Reflections from IJR’s Eleanor Du Plooy

Imagine growing up in the world today. A world marked by growing insecurity, the threat of war and terror, human rights violations, political and ideological polarisation, violence inside and outside the home and the ever growing threat of imminent climate catastrophe. We’re spending more time online than ever, navigating virtual spaces that are often unsafe and even harmful. Young people especially, are experiencing the horror of cyber-bullying, peer and social pressures and the exposure to negative imagery. For many South African youth, these global forces are compounded by a barrage of challenges they face within their communities. Substance abuse and alcoholism, the proliferation of drugs particularly in small and rural towns, gang violence, fractured homes, rising unemployment, poverty, gender based violence and LGBTI youth who remain largely disenfranchised and vulnerable to discrimination and abuse.

Stressors and trauma contribute to poor mental health and can in some extreme cases lead to the onset or worsening of poor mental health among young people. Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as, ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. Although we all process and deal with stressors and challenges in different ways, there are many challenges within South African communities that are ubiquitous and pernicious.

Over the course of this year IJR’s Gender Justice and Reconciliation project has worked in Calitzdorp, a small town just outside Oudtshoorn. IJR creates spaces where community members, young and old, can reflect together on the challenges that exist within their town and jointly start thinking about possible solutions. An integral part of this long, and often painful process of community healing, is the deliberate focus on reconciling with oneself and the rebuilding of relationships. For many of the younger people, the question ‘who am I?’ is a recurring one. Allowing for a deeper delving into this, in a space that is safer, is invaluable and forms an important part of the methodology of IJR’s GJR project. When people are given a space to step away from the everyday humdrum, where they can reflect on who they are, their dreams for themselves and for their community and where they can laugh and cry together, they show up in incredibly powerful ways. The act of telling their own gender stories and listening to those of others becomes a little easier and perceptions start shifting.

On our most recent visit, in efforts to allow for deeper reflection and connection with one another, we included a walk in nature. What was meant to be a two hour walk, turned into a 4 hour walk filled with stories of the games we played as children, to the tradition of ‘bossie doktors’ (herbalists) in our communities. The walk also included stretches of quiet reflection – something that far too often is seen as indulgence and not an important part of self-care. We returned to our workshop space sweating, tired and although a little sunburnt, we felt richer and filled to the brim with gratitude and appreciation. When we debriefed as a group, one participants remarked, “Nature is healing”.

When thinking of mental health and wellbeing and how it intersects with reconciliation and justice, it is important to take cognisance of the whole person experience. Our minds and our bodies cannot be separated and when we’re holding space for healing, it is imperative that we design interventions in ways that are holistic, and where we can interrogate what it will take for individuals to realize their own potential and cope with the normal stresses of life toward being able to contribute positively to shaping a community that they dream of. (Article contribution: Eleanor du Plooy)