I am if you are, and if you aren’t I still am.

I am…

Take a moment. Breathe in. 

Say, “I am…” and the first few things that come to mind. Notice how these thoughts feel. Any words that follow “I am…” have the power to mould and manoeuvre your sense of self.

I am human. I am curious. I am kind. It is perhaps one of the greatest instincts of the human condition to attach ourselves to a sense of identity. This may be rooted in connection, community or companionship.  Perhaps identity stems from creation, control, or ceremony. To construct a comfortable and assured interaction with the environment, we tell ourselves (and those around us) who we are. I am not my research, though I am working in the field of sleep science – diagnosing obstructive sleep apnoea in persons living with HIV. This involves tracking the brain patterns of a sleeping patient, as well as their breathing. I am constantly reminded to be humble in my knowledge acquisition.

I am a learner. I am a teacher. I am a neuroscientist. Effectively, this means I study the squishy, convoluted pink organ housed within the skull. This lump of biologically active stuff, which somewhat governs our lived experience, fascinates me so deeply that I am compelled to tell you why it is part of who I am.

As you read this sentence, your brain is making associations between what I write; the sounds in your environment; any aromas wafting past your nostrils; and even the temperature of your body. When you think back to this moment, your brain will recount – within milliseconds – all the sensations activated within you to remind you of this experience.

The average human brain can create about 60 000 thoughts every day!

We can practice calming or stimulating our minds by the type and timing of awareness we employ. I might be so bold as to say this awareness is a series of thoughts. So, what is a thought? A thought is an electrochemical trace that occupies multi-dimensional space in your brain. A thought is the internal experience of how we process external stimuli. This internal experience relates to one’s senses and (new term incoming) somatosensation, or the sensory relationships of our bodies with the space around it – a tickle, an itch, a chill. We even have this epic internal ‘sixth sense’ called interoception – sensing what we feel within our bodies! In some ways, I agree that what we think we can become.

Still, I am more than just my brain’s interpretations of my body’s sensations.

Humans have humanity. We adapt to circumstance and unite in hardship. I am an activist. I am an advocate. I am an ally. I situate myself at the intersection of neuroscience, public health, and social justice. I have more than just a love for science – I have a love for sharing science. This brings me to a chilling (but in no way “chilled”) fact:

In 2020, the Annual Mental State of the World Report showed that 36 % of South Africans are living in mental health distress. Let that number sink in. 36 % is about four out of ten people. I dream of a day where we see this number crumble like the last rusk in the packet. My research aims will likely centre around this dream for as far into our future as I can imagine. This percentage is not the fault of our brains, but a psychosocial consequence of centuries of suffering and oppression.

Restructuring the paradigm of cognitive wellness requires not only inclusion of minority groups, but in fact building new systems with excluded groups at the centre of our focus. While I have an ongoing love-affair with the brain, I feel even more inspired by Black joy, trans joy and accessible places for people with disabilities. As I pursue my neuroscientific dreams, I want to cultivate safer mental health spaces and research outcomes for LGBTQPIA+ people, Indigenous peoples and disabled persons.

There is no quick fix for mental health reform, but I am committed to proactively prioritizing both systemic and systematic wellness. I invite you to ask yourself, “Am I?”.

Heritage Month: History, Culture and Social Cohesion

How does knowing South Africa’s history contribute to celebrating our diverse culture and reinvigorate our vision of social cohesion?

South Africa celebrates Heritage Month annually in September, culminating on the 24th. The month, in the aftermath of Apartheid, is intended to provide an opportunity to create awareness of the diversity of the people in South Africa in terms of amongst other attributes – race, religion, tribes and ethnicities. Awareness firstly, but secondly and perhaps the most important since the advent of democracy in 1994: social cohesion.

Heritage month cannot be commemorated or celebrated in the absence of understanding the tumultuous history of the country. In what we may term our “modern” beginning, the San and Khoekhoen provide rich historical evidence for their hunter-gatherer and pastoralist lives as far back as 2000 years.

The first European settlement was commercial, through the Dutch East India Company or VOC which was the world’s first corporate conglomerate, initially intended for trade with India, but it soon became apparent that there were more opportunities for expansion and in 1652, South Africa was settled starting in the Cape. The settlement was intended as a docking station for ships but soon morphed into a colony. It’s worth noting that the Portuguese did land in South Africa in 1497 as part of Vasco da Gama’s voyage of “discovery”, but unlike the tales of myth; he and his company did not discover South Africa or settle in it at that time. The British Empire, who by now, had used its vast and strong naval fleet to become a major colonial power, moved to settle South Africa, to ensure the Dutch did not lay claim to the wide potential of resources, arriving initially in what is now known as Nelson Mandela Bay, in 1820.

Throughout the 1800s, European colonialists moved to occupy the country and divide  into four provinces: the Cape and Natal controlled by the British with Free State and Transvaal under the administration of the Dutch. The British moved quickly to extend its area into the northern part of the Cape as diamonds were discovered there from 1867. Later, the gold and gems discovered in the Free State and Transvaal led to bitter competition over mineral resources, resulting in the brutal Anglo-Boer War from 1899 to 1902.

Often glossed over is the slave history of the Cape Colony for over 200 years until 1834 when slavery was banned. Slaves were commodities that were sold and had their occupation and lives determined. The majority of slaves bought and sold within South Africa were from Angola, Guinea, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia and Mauritius. From this infusion between the San, Khoekhoen, African tribes who had settled south, the colonialists and the slaves, emanated the language of Afrikaans, which particularly amalgamated Dutch with Malay. Added, religions such as Islam and Hinduism were brought to our shores alongside a variety of Christian missionary denominations. Augmenting, the slave culture mingled with the European colonials to create a race now known as Coloureds who were mixes of the races. They developed a culture of their own in how they used Afrikaans, traditional food, music, dance and cultural observances. Likewise, the British, Dutch, Huguenots who sought sanctuary from France, Indians, Khoekhoen and San each came and in time adapted their language, food and cultural practices, reinforcing their religious beliefs in the process.

This is the colonial history and it’s often unfortunate that  Black tribes, other than the San and Khoekhoen, find too large gaps in our history between this period to the 1900s.  Colonial apologists are fond of using the “empty land myth”, which attempts to argue that other than what they term the Khoi-San, the European colonialists and Black tribes arrived in South Africa at a relatively similar time and had equal claim to “undiscovered” land.  The closer truth is that Bantu tribes started moving and settling south around 500AD. Within this broad categorization were our Zulu ancestors. The Xhosas in turn formed part of the Nguni tribes, who also moved south and were thriving settled prior to the Dutch arrival in 1652. Likewise, by 1500, the Sotho and Tshwane had established solid chiefdoms. It is therefore a false narrative that Black Africans were not settled and had claimed South Africa as their home alongside the San and Khoekhoen, significantly before the Dutch, British, French Huguenot and also Portuguese i.e. European settlement.

Fast forward to 1900 and the White European population began to stamp its authority in terms of language, religion and creating a spatial planning that used a Black manual labour force, including freed slaves to extrapolate resources to be used and refined by the colonial powers to build the wealth and military might of their empires. From this period legislation was put in place to reinforce the practice. The African National Congress was established in 1912 to attempt to push back this minority rule. South Africa was granted independence from the British Empire and became a republic in 1961. Apartheid was legislated and the United Nations had declared it a crime against humanity in 1966. The indignity and impoverishment accompanied by harsh inequality of Blacks continued until a negotiated settlement that led to the first democratic elections in 1994, which the ANC won and within 2 years in 1996 a constitutional democracy was formalized with the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

We could evaluate 26 years of ANC majority rule in South Africa, but that isn’t the point. The point is to use September to delve deeper into our history from 2000 years ago and fill in the blank spaces or add the details that may even surprise you. If we acknowledge that history is based on fact, not around the fire stories and we broaden our knowledge beyond our echo chamber, we move from commemorating Heritage Month to celebrating it.

Gift your neighbour or colleague a bowl of your traditional food.  Add a little note of its history. Eat the samosa, bunny chow or Gatsby. Think about how braai meat with pap and sous binds so many of us together. Look into learning, sharing information and understanding (before judging) on practices like circumcision, wearing a bindhi, Mosque call to prayer, why orthodox Jews won’t work on a Saturday, lobola, polygamy, why no visitors are allowed after the birth of a child in some cultures and how religions vary significantly in death and burial practices.

This September 2020, though the COVID_19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown has taken a heavy toll on many, we have an opportunity to take time to learn at least one small period in our history and from that, reach out a hand to say ‘tell & show me more and don’t forget the foods’. Life is for the living and we live in an incredibly diverse country with a complex history but also through openness of mind, heart and active citizenry, the ability to create a state of social cohesion, a state where socioeconomic equality is a norm, not a clash of culture or classes.