believe to have the best interests of their baby at heart. In this case, the grand mothers’ experience, having been a mother and having raised healthy babies is valued and seen as someone who has knowledge about infant feeding and child care. The grandmother is not only  a ‘knower’ by experience but also  a ‘knower’ a mother can trust which shapes childcare in particular ways and emphasises the importance of relationships of trust in childcare.

I was in a panel with two other great emerging scholars who are also conducting their research on the first 1000 days of life. Nicole focused on the different factors involved when pregnant women ‘arrive late’ at the clinic, particularly the everyday violence in the forms of gang violence, shootings, taxi violence and muggings and its impact on women’s experiences of pregnancy and access to health care. Kylie focused on the relationships of care that develop between infants and caretakers and how an ethnography of leaks can offer access into both the physical (biological) and social worlds of infants, revealing lived experiences of illnesses and care relationships, embodied structural inequalities, as well as highlight the role of power within caregiver-infant relationships of care.

So now you know my area of research, I am not sure if I ever mentioned it. The great thing about this conference is that it came at a time when I was broken, discouraged and just doubting if I can continue with this academic journey. I realised how isolating pursuing a PhD can be and how it can feel like no one understands what you are trying to say and no one understands how invested you are in this project, giving it your all. Sometimes supervisors, colleagues and friends offer criticism and even though it is necessary and it may come from a good place, it  hurts so much because you have given it your all and what the criticism communicates to you is that your all is not good enough. A friend of mine who is also pursuing a PhD said “I feel like I have given my supervisor my soul and even that is not good enough”. It also does’t help when you have insecurities about language and a whole lot of other personal baggage. But what I learnt last week is that you must never isolate yourself. You have to meet with other emerging scholars, senior scholars, talk to people nje, get out there and don’t just sit in that cubicle from 9am to 7pm locked up in your own world. Being at the conference last week, talking to other people about my work, exchanging ideas with others and just the great feedback on my presentations was just the kind of boost I needed. I think I am ready to grind again! No PhD anxiety formed against me will prosper. I serve an amazing God and so I know this PhD is mine, I just need to claim it.

Mourning Loved Ones You Never Met

After a very serious and real conversation with my supervisor two weeks ago, a week or two of sulking. dealing with uncertainty about my future in academia, wondering if I am doing the right thing, or in the right department or if I need to take some time out to think, I finally decided to go to campus and try out this PhD thing again. But like I said in my last blog post, life happens during the PhD journey.
So I got a call, a call to inform me that my brother passed away on Sunday. I had never really met this brother. I was planning to meet him soon and we had spoken about how much we are looking forward to meeting each other and just how life is full of surprises.
Life really is full of surprises and weird feelings. As I write this I am not sure if sad. I am not sure how to feel. I just know that I don’t feel great.

I am not sure how to mourn him, I am not sure if I should mourn him. I never met him, I don’t really know him, there are no memories made, nothing to miss about him but here I am on my desk where I am supposed to be revising my literature review, but instead I am writing a post about a brother I never even met.

Recently I also lost two beautiful nieces before I even met them. I haven’t been able to mourn them either. I’m not sure if they are mine to mourn. If I have the right to miss them or bring them up in discussions or even think of them.
This blog post has no answers or interesting things to share; it is just questions about mourning:
How do you mourn people you loved but never met?
How do you mourn people you were never meant to know they exist?
How do you mourn those who are not yours to mourn?

Life really is full of surprises and weird feelings. As I write this I am not sure if sad. I am not sure how to feel. I just know that I don’t feel great. I will probably eventually work on my literature review but for now I am just going to take a moment and just sit here and think about my brother and  my nieces. I will sit here and wonder what they looked like, wonder about their smiles, how their voices sounded, particularly how they laughed and if they would have loved me as much as I love them.

PhD NOT Going

Image result for chaos

 

So I thought by now I would have submitted my PhD proposal, it would be approved and I would have started my fieldwork, well on my way to being Dr Majombozi. But NO, none of that has happened because life just happens. So this entry is just nje about life happening.

“At PhD level…” Has been my supervisor’s soundtrack in my life.  I have never in my life felt as dumb as I feel now as a PhD student. Man, English can show you flames and shame you. Coming from a school where we joked about our English teacher teaching us English in IsiXhosa and not being able to pronounce words and names on our short stories book, I have come a long way with my Engrish. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to things so I never embarrass myself when speaking in public. Then I realised that I need not to kill myself with this English, that it was okay that I did not write like a first language speaker or even sounded like one. I made a commitment to never even try to sound or write like one. I did it to free myself from all the anxiety that came with presenting at conferences, speaking in seminars, writing essays and so on. I also did it for all the other kids who do not have English as a first language and in fact struggle with English; so that they know that it is possible to write academic work using simple language.When I am giving a lecture in my accent, I want those kids to feel that they have a lecturer they can relate to, lecture slides they understand, readings that make sense and also see that English is not a measure of intelligence. But now here I am, wondering if my struggle with writing English “At PhD level” means I am not smart enough and not ready for PhD. It sucks though because of all the training you put into learning to be better and do better at this English, you slowly lose touch with the beautiful IsiXhosa you once spoke. So you are stuck with not so perfect IsiXhosa and Engrish. It sucks because after all the online English classes, the novels, the debate team, your PhD supervisor can still say, “At PhD level, I expect your writing to be…”

“Life happens during PhD studies”. I have heard a lot of people talk about this but “I am a girl with focus” is what I told myself. Obviously a terrible approach to life because sometimes things just happen. Friends go in and out of hospital, family has troubles (When you are married that is double the trouble), people you love die, people you love lose people they love, the PhD funds run out, you realise black tax is real, you realise your parents are old and you do not want them to die before you do big things for them, you want to do big things for yourself, you want babies, you want to quit the studies, then you want a job, then you change your mind and, and, and, AND. In a nutshell, my life is super chaotic.

Some good news: I did present a paper at the 2016 Anthropology Southern Africa  conference held at University of Venda in September and my paper was well received. It sparked great conversations. I also have another presentation at the 2016 Contemporary Ethnography Across the Disciplines that will be held in Cape Town in November so I am currently focused on putting together my conference paper for that. I am excited about this conference because I will contributing to a panel that discusses issues around language and academia. I am also trying very hard to silence “At PhD Level” comments and slowly building up the confidence I need to work on the 6th draft of my proposal.

Because life happens, I have decided to not just limit this blog to my PhD journey by strictly writing about academics but also to just nje talk about life especially since everything that is happening in my life has an impact on this PhD experience. Kunzima guys but ke, we soldier on.

Asking For Help

 

I don’t know about other people but for me, asking for help is one of the most difficult things ever. I think it might be pride or that the people who have the ability to help look intimidating and then there is that other thing: “at your level you should…”.

Ever sent someone a piece of writing and the opening sentence in their feedback is “At your level I expected” or “At your level you should be able to…” You see, I have had that a lot and it hurts. It makes me question everything about the path I have chosen: “Am I really going to make it in academia? What am I doing here? Am I not setting myself up for failure” and more than anything else, it really just makes me feel stupid. Then all those insecurities about English being my second language kick in and I just spend days miserable and feeling inadequate (It escalates very quickly!). So now it takes forever for me to ask for help, especially when I really need it. Before I ask for help I constantly stress about “have a I done enough for someone at my level”, “but really, maybe at my level, I should be able to complete this section of the proposal on my own”.

But there is hope. After over a month of trying to put together a literature review, I’ve decided to ask for help. I realised that I’m driving myself crazy and not getting anywhere with the work I need to do. I have spent so much time reading about how to write a literature review ‘at my level’ and hardly spent any time actually working on it. And when I did work on it, I spent the next stay deleting most of what I had written (what a painful process).  So I visited the university writing centre and signed up for the ‘Developing Writers Programme’. I have my first consultation tomorrow to work out schedules and talk about issues we need to work on. I guess I will see how it goes but I am hopeful. At least I asked for help and right now that feels like a big important step for me.

This PhD journey does not look like it will be an easy one. The expectations are high, the insecurities are high, emotions are super high… It’s too personal. But hey, I’m here now, this is my passion and I’m not leaving this university without my PhD!