Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

The Khumbul’ekhaya phenomenon as symbolic suicide

By Thirusha Naidu and Andiswa Mankayi

One day Mrs Lolo left. It was not a special or a different day. Now it became the day that Mrs Lolo left, perhaps forever. If you met Mrs Lolo on the path to the taxi stop that day you would not have guessed that it would be 30 years before her three young daughters would see her again. She wore her everyday pinafore and her doek and carried no bags. She left her house, her home, her place, her people. Her heart was heavy. She had been thinking too much for too long. Her voice was stuck in her chest filling her lungs and throat in sticky globules. Mrs Lolo felt she would never be able to cough it up. If the sticky globules of her voice, propelled by a barely suppressed anger, flew out of her throat Mrs Lolo was sure it would land on the parched ground and curl up in the dirt touching nothing on its trajectory. She had relinquished all hope of being heard. She would speak her loudest words by leaving — to her in-laws who berated her laziness, as the strength ebbed out of her day after day in the mealie field, to the women at the river, who scolded her for being childish. After all, she was not the only woman whose husband had taken up with a city girl in Jozi. Mrs Lolo’s heart slammed shut the day she learnt about it all. The last trickle of emotion it held dried up, about the same time as the monthly money from Johannesburg stopped coming, leaving a burning arid vacuum. Her bones ached, her head spun, her thoughts were so loud that she could not hear other people. Dead people, spirits and enemies marched through her dreams shredding the snatches of sleep she managed to steal. Finally the day came when she could endure it no more, not one second more. That was the day Mrs Lolo left.

Mrs Lolo could be any of the women featured on the South African television show Khumbul’ekhaya. Translated as “remember home”, the show has existed for more than four decades, first on radio and now on television, reuniting families with their long lost relatives. The longevity of the show speaks to the entrenched nature of this phenomenon of people leaving home, never to return again.

The discovery of Homo naledi has placed us Homo sapiens in a quandary that threatens to shake us off the top spot as uniquely “human” in the hominid evolutionary tree. Professor Lee Berger and his team of “cave astronauts” tell us that the primate of the stars, Homo naledi, engaged in behaviour that was previously considered as distinctively human. Homo naledi, a hominid with an orange-sized brain, interred their dead. They returned repeatedly to the same location to dispose of the deceased members of their community, suggesting that they might have shared emotional and kinship bonds.

Members of groups that share kinship bonds care for and protect each other. Connection to the group is both physically and emotionally protective. The individual seeks solace in the group and the group protects the individual. Each individual’s survival and emotional stability is reciprocal to group survival and stability. If this connection is threatened it can cause the individual to experience a sense of alienation that grows progressively worse until the individual is unable to emotionally reconnect to others and the group. Unless others recognise that the individual is drifting away emotionally, reach out and reconnect her, she will begin to feel hopeless and helpless, losing her sense of worth to herself and her group. Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness can persist causing the person to feel intense sadness, lack of energy, disturbances in eating and sleeping patterns.

In the absence of intervention from others the person ultimately loses all sense of hope, experiences a profound sense of emotional pain and disconnection from the group. This can happen first through withdrawal and ultimately by suicide. In Mrs Lolo’s case, by simply leaving the group and surrendering all ties.

There were indications that Mrs Lolo was clinically depressed, notwithstanding that her social group judges her actions more critically as a woman/mother. In traditional African communities mothers are expected to have “inimba” (an innate bond with their children). Therefore, a mother deserting her children is constructed as unfathomable.

Rethinking depression
According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the fourth highest public health issue globally and is predicted to be the second highest by year 2020. The expression of depression among African women appears to be different from western contexts. Anecdotal and key informant data suggests that African women’s conceptualisation and expression of depression, wellness and illness, both physical and psychological, is based on corporeal sense. Research conducted in South Africa and across Africa corroborates this view. This is not restricted to Africa but has been demonstrated in Asia, South America and South America. Mood congruent hallucinations and other perceptual disturbances are also common. The individualistic versus collectivist culture and the lived experience of these women appear to be at the core of this divergence. While Western expression of depression appear to be rooted in depressed moods and cognitive issues such as impaired and especially ruminative thoughts, non-western expressions have tended to be somatic (bodily expressions of pain and discomfort).

We suggest that the Khumbul’ekhaya phenomenon of leaving home never to return is an expression of symbolic or metaphorical suicide. A social, cultural and spiritual view of the phenomenon suggests the women’s abandonment of family might be a form of social and spiritual suicide prompted by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and disempowerment usually associated with depression.

What relevance does this have for psychology in practice? It is well established that a combination of pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy is evidenced as effective in the treatment of depression. Ethnographic research internationally indicates little attention is given to meaning in the context of depression in non-Western cultures. This is especially true in communal cultures where strong group association is essential for well-being. Research conducted in China, India, South America and other regions where collective culture is dominant suggests that a different — perhaps group and context-based approach — to the psycho-social, support-based treatment of depression is needed. Certainly more research is needed in an African context to inform the development of contextually relevant psychotherapeutic models for depression.

Dr Thirusha Naidu and Andiswa Mankayi are both clinical psychologists and lecturers at King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex in Durban, and the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. This article is based on a paper presented at the 21st annual South African Psychology Congress held in Johannesburg from September 15 to 18 2015

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