Op-Ed

My Culture Almost Killed Me

An artist reckons with a bipolar diagnosis and a Zimbabwean family history steeped in stories of exceptional gifts.

My culture almost killed me.


I was sitting in an interview room at Bellevue Medical centre in February of 2015, when a social worker asked me if there was a history of mental illness in my family.

I leaned my head to the side, the universal signal for “how dare you, sir," then I sat silently. Clearly this man knew nothing about Shona culture; “mental illness” was just something white doctors had come up with to explain away our unique gifts. I pondered the question, then answered that maybe I had one aunt who might have been bipolar.

My auntie Thoko had ran out of a British boarding school and into the woods in order to join a guerrilla war to liberate our country at age 14. I never considered her crazy; when I thought about her, I remembered her deep dimples as much as I remembered her courage. Drifting to her last days, my mind stopped to consider all the ways that cancer destroyed her body and her spirit.

I remembered her taking off her shoe in the kitchen where my cousin Tsungai now raises her two boys. She slipped it off her foot, considered it for a moment then commented “I’ve lost another shoe size.” In those last days of her life, she was always tired, facing death with a grim sense of humour and a smile that still revealed those deep dimples no matter how drawn her skin was from rapid weight loss caused by her disease.

Later that night, I sat up alone in her living room. My cousins were asleep on couches and wrapped up in makeshift sleeping bags on the floor. Jet lag was keeping me up, so I watched The Color Purple on VHS, interrupted only by the click of the bathroom light. I heard her step inside like a whisper, leaving the door wide open. Moments later, I heard her crying and throwing up violently; side effects of chemotherapy. I walked in hoping to see my brave compassionate aunt, instead I sat with her ghost, reading psalms and holding her hair as she produced a green liquid like a borehole that never seemed to run dry.

It was the last time I saw her and the first memory that passes by my mind whenever her name is brought up.

Sitting in a tattered rocking chair looking to answer the medical student, I wondered out loud if the impulse that pushed her into the forest and into a rebel camp had been the same mania that pushed and pulled me into the psychiatric ER at Woodhull Hospital where I spent most of this spring during my most recent episode.

She never talked about the war or the effects it had on her psyche. Like most of the adults in my life, she had wrapped those scars up under a strong front that rarely came down, even during her last days. Zimbabwe means “House of Stone,” and Shona people can shock you with their stoicism and patience even in the face of death.

At no point did the medical student’s question make me think about my great aunt Mbuya Nehanda. Famous in America for providing Assata Shakur with her final name as she lived out her exile in Cuba, Nehanda was a powerful and influential svikiro who inspired thousands to fight against the British invasion in the late 1800’s. Despite her best efforts to rally our people, Nehanda was hung in a public spectacle designed to break the spirit of native Zimbabweans and consolidate British rule.

I went to Havana in 2007, looking to thank Assata for keeping my aunt’s name alive. I met several of her associates, but she remained a rumour.

"Svikiro” comes from the word kusvika; a verb meaning “to arrive,” based on the idea that foreign spirits arrive within the body of a medium, sometimes violently and unexpectedly. I realise now, that if I had been born a woman before 1907, I might have been considered a svikiro.

The student’s question didn’t bring to mind my great grandfather, Kudungure Mapondera. He was given his name at birth by Nehanda: “The Soldier Who Would Destroy his Enemies."

Kudungure grew up to be such an efficient killer of men that soldiers described his movement across the battlefield as akin to a serpent with wings. As a boy, I imagined him, tall and strong, cutting men down left and right. In my imagination, he pursued them across wide plains, transforming into that mythical beast piece by piece.

A slash, wings grew from his back.

A stab, scales appeared and covered his skin.

A glance, fangs grew from his mouth.

Finally the serpent took flight, devouring armies man by terrified man.

He was such a renowned soldier, that 24 chiefs had given him daughters to marry so as not to find themselves on the wrong end of a spearhead. My father told me that when I was seventeen. I had challenged his choice to have eight children by five women, and he rationalised that had he been born a hundred years ago, he would have received brides as gifts from weaker chiefs.

I realise now, that had I been born a hundred years ago as a Rowzi prince, I would have been a famous murderer like my great grandfather and his younger brother, my namesake.

Kudungure was born under the totem Moyondzivo Nematombo, “The True Heart of Stone.” No matter who was in his sights he never showed fear, something I admired and tried to emulate as I sat rocking back and forth in the interview room, looking blankly at a student therapist asking me about an illness that I could not face honestly.

I resented my father for that explanation. The dads I saw on American TV shows doted on their children and taught them to ride bikes and play catch. I have no such memories of my father. The only memories I have are of him reminding me of the legacy we shared with Nehanda and Kudungure Mapondera. I’m grateful to him now.

My father always reminded me that both Nehanda and Kudugungre died at the hands of the British empire. At the hands of white culture. I remember him showing me the only photo of Kudungure at the wake for my cousin Joseph in 1991. The photo is old and blurry. As I think of it now, I picture my auntie Esinet's living room. The sun-bleached black and white photo sits under an artist’s rendering of The Soldier.

The painting of Kudungure is huge. He sits slouched, with a spear resting on his right shoulder. His beard is full, and his muscles taut, long arms hanging down at his knees. The photo is blurry but the meaning is clear. The tall stoic warrior stands in chains next to triumphant British soldiers in red coats. Their smiles are broad, they look like they’ve accomplished something.

After weeks of hunger strike, Kudungure's body is as hollow and brittle as a seashell. He is nothing more than iron wrapped around skin wrapped around dry bones. When I visit my aunt’s house, I can’t help but stare at that photo. No matter how long I look, I can never see a soldier, I see a man too proud to know that he has lost.

I’m not sure if Nehanda or Kudungure suffered from Bipolar Type I, but I’m sure that I do.

Describing Bipolar Mood Disorder is difficult for me. The easiest way to describe it is to say that I’m addicted to my emotions. When I’m manic, I juggle them all, tripping over the ones I can’t keep in the air. When I’m depressed I cling on to anything that reminds me of the feelings I’ve lost.

Imagine your mind was a house. You’re throwing a dinner party, the table is set for twenty guests. Sometimes, your house is empty, and only one or two of your guests show up. You try to talk to them, but for some reason, no matter how hard you try, the guests at the other end of the table are unable to hear a single word you’ve said. These are your only true friends so you do your best to sidle up next to them and smother them with affection and attention.

Whenever you get up to change your seat, they get up and maintain their distance.

Eventually you give up. They eat their meals in silence and leave you at an empty table covered in dust and dirty dishes.

Now imagine a knock at the door. You open it sheepishly, expecting one of your guests to ask you for a hat or an umbrella that they forgot under your table. As you approach the door, you hear the murmur of conversation turning into the roar of a crowd.

Suddenly a hundred people are on your stoop, and each one wants a plate and a seat at your table. What was once an empty house is suddenly full of life.

Guests keep arriving and you do your best to serve each one. They keep coming, filling your house with bodies. Suddenly, you can’t keep track of a single conversation. You balance plates and glasses in both hands, dropping them onto shirts and jackets.

They don’t notice the stains, they’re enjoying the party too much. They drink, they dance, they turn every piece of furniture in your home into kindling. You don’t care, you’re just happy that someone finally came over and filled your empty house.

Just as soon as you let go and decide to dance in the midst of your friends, it’s 2am and everyone is leaving at the same time. You beg them to stay, you cry and you plead. You cling to jackets, to shirts, to dresses. Each one tells you that they had a good time, but it’s time to go. You watch them leave, not one by one, but en masse. Nothing can keep them inside. You lock the door and they tear it off the hinges. They crash through your windows and climb over the fence out of your back yard.

Suddenly you are alone again.

I’ve let my mania drag me around the earth, and let my depression plunge me deep into its core. My culture taught me that my mania was the passion of a svikiro no matter how many times it lit my friendships and relationships on fire. My culture taught me that my depression was the hard-heartedness that steeled my great-grandfather’s courage in the face of an impossible mission even when it made me think of ending my own life.

Had I been born to a Western family, therapy and psychiatry might have been part of my life from a young age. Had I been born before colonialism, my illness might have been seen as a valuable resource to my community. Caught between both I had to find out about my condition by testing the limits of my emotional addiction and failing every test. I’ll never be able to answer that medical student’s question, for better or worse.

I'm still learning to manage my inheritance; learning to handle it with caution and pride. My culture almost killed me, but it also gives me the context I need to carry my diagnosis as a burden and a gift.

A dangerous gift, but a gift nonetheless.

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