“Our Pain is painful.”
What would I do if a woman came up to me openly hurting, unashamedly showing me her pain? I would probably listen but secretly resent her, there is something about the suffering of women that is not attractive, that is exhausting and that feels like it should not be put out on display. I am from a culture that applaud and celebrate women for suffering silently and gracefully. A woman’s pain for as long as I can remember has always been silent and private.
Then there was the double bill I went to watch at the University of Botswana’s old student center on Friday. I wasn’t sure about it but if you ask me again now after it has happened I would say, perhaps this was the best way; to go un-researched, completely unaware of what to expect. To put it mildly I was ambushed and molested, not in a bad way, if there is ever such a thing. I should have known; everything looked like a setup, there was no fourth wall to separate us from the actors, the set up was suspiciously intimate, I had an inkling that the performance will demand our participation.
Children are a blessing, but in the shadow of blessings there is guilt, despair, loneliness; goes the chant of a sad woman scrubbing herself in a bathtub. There are days I cannot stand solo performances, they are too demanding of the audience, always asking for our participation, our contribution to the story. But when you introduce issues like postpartum depression through a solo act then you are definitely asking too much of your audience, Lebogang Disele’s gaze still haunts me, her movements disturbs me greatly even now two days after the show. This is because I know these movements, the anxiety, the pain, I am a woman after all, a woman who have in the past been diagnosed with Clinical depression, I have never birthed a child but Disele demanded that I enter into her world of postpartum depression, I felt her pain and it tore me apart. After her bath she puts on her clothes, every movement is labored and difficult, the simple process of dressing becomes a mountainous process, there is in my book no better description of depression. It is noteworthy to mention that she puts on the traditional Leteise and the head wrap. This raises the question of culture and mental health, can a traditional Tswana woman openly discuss postpartum depression without being judged and ridiculed? Our mothers never talked about things like this, our mothers never even acknowledged that they were sad. This production has unraveled me in ways I cannot explain, has it given me the permission I need to speak up, to feel, I am not sure. But I cried, I sat next to women who cried, we the audience mourned as the actor suffered, she somehow become all of us and her pain was tearing all of us apart. We understood, the play had done its job, there was nothing wasted here, neither movement nor dialogue, their job was to make us feel, to create a conversation and it did exactly that. In the end we suffer just like women in the west, we get sick from the so called white people ailments and our silence more than anything else is the most painful of all our pains, we cry alone in bathtubs because well doesn’t water purify, baptize and nullify sin.
After a well deserved break we come back in for another show, still exploring gender and mental health. The next show Nkadzi; an all-female production, cast and creatives reminded me a bit of Ntozake Shange’s Choreopoem, for coloured girls, in its beauty, choreography and delivery. Compared to the first play, Nkadzi although it had all the elements of a beautiful story disappointed me, in my opinion it assumed too much. Although the story is told by women I get the feeling that it betrays and excludes the very people central to the story; women with mental disorders. There are issues of abuse and violence in the play, a very important topic but wait aren’t we assuming that traumatic experiences are the only causes for mental health conditions? Surely we now know better than the father of modern psychology Sigmund Freud who suggested that the causes of hysteria in women were rooted in childhood sexual abuse. This view is inadequate. Of the many assumptions the play makes, the one I find most damaging is the assumption that religion can solve mental health issues. It is not obvious it is alluded; by the constant murmurings of prayer under the women’s breath and the hymn of comfort after the suicide scene. I stay behind for the discussion session because I hate to assume, but when a cast member throws scriptures at my question and then goes on to say “for her condition she found relief from the church,” I am left without words, there are just too many questions; was she just sad or did she have a mental disorder? Hasn’t she seen patients who abandoned their treatment because they got healed in the name of Jesus only for their condition to worsen and make it difficult for caregivers and professionals to intervene. Doesn’t she know the burden and the pressure religion puts on members to be healed and sometimes blames victims for their condition telling them to endure God’s righteous judgement or to exorcise the demons that’s making them sick. The Lobatse Mental hospital is full of such stories. Mental disorders are health issues that need the intervention of professionals. Also this issue that Africa’s every problem will be solved by the Christian God, or what about the stereotype that all good women need to be Christian when we are busy shouting “hoe is life” trying so hard to protect the individuality of the woman, how about the women who are not Christian? A woman is not all women and Tolstoy was right people live and suffer in different ways.
It was at this very University at the social sciences block where my Psychology 101 lecturer said something that I find disturbing to this day; “It took a long time for modern psychology to acknowledge Africans, they said that an African cannot get sad or suffer from mental disorders, Africans apparently just go mad.” And we are still recovering from early psychology’s damaging views on women psychology. We are still busy asking but why did Freud not understand women, well he wasn’t a woman and in his privilege he kept disputing and trivializing the research and experience of women. There is still a lot of myth and stereotypes around the issue of gender and mental health which makes Nkadzi not just relevant but necessary. We are especially grateful that it was women who felt the need to tell these stories, even with the support of men it is pertinent that the story tellers remain women. It is not just about women empowerment, it is the fact that only women can create the type of safe spaces that are gentle invitations for other women to start the conversation. The conversation is relatively new, that is why I was grateful for the feedback session that occurred after the two shows, it shows that this production is willing to learn and grow. I for one cannot wait to see it again, I need to see it again, I was wrapped up in the emotions of the play that I cannot help but feel I might have missed something. It is important for every man, woman and child to see this play, finally Batswana women are showing their pain and it is a pain that is worth acknowledging.
Onwards to Uhuru, Love and Light,