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A happy childhood? Stress paints an uneasy future for Zimbabwean
July 27, 2012
The first time
Mandisa* had the night terrors, her mother was convinced she was
being murdered in her bed.
so loud, so chilling, I couldn't believe her screams hadn't woken
her!" said her mother, Tenjiwe.
She would scream
continuously for up to 15 minutes at a time, without waking up,
and nothing could rouse her. Afterwards she would be so spent, she
would lie shuddering in her bed.
took Mandisa to the family doctor, she didn't have to wrack her
brain when he asked if there was anything different in the home,
any trauma which could have triggered the 13-year old's terror,
manifesting itself in her sleep.
Two weeks earlier,
Mandisa's father, Peter, hadn't come home from his job as manager
of a local retail company. On one of the coldest weekends of that
bitter winter, Peter had spent two nights in prison, stripped of
his shoes and jacket - only two items of clothing are permitted
in a Zimbabwean holding cell - and forced to share the 2m sq space
with the Friday night regulars: a motley crew of criminals and prostitutes.
One man was rumoured to have slit another man's throat in a drunken
trading in foreign currency in the dark era of hyper-inflation,
before the adoption of the US dollar as an official currency.
He was finally
released on Monday morning.
had always been a restless sleeper, began having intense and frequent
night terrors soon afterwards. Nothing the doctor advised helped,
not the holistic tranquilisers nor the change of bedroom. Within
a year, Peter resigned from his job and the family emigrated.
Tenjiwe in Essex, England, where the family now lives, she remembers
the period as if it was yesterday.
tried to put it all behind us, but when we allow ourselves to relive
it, the feelings are quite indescribable," said Tenjiwe. "First
there was the arrest, then the on-going court case with the real
threat of charges being laid and serious jail-time. Plus Peter's
passport was taken away for the duration.
definitely a deciding factor in us leaving. I will never forget
the feeling of complete and utter helplessness when he was being
arrested. You realise how powerless you are."
noticed a significant difference in Mandisa since moving to the
things that you don't even think children notice, like meticulously
locking up at night and driving with all the car doors and windows
locked," said Tenjiwe.
we first got here, Mandisa would start getting anxious towards dusk,
and ask if everything was locked up. With time, the night terrors
stopped and now she sleeps like a log!"
Soon after moving
to the UK, Tenjiwe began suffering from digestion problems and was
diagnosed with a rare condition, most likely triggered by stress.
who diagnosed me felt that what we had experienced could well have
set off the condition, one which is incurable and I will have for
the rest of my life," said Tenjiwe. "So, in effect, Zimbabwe
has left its mark on all of us."
Not every story
is quite so dramatic. Not every child in Zimbabwe suffering from
stress has had a family member jailed or murdered, although there
are those instances right across the social and racial spectrum.
There are also the everyday examples of living - and growing up
- in an environment with an unusually high level of stress, and
with parents whose exposure to, and efforts to deal with uncertainty,
rubs off on their children.
mother of two, remembers the era of food shortages and how it affected
her children, at the time aged four and seven.
see this anxiety, related to food, in my children," she said.
"There's definitely an element of gluttony - eating even when
they aren't hungry - just because they can. It's two years on, and
I'm certainly seeing early signs of weight problems in my nine-year
old daughter, something no-one in the family has ever suffered from
of stress on the young are, however, most pointedly felt within
When the top
stream of a local school started their high school career in 2004,
there were 32 students in the class. When they graduated six years
later, in 2010, they had lost almost half that number.
career of this particular group of graduates, which wrote O-Levels
in 2008, coincided with a particularly difficult time in the country's
economy, a period marked by hyper-inflation and food shortages,"
said an executive teacher at the school.
the outward results of this was the class losing no fewer than 15
students when their families emigrated due to the harsh economic
conditions," he said.
The more subtle
results are even more widespread...and more alarming.
Among them are
increased disciplinary and learning problems, as well as an increase
in the number of students who are not only living alone but, in
many cases, running a household of younger siblings.
forced many people to seek work outside the country, merely to survive,
leaving their children here to continue their schooling," said
a remedial teacher at another high school.
seeing the result of this every day in the school: children living
without reliable adult supervision, or any supervision at all, responsible
for their own meals and transport and, in many cases, with little
or no guidance in terms of responsibility, moral values and discipline,"
the instance of a 15 year-old boy who kept falling asleep in class.
When she questioned him about his lack of energy, she discovered
that he was living alone as both his parents were working in South
He had to find
his own transport home, a distance of about 15km, at the end of
a long day of school and sports, and then, when he reached home,
would often have to wait for the electricity to come back after
load shedding, sometimes as late as 10pm, to start cooking himself
if his parents were late sending money, he would have to walk home.
He was just perpetually exhausted, and not coping at all,"
The number of
children being referred for remedial lessons is increasing every
year, and in many of the instances, the students are found to be
capable, but not able to apply themselves.
showing more signs of violence and aggression than I've seen in
my six years of teaching at the school, while, on the other extreme,
they often exhibit fear and insecurity which can only be put down
to neglect and lack of adult guidance and supervision," said
the remedial teacher.
what these children have - and are being - exposed to, and who is
at home to protect them from it."
A local psychologist
who specialises in child and family counseling confirms that stress
is playing a large role in shaping Zimbabwe's young.
is of concern is that these effects will not be short-term, we are
in for a long run which is worrying because these are the adults
of tomorrow, the generation which will one day be running the country,"
One of the most
notable stress factors facing youth is pessimism about the future,
resulting in a generation which is lacking in direction and ambition.
She said even
if a child was fortunate enough to leave school with good O and
A Levels, the opportunities for tertiary education and career development
were still severely limited.
do they have to look forward to? They ask themselves this question
and, when they realise the answer is 'very little', they give up,
choosing to fill their lives, instead, with drugs, alcohol and vandalism,"
was quick to caution against labeling the pressures on Zimbabwean
youth as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, saying it was, in modern
times, over-used and over-rated.
is a very real condition for people who have experienced a particular
incident which has been life-changing and/or life-threatening, the
result of which would be a number of conditions, from flashbacks
to sleep disorders.
accident, a rape or violent burglary could lead to PTSD, but this
is no quick and easy diagnosis. In fact it can only be diagnosed
if the effects are long-lasting, up to three months or longer, and
if the person is having trouble returning to normal life after the
incident," she said.
this does not diminish the many and very real stress factors we
see exhibited in Zimbabwean youth today: children living in child-led
households or with untrustworthy adults, dealing with absentee parents
and lack of finances for education, transport, food and shelter,
stresses which would, in some other societies, be absorbed by the
parents but are now the worry of the children."
The lack of
supervision coupled with the easier access to the internet, was
also leading to an increase in the viewing of pornography, it being
the belief that in Zimbabwe today there is porn in some form in
effect is an early onset of sexual awareness, leading to children
as young as six or seven engaging in activities of a sexual nature
and, in the worst case scenario, being raped or sexually abused.
The high level
of sexual abuse in the country has led to units being established
at major hospitals solely to deal with the victims and offer counseling
and support, while counselors are seeing an increase in children
as young as two years old who have been raped and abused.
a nicely-spoken 13-year old boy referred to you for counseling,
and you ask him why he raped the neighbour's three year old child
and he tells you, I saw people having sex on the computer and wanted
to see what it was like," said the counselor.
are also seeing an increase in the number of school referrals, students
who have exhibited violent or aggressive tendencies, shown lack
of respect for others and their property, and have been abusing
drugs and alcohol.
A reaction to
this has been an initiative in some schools to form clubs which
encourage children and youth to speak out about the issues that
One of the greatest
concerns voiced among the youth who attend these clubs is how to
reshape what looks like a dismal future, and they believe the only
way to do this is to make money. Having experienced the era of hyper-inflation,
where "wheeling and dealing" became, often out of necessity,
the norm in order to survive, they have grown up knowing little
is interested in an education or a career anymore, the lesson they
have learnt from watching society around them is that the only way
out is by making a lot of money," the counselor said.
a void of moral values and guidance around them and no-one they
feel they can turn to for advice, the implications for our youth
- and families as a whole - are dismal."
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