Tuesday, 26 May 2020

The Harsh World of Autism Parenting

Alejandro Ripley, 9-year-old autistic boy who was allegedly drowned by his mother
The story of Patricia Ripley, the Florida woman accused of killing her 9-year-old severely autistic son, Alejandro, is doing the rounds in the autism community around the globe. I am a part of that community, as my 14-year-old son is autistic. When I read that story, I had chills down my spine, wondering how things had gone so bad that Patricia allegedly shoved her son into a canal, not once, but twice until she accomplished her mission. Her husband is standing firmly by her, saying she is a good mother and a wonderful human being, who cannot have murdered her son. I will be following that story with keen interest, but as with many court stories, we might never really know the absolute truth. As I was reflecting on this story, Facebook just sent me a reminder to a 2010 post I wrote, the day I almost became another Patricia Ripley. On one particularly bad day, I posted the message on the screenshot on Facebook. 
Normally I never post intimate issues on social media, but I did on that day, and up to now I have no idea what had come over me.I was feeling very lost because Victor was extremely difficult, with endless meltdowns, probably caused by the inability to speak. I was terrified of going out of the house as there was no telling when his spectacular tantrums would surface. He would attack me -scratch and pull out my hair, or roll on the ground, sometimes on busy roads or in supermarkets. On many occasions, I deserted my groceries at the till and dashed out of supermarkets when his meltdowns started. This, no doubt, drew a lot of unwanted attention to ourselves, and with that a lot of unsolicited advice from those who felt my parenting skills were wanting. Neighbours from our apartment building constantly complained about his loud screams, and one even came to my door to tell me she would report me to the police for child abuse, why was my son always wailing like that, that wasn't what happy kids with good parents did! I was always on the verge of tears and always had a quick apology at the tip of my tongue. 
At that time, I had no support whatsoever, as I had just relocated to South Africa. I made efforts to tell loved ones that I was really not coping, some said there was absolutely nothing wrong with Victor, while others reminded me to be grateful God had blessed me with a child. "There are many out there who would give anything to have the child you're complaining about," they said. All I had were ugly scratch marks all over my hands and neck, some of them oozing pus because they were deep. My son was the only autistic person I knew, and I wallowed in self-pity and despair, seeing no hope for him and myself. I tried to find a crèche for him to go to, so I could have a few hours to myself for recovery. The first three I approached said they couldn’t take him in if he was non-verbal. Yes, they had baby classes, but my son was 4 and they didn’t accept kids that age who didn’t speak. 
The general practitioner who we consulted, thinking Victor just needed to be referred to a speech therapist, was the first person to mention autism before referring us to a specialist paediatrician. He said he was not qualified to make an autism diagnosis, but highly suspected it. He, however, felt qualified enough to tell me that because my son was autistic, he didn't even know I was his mom, and would never be able to learn. That proclamation sent me off the rails. I struggled to live with the fact that my son would always be screaming like this and attacking me like he was possessed. It strongly felt like the death sentence had been handed to me.
I remember telling someone that I was convinced I'd die at the hands of my son. He had the strongest punch, even though he was only four years old; what would happen when he was 14? And what chance did a person with the intellectual disability described by the doctor stand in this harsh world where people are judged by their academic, or other, accomplishments? I was in emotional and psychological quicksand. The paediatrician we had been referred to had placed us on a long waiting list, and while we waited, life continued. Badly. I would be taking care of my son during the day, and at night I'd stay awake crying and reflecting on my predicament. Eventually, I went back to the GP so that I could get assistance for my stress and insomnia. He wasn't there, and his partner attended to me. I explained everything I was going through, and he said, "So is this autism curable?" I immediately realised this doctor was of no use to me. All he did was give me sleeping tablets to take at night.
I remember the sense of calm that engulfed me when I got home and took out the sleeping tablets from my handbag. Now I’d be able to sleep. I could even sleep forever. With my son. If I slept and never woke up, what would become of him? Who would look be able to put up with his incessant meltdowns, when his own mom couldn’t? Would they feed him? We would go to sleep together. I thought of my parents and how they would be devastated by my decision, but I felt this was my problem. I was the one that knew where the shoe pinched most, and I was the only one that could solve that problem. I felt trapped. Then I wrote that post.  Some people laughed, some cracked jokes about that post, not knowing I had my weapon of self-destruction by my side. Others said I needed to pray, like I hadn’t tried and discovered the futility of doing so. The doctor had categorically stated autism was a lifelong condition, and that my son could never learn a thing in his life. How would prayer change that? At the age of 4, he had never said “mom” because he couldn’t speak. I felt I had been dealt a bad hand, and the sleeping tablets increasing looked like an attractive solution. To cut a long story short, immediately after my post went online, my aunt sent a fervent prayer to my inbox, even though she didn’t even know what was dragging me down. A high school friend I hadn’t spoken to in years also reached out, and went on to have several long conversations about what I was going through, and how she had also overcome some serious struggles. I flushed the sleeping tablets down the toilet. When I see suicidal posts on my timeline, I don't dismiss the authors as attention-seekers. Seeking attention for a big problem you have is not a bad thing. It beats quietly taking drastic measures, any day. 
I condemn what Patricia Ripley did to her son. (I also condemn that she lied that two black men had abducted Alejandro, but that's a discussion for another day.) She might have been able to walk away from the canal she drowned her son in, but will she ever walk away from the distressed cries of her dying son? I will never understand how a mom would choose such a horrible way to get rid of her son. I will never understand because I don’t know what made her snap. Alejandro was non-verbal and was still wearing diapers at 9. That cannot have been easy for Patricia. Other moms are running around going for soccer practice and having conversations with their kids of the same age, and all she had to do was change soiled nappies. What hope was there that one day he would be toilet-trained? If he lived to be 40, would his mom have continued changing his diapers? Keyboard warriors are baying for her blood. She should burn in hell. Whatever the circumstances, she had no right to play God. She could have sought help from social workers. The US has a stronger support system than Africa, so she should have known where to go for assistance. Easy to say when you’re hitting keys on your laptop, without an inkling of her daily struggles. I don’t know her journey with Alejandro, but I know what autism can do to a mum's psyche. Something must have snapped. I wish she hadn’t gone that route. I’m dreadfully sorry that Alejandro’s last minutes on earth were so horrific and lonely.
I shuddered and cried a little when the Facebook reminder popped up, a reminder of how at some point I also almost made a terrible judgment call. At 14, Victor is now a strapping young lad, and the aggression and meltdowns are a thing of the past. Now he talks like his life depends on it, probably making up for lost time. I always playfully threaten to sew his lips together to stop him from talking, but deep down, I’m grateful he can speak now. He has amazing manners – always says, "Thank you, mom, for the food," jumps to clear the table after meals and even sometimes does the dishes (which I redo when he’s not watching). After I’ve worked hard to clean the house, he comes to say, “High five, mom, good job cleaning the house!” I’m never short of compliments when he’s around. “Nice weave, mom. Nice blue dress, mom.” When I sneeze, he dashes with the speed of lightning to fetch tissue, even if I don't need it. As he grows, new challenges crop up. But I'm in a better frame of mind now, and will fight on.  Regardless of his condition, he has his place under the sun, and no-one, except God, should take that away from him.  I’m that mom teachers never forget. When Victor comes home with unexplained injuries, I go to the school to get explanations. When the school calls for parent-teacher meetings, I’m there like a bear. I've heard some dejected mums say, “What’s the point? There aren’t any new improvements to discuss.” But I will show up all the time. I take an avid interest in everything that concerns him. The doctor had it  all wrong.Victor can learn! He types, spells and reads well, and has spent the whole of lockdown teaching himself to write. And what strides he has made! I wish I had been able to meet Patricia Ripley before the tragedy. I'd have wanted to tell her it won't always be this bad. Hang on! There is no assurance she would have listened to me.
I don’t wear the autism mom tag like it’s a badge of honour. If anything, it’s the biggest heartbreak of my life. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, God gives special kids to special parents.” All I want to tell them is, “You know what, you could have just kept quiet.” As far as I’m concerned, that statement is a crock of bull. There’s nothing special about being an autism mom, except that tragedy befell us. What makes the condition tragic is the non-availability or inadequacy of resources to help our children, and the constant feeling that we are failing our children. Every mom wants to provide solutions to her children’s problems, but we can’t solve autism, regardless of how much we might pull out all the stops. It’s the story of many parents walking this journey, especially in Africa. But Alejandro’s story shows this is a universal problem. Being an autism parent is a cross some of us have to carry. For life. And we are human beings who sometimes buckle under pressure. As did Patricia Ripley. I don’t, in any way, condone the route she took, even though she believes her son is now in a better place. But I will not be standing with those baying for her blood and screaming, "Nail her on the cross.!" It’s one case where I’d recuse myself from if I were a judge.

Friday, 15 May 2020

Sexual and Reproductive Health Plays Second Fiddle to COVID-19 Pandemic

The advent of COVID-19 has sent many issues that used to be of paramount importance to governments and organisations sent to the back burner. There are growing concerns that after the battle against coronavirus is won, whenever that’s going to be, there will be new fires to put out. The United Nations has sent out an ominous warning that the next pandemic in line is in mental health. This is due to high anxiety levels precipitated by coronavirus, and other spin-offs such job losses, closure of schools and social distancing measures leading to seclusion.

In the Kingdom of Eswatini, it is feared another crisis of sorts is also growing in the wings of the raging pandemic. On Thursday, May 14th, SafAids hosted a webinar where civic groups and adolescents discussed sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) during lockdown. Panellists concurred that while it was essential to place the country on lockdown to curtail the spread of COVID-19, the move had the unwelcome impact of hampering access to sexual health services such as contraceptives, condoms and treatment, by young people. Travel restrictions would demand that these young people explain their movements to authorities whenever they need to access services. Faced with such a daunting task, it becomes easier to just forego the required services.

Before lockdown, there were platforms for relevant civic groups to engage with young people, but with social distancing measures banning public gatherings, these have been put on hold.  Safaids Social Accountability Mentee, Sikhulile Hlatjwako said there were groups still operational on social media. However, considering the high cost of data, coupled with a high unemployment rate among young people, not many would be able to participate in these groups, or benefit from them. The coronavirus pandemic has also dealt young adults who earned an income through informal employment a big blow, making it even harder for them to afford transport to places where they would have been comfortable obtaining sexual health services.

Hlatjwako also touched on an issue that has become a global concern -  sexual abuse during lockdown. Many women and children are currently locked up with their abusers. While governments have their eyes on flattening the coronavirus curve, the rape scourge is unfolding.  Research has shown that many cases of child sexual abuse are perpetrated, more often than not, but people closely related to the children or even staying under the same roof as them. Hlatjwako urged guardians to pay attention to their children if they expressed concerns around particular individuals, and be prepared to have discussions around sexual abuse with their children.

With a great degree of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 academic year, many school-going children could find themselves sitting at home with not much to do for months on end. Many schools around the world have adapted to online learning, but in a country like Eswatini, this remains a pie in the sky for many.  Ministry of Health SRHR Coordinator Zandile Masangane said too much idle time and a great sense of helplessness increase the chances of young people wanting to “steal sex”. The current state of affairs, therefore, makes it more urgent for provision of reproductive health services to  be considered an essential service, or else the country will have a huge fallout of unplanned pregnancies and a higher HIV infection rate. This issue would be an easy one to dismiss, especially for conservative parents, but it is actually a life or death situation.

According to UNAIDS, Eswatini had 210,000 people living with HIV, with an adult prevalence of 27,3%, as of 2018. There were 7 800 new infections recorded. The kingdom has been lauded for making impressive strides in HIV testing services and the provision of free antiretroviral treatment. It would be interesting to track how the shift of focus to the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown will impact HIV statistics.

Safaids Country Representative, Mandisa Zwane-Machakata applauded government efforts to deal with the threat of COVID-19, but added that there should be no regression in SAHR service provision. She pointed out that information on delaying the onset of sex should still be given, albeit without allowing those children choosing to indulge to fall through the cracks.
Young people in Eswatini (unrelated to the story)

There was consensus among panellists that if ever there was a time for parents to roll their sleeves and get their hands dirty as far as discussions on sexual and reproductive health are concerned, it is now. There is not much such discourse happening, particularly in the African context, but parents need to open up to conversations on sex with their children, considering other channels of communication have stalled as a result of the coronavirus. Masangane said children could easily access information on reproductive health from other outlets, but it would be best if they got it first from their parents. She called for a further similar engagement to be organised, but this time with a focus on empowering parents on how to broach sensitive discussions with their children. A contributor, Ken Makhanya asked for assistance for parents who would like to engage their children but do not know where to start, “We’ve literally shifted responsibility to schools and [civic society organisations],” he said. Machakata said the current scenario provided an opportunity for society to go back to basics and forge relationships with their children. She implored parents to seek the right information from organisations such as WHO, so that they are better equipped to guide their children through growth phases.  An organisation called Khulisa Umntfwana has also availed itself to help parents with the necessary information during the pandemic.    

What stood out for me as I listened to contributions to this webinar was how the Eswatini narrative could fit anywhere else in Africa. Before coronavirus started wreaking havoc on the continent, most governments and organisations on the continent were focused on improving adherence to antiretroviral treatment among those living with HIV. The 90-90-90 target now appears to be a thing of the past as resources are channelled to the fight against COVID-19. Parents around the continent have also suddenly found themselves saddled with having to wear many hats at the same time, with no teachers and organisations to pass the buck too. One thing for sure is we all need to be tightening our belts and brace ourselves for the coronavirus aftermath.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Drawing Strength from Yourself

I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook timeline that stayed with me. Her name is Naomi Shoko, and she regularly posts messages of upliftment. But of all the things I’ve read from her, this one struck a chord. She said, “Have you ever been in a situation where you have no-one to encourage you when you are in need of encouragement? May God remind you of the very words that you spoke and strengthened someone …. It is possible to draw strength from words of life that came from you at one time. Be encouraged to encourage yourself.”  

Excerpt from Naomi Shoko's post
Naomi’s message resonated with words that I spoke to a friend who had suffered a significant material loss. She and her husband intended to buy a car, but were conned of R90,000. Her pain was so raw that she could not even explain what had actually happened. “Maybe another time,” she said.  With only a small percentage of the story to work with, I still had to comfort her. My words to her were, “Sometimes there are hard lessons in life. When I get into a situation like that, I tell myself that because I’ve lost so much, I’ll be more careful in future dealings. Some have lost their lives in bad deals, but as long as your heart is still beating in your chest, it means there’s still tomorrow, and with it comes a chance to do better.”

And here I am sitting and typing this after 1 am, in a state of disquiet over a particularly disturbing chain of events that has left me feeling short-changed. My message has come flooding back to me, and I feel I could have been talking to myself when I spoke to the friend that was ripped off. What this shows me is that sometimes you might think you are helping or ministering to someone, when in actual fact you are ministering to yourself. (I guess the same goes for when you think you were being nasty to someone and then one day you realise you were actually shooting yourself in the foot).

Going back to the message, if it’s one that God would like you to hear, it will pop up from other corners too. Today I was checking my contacts’ Whatsapp updates, and came across my nephew Brandon’s post.
Brandon's Whatsapp status
It was a popular quote by Jon Sinclair, “Failure is a bruise. Not a tattoo.” Brandon added, “You are still young, even if you’re old, you are still alive. The chance to try again is there.”
And it is there. Tomorrow brings with it a chance to do better, watch your back, grow eyes at the back of your head, connect better with God, be your own knight in shining armour, whatever it takes to keep your head above water. Do whatever it takes not to fall into the same trap twice. And do whatever it takes to get out of the entrapment you might have fallen into. It doesn’t matter if you walked into it with your eyes open or you were hoodwinked into it. The important thing is to get out. And as they say, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Take that step. One foot in front of the other until you get to the destination you yearn for. 
Not a long enough post for someone who has had a long hiatus as I’ve done, but the message is an important one, even if I say so myself. I know I'll come back to it time and again, and I hope it will hit the right note with someone else who might pass by this street.

Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Who surrounds you?


I know I wrote about late South African rapper, Jabulani Tsambo aka HHP before. While I didn’t count myself among his biggest fans, I found him to be very profound and sure-footed. It came as a shock to realise he had such serious personal battles that ended up taking his life. I used to pay attention when he spoke, and following his passing, I’ve also listened to what other people say about him.
Jabulani Tsambo aka HHP
I came across a video on YouTube where Kabomo, a South African artist, was speaking at HHP’s memorial service. He said many wonderful things about the late rapper who lost his life to suicide, but what touched my heart most was when he said HHP was a king, who in his dark times did not have enough people reminding him that he was a king. He asked, “Who surrounds you to remind you of your magic when you don’t remember that you’ve got some?” That blew me away.
Sometimes life deals us very huge blows. Blows that make us wonder if we will ever smile again. During such times, it helps to have someone in your corner. However, more often than not, we never really tell those close to us how much we are struggling. If we ever do, we downplay our agony and no-one really gets to know how heavy our burdens are. During our dark days, we are likely to focus more on the things that have gone wrong in our lives without paying attention to those that could make us smile and get us excited about life again. If we can’t remember how to be excited about anything, then that might be the time for our friends to chip in.
My experiences in life have taught me to take care of Number 1 before anyone else. My children are my world, and one would probably wonder why I don’t choose to place their needs before mine. The concept is pretty much similar to the instructions we get during flights. Wear your oxygen mask first before attempting to assist a weaker person. I cannot be a good mom to my children if I’m not in the right space emotionally, spiritually, psychologically, even physically. You have to be fully functional if you are to be effective. That brings me to how to the point of how to stay functional. We need to be careful about the people who surround us and whose voices we listen to with regards to our lives. The wrong people can drain the life out of you until you have no idea whether you are coming or going. They can make you feel you are a smithereen in the bigger scheme of things, most likely because they work hard to break you into one. The wrong voices in our ears can kill your zest for life and stun you into ineptitude.  It’s usually people with small personalities that feel their candles shine brighter when they blow out other people’s. Unfortunately, in our moments of vulnerability, even the weak seeking validity by trying to make others (us) look smaller start to sound very sensible.
We need to trust our own voices, believe in ourselves so that we don’t seek validation from other people. Not everyone has your best interest at heart. I have a friend that always says to me, “Take care of your heart.” I’m passing the same message to you. Look around you; Who surrounds you? Never underestimate the power of negative energy around you. Whose voice do you listen to regarding how important you are to the universe? Do they say things that make you praise God for their presence in your life? If not, step away! There is only one you.


14th Anniversary Conversation with a stranger

As I was shopping for a dress for myself and gift for my husband on the event of our 14th wedding anniversary, I bumped into this woman at Pick ‘n Pay Clothing. We started chatting about the dresses available, until I eventually told her why I needed a new dress.
She asked, “Do you and your husband get along, or you’re just commemorating because it has to be done?”

She went on to tell me how, for many years, she pretended to celebrate her own anniversary with her now ex-husband. “Thirty-two years!” she said. This woman said stayed that long in the marriage because of cultural considerations. She is of Portuguese/Brazilian descent and said divorce is very much frowned upon. Her husband was a philanderer of note and would spend thousands of Rand wining and dining other women, while spending none on his wife. “I don’t remember him ever taking me on a date. He was emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive. 
One day he threw all her clothes outside the house and told her to leave. She sat outside the house as she waited for her sister to come and pick her. As soon as the sister arrived, the man sprinted towards them, pointed a gun to his sister-in-law’s head, and told her to drive back to her house and not interfere in other people’s relationships. She had no option but to drive off without her sister. The man with the gun has the final say. He then turned the gun on his wife, told her to pick up all her clothes from the yard and go back inside the house like a good wife. She complied.
She endured more years of abuse until her grown daughter sat her down and said, “Mum, I’m very ashamed of you. You are nothing but a doormat. Where is your pride as a woman and as a human being to allow yourself to be treated this way?” That was all the talk she needed to pack up and leave this man for good. She moved to a different suburb and got a peace order on him when he started threatening her life. Left all to himself with no-one to bully, the man just crumbled to pieces. His life just spiralled downwards until he decided to leave South Africa for Brazil. His ex-wife’s relatives in Brazil say he has fallen on hard times and is nothing but a shadow of his former self. Initially the family blamed her for the collapse of her marriage and thought she should have been more resilient. Now that they are closer to the man and see him for the loser he really is, they can’t pat her on the back enough for mustering the courage to leave him.
I couldn’t help marvelling at how almost similar our backgrounds are in terms of views on marriage and divorce, despite the racial difference. She told me she has had a very peaceful and enriching life since leaving him, her only regret being that she was hesitant to leave for far too long. She has been able to socialise and come and go as she pleases, which she couldn’t do under his thumb. He believed he was the only one in the union entitled to happiness, and hers was just to remember to keep her tail tucked neatly between her legs around him. When that power to dictate was taken away from him, he could not survive. We give abusers the power they think they have, and when we disallow it, we expose them for the cowards they really are. This probably applies to everybody that believes they are in positions of authority, such as political leaders, bosses in the workplace, and of course, abusive spouses. No-one can bully you without your acquiescence.
We had such an intense discussion on marriage, particularly the abusive side of it.  So intense that at the end of it all, we parted ways without having exchanged numbers, let alone names. We probably stood there talking for close to an hour. Pick ‘n Pay staff must have wondered what we were still doing there.
Of course, some will claim I didn’t get the husband’s side of the story, but I choose to believe everything she told me. It’s a story I’ve heard one time too many. I really wish I had taken her number so we could chat again. My 14th anniversary celebrations were great, but I think I’ll remember the day for the conversation I had with this lady.  That is why I have decided to share it. 

Friday, 26 October 2018

SILENT BATTLES


Jabulani Tsambo AKA HHP
We are skeptical about pain we don’t physically see. We are doubting Thomases that only believe after seeing a visible scar.    

The death of South African Hip Hop artist, Jabulani Tsambo, whose stage name was HHP has broken the hearts of many South Africans and people from other parts of the world whose lives he touched. HHP was on record for disclosing that he had attempted to die by his own hand thrice in 2015. When he disclosed that, not many people took him seriously. As with most depression cases, people thought that he was attention-seeking or just exaggerating. In fact, one radio DJ came under fire for asking on air, “Why would someone that famous want to commit suicide?” The fire was not necessary. It was a question on many people’s minds. HHP was a delight to listen to when he spoke.  I’d actually sit down and listen to him. He appeared to be happy and very much in touch with himself and one would think he had it all – talent, respect in the industry, a huge fan base, and maybe enough money to keep him comfortable. Getting a breakthrough in the entertainment industry is not easy for many, but he was up there being counted among the best. There was just this aura of positivity and someone who was comfortable in his own skin about him. He appeared to be working his way out of the woods, but I guess the darkness that engulfed him eventually overcame the light.  In light of what has happened now, can it be concluded that all that was just a farce? Was he really positive one moment and then the darkness would engulf him the next?

The question comes back again, why would someone like that want to die and not enjoy life? Why would someone like that not count his many blessings? There are many paupers on the streets, people living wretched lives yet they don’t take themselves out, why would someone who seemingly had it all want to end it all? Those are the questions many would ask. I used to ask that question too, but I’m slowly trying to learn what I can about depression and how this horrible, horrible condition afflicts people and takes the joy out of life. This post by a writer who suffers from depression, Stirling Gardner helped me put things into perspective a whole lot more on the subject. It is not just ‘losers’ or poor people that take their own lives. Famous and seemingly well-to-do people also do. They have their own serious issues to deal with, regardless of outwardly looking like everything is honky dory. Think of America comedian Robin Williams, wildly popular musician Avicii, renowned artist Vincent van Gogh, HHP’s compatriots pioneering cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi, actress Shoki Mokgapa, actor Christopher Kubheka, and many others. What this means is, even your strong friends or those that seem to have it together also need looking out for.My fear, though, with big stars taking their own lives is that it brings so much disillusionment to the ordinary person suffering from depression. It could make one feel, "If people like HHP could not cope, there is absolutely no hope for someone like me." Yet HHP was just a human being like the rest. After getting off the stage, he would go back home to face his own demons and struggles.

Many a time we have thrown that word around  as if it is something very light, like, Oh my goodness! Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have broken up! Now I'm seriously depressed." That is not depression. It is quite a heavy subject, especially on the souls of those it afflicts, more so because it has no visible tell-tale signs. If you have a broken arm, people will drive you around, help with carrying your groceries, and make the right sounds to make you feel they care and they see your pain. It is a different ball game when it is something inside your head that is broken. People can’t see it. When it does show up, it usually manifests in very negative ways that probably further distances people from the sufferer.

I believe the black community needs a lot of assistance in understanding depression and its grave, excuse the pun, consequences. I was one of those people that thought depressed people must just make an effort to save their own lives, not allow themselves to sink. They could just take a walk, go and watch a movie, or listen to their favourite music, and feel better. Now I know better. A severely depressed person can't even bring himself get out of bed, let alone put one foot in front of the other to take a walk. There isn’t even a word for depression in most African languages, including my own, Shona. Any disease of the mind is just described as madness. It doesn’t matter if it’s autism, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or anything in-between. If your brain is not functioning as it should, you’re definitely mad. The result is a huge stigma attached to all those with diseases of the mind, and many just clam up to avoid getting labelled. Also with the poverty levels in most black African communities, it only makes sense to go for medical attention when you are suffering from physical pain of some sort – headache, diarrhoea, high blood pressure, and the like. People are just walking around with no diagnoses, oblivious to the fact that they are depressed and in desperate need of medical attention. We need help explaining how to tell when your mind is hurting, because it does. What are the symptoms, where do you go for help? There is a big gap when it comes to addressing mental illnesses. 
 It is a phenomenon that intrigues and terrifies me. It hurts families, and people believe people who commit suicide are selfish. Experts say the signs are usually there, but most people do not see them for what they are. It’s just usually seen as acting out, until it’s too late. An example is that of the late Rhodes University student, Khensani Maseko, who committed suicide after allegedly getting raped by her boyfriend. She posted her birth and death dates, as well as other tell-tale signs that she was not coping psychologically on Twitter. People only started paying serious attention after she had already died.
Images Khensani Maseko posted on her Instagram before taking her own life

It really is time for that serious conversation, as black people, about how the mind, like any other body parts, also gets sick. When that happens, it needs to be treated and support is needed for people struggling internally. It is not a shameful thing when your mind fails to cope with life’s stressors. It’s not a laughable matter. It is a very serious issue that can cost lives when it goes untreated. It is costing lives, many, many lives, and one life lost to suicide is one life too many. Some suicides can definitely be avoided. 

I have written about suicide and how it is viewed in the African context, as well as mental health issues in general. Please visit the links below.


Thursday, 25 October 2018

Bad till operators


About 2 weeks ago I attended the Service Excellence Awards at a local hotel.  The MC spoke about how every  person on the premises, from the security guard at the gate right to the office cleaner, has a role a role to play in customer retention. 
Everyday we are confronted by bad customer services by people who should actually be bending over backwards to treat us well so that we stay faithful to their brands. 
I wonder how much training is devoted to till operators in retail outlets. Close to my  house is Bhunu Mall, where Shoprite and other shops such as Clicks, Milady's, Woolworths and others are located. I'd pick it over nearer standalone shops because there's ample parking. Manzini is congested and one has a torrid time trying to secure parking,  which is something I have no patience with. Shoprite till operators are among the worst I've seen. When customers arrive at their till points, they mostly don't even greet them. They proceed to ringing your items and throwing them disrespectfully out of the way. On a recent visit, a till operator and a packer were having a very loud conversation about something and laughed their heads off. Customers, including myself, would arrive at the till and no-one would even look at them. The two just continued yapping away, and the only time the till operator acknowledged a customer was when she stretched her hand for the money. That's all she cared about. 
If I weren't the cheapskate that I am, I doubt I'd ever set foot in Shoprite. Their prices are usually great even though their staff isn't. I guess every rose had its thorns. Pick 'n Pay staff at The Hub and at Riverstone are very warm and helpful .
The one that took the cake, however, was a Moneni Spar till operator whose path I crossed this week. The supermarket had a special on Ingrams body creams, and I've liked the Ingrams brand a lot for many years. I hadn't visited this particular shop for many months and actually felt bad because it had been my favourite before the road construction around the shop started. It was like coming back home when i got into the store, until I met this till operator. She had a very sour look about her, one that made me feel quite tense and short of apologising for disturbing her day by my presence in the shop.  I honestly felt like a fly in her milk.
I'd picked 3 varieties of Ingrams body creams, and only one indicated the reduced price. The others were E13 more expensive than the flyer advertised. She said, "Only this one is working. The other ones are not on special." I told her that couldn't be possible because the advert said 'assorted', not just one type. She just glared at me as if to say, "Make a decision.  Are you going to take these creams at this price or you're going to leave them?" I  didn't want those options; I wanted the creams at the discounted price, so I just stood there perplexed at her rude attitude. I asked, "Can't you ask someone about this?" Another glare, and she dragged herself off the ottoman she was sitting on and dragged her feet towards the manager's desk. No hurry in Africa! The problem was promptly fixed and all the creams priced correctly. I gave her my bank card, she inserted it into the terminal the looked at me sourly and nodded towards the terminal to indicate I should insert my PIN. I did and went straight to the manager to complain. The manager said she would sort her out, and I hope she does. I know people have issues, but that's no excuse to treat other people badly, especially if you're in the retail industry where every customer that comes is there to ensure you get a salary at the end of the month. The manager apologised profusely for the till operator's behaviour, but I don't see myself going back there. That one will spit in my face for telling on her!