By Buhle Andisiwe Made
Spirituality comes in different forms and with different practices. Many people choose to be spiritual – or not – as they please. On the other hand, African spirituality does not always give people an option to pick and choose as they please, because it is a gift that is bestowed onto some by their ancestors.
This was one of the topics discussed in an intuitive conversation on “Navigating African Spirituality and Mental Health in the Higher Education living, working and learning context”, held by the Student Support and Development Division at Rhodes University on 22 September. The conversation was hosted by Tsepo Lepelesana and Nomteto Moleko, with clinical psychologist and Rhodes University alumni Anele Siswana.
Siswana delved into the intricacies of being a clinical psychologist who is also gifted in spiritual healing. He mentioned the importance of representation in higher education, not only in psychology but in spirituality as well.
As a part of his own journey, Siswana began experiencing Inkenqe, his calling, whilst he was completing his master’s programme in Psychology at the university. At the time, he thought to himself, “How am I going to survive this road?” He decided to tend to his gift at a later stage, but that was not his decision to make. Siswana became extremely unwell. Western knowledge and psychology diagnosed him with depression, and later, his psychiatrist diagnosed severe bipolar disorder with psychotic features.
When analysing his diagnosis in modern society, people should pay attention to the vocabulary used – “severe” and “psychotic”. Such words hyperbolise diagnoses and attach a negative stigma to those diagnosed. As such, Inkenqe becomes a mental illness instead of a gift, due to mere ignorance. This is not an insult to Western knowledge or medicine but simply highlights the misinformation within the different communities.
Nomteto Moleko spoke about African spirituality being demonised, which happens when people do not know enough about a topic or a practice. As with many other spiritual practices, there are positives and negatives in African spirituality, but these should not erase the very acknowledgment of such a process. Therefore, discussion should be seen as a stepping stone to educating people about the practice.
The conversation highlighted how students in residence are often young healers on their own journeys, but trapped behind the mask of mental illness. Tsepo Lepelesana mentioned that residence staff have to follow a procedure for these “sick” students, which involves calling an ambulance that takes the students to Settlers Hospital. After an assessment there, the students on a spiritual journey who have been misdiagnosed with mental illness are usually redirected to the Fort England Psychiatric Hospital.
“It is not enough to have a psychologist who understands African spirituality. We have Sangomas that are licensed in the institution that can assist, but we need a psychologist that is willing to collaborate” said Moleko.
This type of collaboration would bring about a positive and harmonious change in dealing with and accepting African spirituality in institutions. This is vital for people and communities to understand, identify, and accept what African spirituality is. Adding African spirituality to the Rhodes University community could be a leap forward in decolonisation and inclusivity.
This round table discussion was the first of many detailed and insightful conversations about African spirituality.