Forced to grow[i]: Addressing shame and vulnerability in South African schools

Forced to grow[i]: Addressing shame and vulnerability in South African schools

In her pioneering coming of age book, Nervous Conditions (1988)[ii], Tsitsi Dangarembga takes us into the lives of two young women, Tambu and Nyasha, growing up in the 1960’s and early 1970’S in postcolonial Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Tambu spent her early formative years on her family’s farm in Rhodesia, while Nyasha spent hers in England where her parents were studying. On return from England, Nyasha is quick to note the vast differences between Europe and Africa, especially when it comes to the place of women. Growing frustrated with patriarchal culture observable from all around her, she suffers greatly both internally and externally as she negotiates her rightful place as a woman in Africa. Seen through the eyes of Tambu, we witness the devastating toll that the burden of patriarchy takes on African women and the limits on their pursuit for education which eventually leads Nyasha into a breakdown.

Tambu tells us that her uncle made an appointment for her with a psychiatrist “But the psychiatrist said that Nyasha could not be ill, that Africans did not suffer [mental illness] in the way we had described. She was making a scene… It was difficult to accept that this thing had happened, particularly because I had no explanation. If you had asked me before it all began, I would have said it was impossible. I would have said it was impossible for people who had everything to suffer so extremely.[iii]

In his Bokamoso article last week, Thoko Sipungu notes that although school is often thought about as a place of innocence with many ‘adult topics’ being avoided, there are multiple stresses and topics that many would deem adult that affect school children including (teenage) pregnancy. This week I want to extend this discussion and address mental health as an ignored issue that profoundly affects the lives of young school going children in South Africa as they battle poverty and labour daily to attain education.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) reports that there has been a rise in teenage suicide in South Africa and that one in four young people express experiencing feelings of sadness and hopelessness. The founder of the organisation, Zane Wilson, says that one in five young people consider suicide. “I’ve seen too many unnecessary deaths and it’s because the government is not taking depression in youth seriously” he says. Sadag further notes that as many as 60% of the youth with mental health disorders in South Africa do not receive the treatment that they need. There are many triggers driving teen depression which according to Sadag includes a confluence of factors such as “unemployment, economic instability, violence, a lack of social cohesion, the breakdown of traditional family structures as well as school-related pressures and bullying…”

High school, for me, was for the most part a very traumatic experience and going to school was a cause of great internal anxiety. In the last few years of high school, I went to a peri-urban school in an industrial and isolated area. Because of the unruliness of many students at the school, there were often jokes amongst students that the school was a drop off place for children who were rejected or expelled at some of the more prestigious and respected schools in town. Being one of the youngest in class, shy, soft-spoken, with little propensity for violence and arriving halfway through the year when everyone had already settled naturally made me an easy target for bullying and abuse from my classmates. In addition because a lot of my (male) classmates were older than me, many as early as Grade 10 had already gone to Xhosa initiation school (when I had not even thought about) further entrenched a hierarchy about who was to be respected and not respected.

At the height of the bullying and abuse I too thought about suicide. I never told my parents, siblings or anyone in close proximity who could relate the news home because I was ashamed that at home I was so joyous, happy and loved and yet at school a weak irrelevant ‘nobody’ and a joke on whom even the biggest loser in the school could gain a few brownie points from making fun of. I knew that if had told my parents, it would not be an overnight process to get me out of the school, and that the bullies would not be expelled because I had seen so many of my peers tell on them, which ended up exacerbating the bullying. In addition to patriarchal notions around boyhood and ‘standing up for oneself’, I felt ashamed for not being able to stand up for myself. What kind of boy was I to try get my parents and siblings to ‘fight’ for me?

It is this fear of telling and being vulnerable that Dr. Brene Brown notes makes shame lethal to our humanness and keeps many people like me from sharing our stories of abuse. Shame, according to Brown is “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging” and to escape it we have to challenge it by telling our stories as “shame cannot survive being spoken… it cannot survive empathy.” Brown says that shame works when we buy into the belief that we are alone, yet when we open ourselves up to sharing our shame, we strip it of its power.

Yet, who are young people in school supposed to talk to in hostile environments like the one that I was in, in my high school(s) where everyone is on your head tearing you apart? I was for the most part ‘lucky’ that much of the abuse I endured from my classmates came in the form of microagressions and verbal assaults, yet for many (especially females and openly homosexual boys) these microaggressions were often entangled with physical and sexual abuse, and yet my high school like many under-resourced (and mismanaged) schools did not offer any counselling services, social workers or independent persons to speak to.

In their 2010 paper A situational analysis of child and adolescent mental health services in Ghana, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia, Kleintjies, Lund, and Fisher note that although one in five children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders there are still very scant legislations, policies, services and resources that cater for the mental health of children and adolescents. In his chapter “Monitoring Child and Adolescent mental health, risk behaviour and substance use”, Alan J. Fisher notes that children and adolescents with good mental health are able to achieve maximum psychological, social and personal well-being, while those who do not have the right mental health support often encounter a number of problems that can affect their educational, psychological and social well-being.

In her autobiography “Eyebags & Dimples”[iv] Bonnie Henna (now Mbuli) writes candidly about surviving depression, emotional trauma and demystifying emotional disorders in the African context. She states that “African culture has always prized secrecy. We veil the truth in order to protect the group; we cover our wounds for fear of what our neighbours and peers may say.”[v]

In retrospect I realise I was probably severely depressed for at least the last two and a half years of high school directly from anxiety and panic attacks I suffered when I had to go to school. This greatly influenced my life in both highly negative and sometimes positive ways. I was fortunate that I had a great partner throughout my late high school years with whom I could speak to almost daily and openly. Eventually I also made friends from other local schools (many of whom remain close friends to today). I am now stronger, much wiser and certainly try to be a more conscious and aware being.

It is a travesty that the issue of the mental health of children and adolescents is not addressed in many of our South Africans schools, when school and many children’s aspiration for education often ends up being one of the stressors that puts them off life.

*Gcobani Qambela is a regular Bokamoso contributor. Read his short biography and previous articles here.


[i] “Forced to Grow” is the title of Sindiwe Magona’s coming of age autobiography (1992, David Phillip). The title for this piece is partially borrowed from the book.

[ii] Dangarembga, Tsitsi. 1988. Nervous Conditions. Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Oxfordshire

[iii] Ibid, Pg: 206-207

[iv] Henna, Bonnie. 2012. Eyebags & Dimples. Jacana Media: Auckland Park

[v] Ibid, pg: viii

Gcobani Qambela

Gcobani Qambela is a Graduate Student in South Africa with an interest in African masculinities, HIV/AIDS research and public health in general.

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