For the past year, I have been sharing my story of living with depression on my personal blog. And part of my inspiration has come from the courage I found in the autobiography of popular South African actress, Bonnie Henna (previously Bonnie Mbuli), ‘Eyebags and Dimples’. A household name to many, she has appeared in various South African television shows, from the popular soap operas ‘Backstage’ and ‘Rhythm City’, to internationally acclaimed movies such as ‘Catch a Fire’.
Given Henna’s renown, her openness to come out and share a struggle which remains taboo in our culture as Africans helps lift the burden of loneliness for others struggling with mental health issues.
At the beginning of the book, Henna states;
“African culture has always prized secrecy. We veil the truth in order to protect the group; we teach each other to value group safety above the safety of the individual; we cover our wounds for fear of what our neighbours and peers may say. But under such a veil wounds fester, and then we pass them on to the next generation. I cannot bear to see this cycle continue, so I have taken it upon myself to break the silence and let in the light.”
The courage it must have taken to write this book is embodied in this statement as Henna opens up about a space of pain that many live with but never speak of. She goes on to trace the roots of her depression to the trauma of her childhood and explains how silence – in her home and society in general – nurtured it.
The internal violence of the black African home, especially during apartheid, is accurately portrayed as Henna deftly connects the history of violence and trauma caused by the apartheid machinery to the influence it had over the family environment. Recounting the pain and trauma she inherited from her mother and grandmother, and her own experiences of state-imposed fear and violence, she writes of her feelings of displacement and un-belonging within the South African nation space. In the narrative it is clear that this violence has a lasting impact on black South Africans’ ideas of their self-worth and dignity, and more specifically on Henna who describes carrying the shame of being labelled an inferior.
By making this connection between the history of violence within South Africa – due to apartheid and the trauma it caused – and the mental imbalance we see in the African family, she indirectly challenges the notion of mental illness and psychological instability as foreign to black African culture.
Henna struggles to adjust to any kind of society. Her home life is clouded by her mother’s constant threats to commit suicide and the burden this leaves on her to take on most of the family’s responsibilities.
And although she makes a break into the entertainment industry at a young age, she is unable to escape her feelings of estrangement from society, as well as the bouts of depression that have become a part of her life. Relationships, for her, become an escape from the loneliness and from the fear that she may not be good enough.
However, it is experiences within her subsequent marriage and attempts to break into Hollywood that lead Henna to her breaking point. As she moves from one dysfunction to another, her demons become the pleasure of the press to unfold.
Her oasis becomes God when she turns to religion, but she realises a further need for professional help. But, as she restates, there remains a prevailing stigma attached to black people taking medication for ‘feeling sad’. This takes her on another journey to acknowledge the reality of depression as a legitimate disease, and to seek emotional and bodily healing.
Writing herself into self-appreciation
What I absolutely love about Henna’s book is her writing technique. Her use of candid and striking language, coupled with her attention to the details of her emotions, soberly exposes a scared little girl who feels more and more walled in with each passing day. And Henna does not hold back as she severely dissects her failures and misdirected behaviour, from her relationships to her extravagant lifestyle.
At the same time, this is one of the few autobiographies I have ever read where the author treats their own character and story with such gentleness and a caring manner. It is as if she takes this opportunity to write herself into this new appreciation of her value and finally come to understand and love who she is. This gentleness shows distinct growth that appeals not only to people struggling with similar issues but all people in general attempting to re-walk paths of pain and come to terms with themselves.
As Henna states;
“For a long time I felt misunderstood by the world. Now I realise that I was the one who misunderstood me. I’ve had to forgive myself and others. I had misguided and unreasonable expectations, and wandered around aimlessly seeking fulfilment in all the wrong places.”
The beauty she manages to mine from deep within, in her walk with depression, even in her initial ignorance about it – is inspiring.
Additionally, she is able to trace the significance of her life experiences to her artistic path.
“Mysteriously, destiny had made sure that in the loneliness of my childhood, in the womb of time spent daydreaming and losing myself in the world of books, an insatiable passion for characters, their stories and motivations had slowly been forged. In every story lies a truth, and I loved to dig it up and set it free, to give it wings – almost like an act of justice. It felt like a privilege to be able to justify a character’s choices and present their story in a way that could make the audience sympathetic to their cause. Through acting I got to tell stories to the world in their most glorious form – without judgement, stripped to their simplest and most human core”
The story Henna tells is not simply her own, but a narration of the traumatic experience she and two other women in her lineage have lived through. She gives us new insights into this inheritance of pain, trauma and violence but also the strength to live beyond it and find healing.
Feminist thinker, Audre Lorde once stated, “We have been socialised to respect fear more than our own need for language.” This is often true in our lives as women. And even more so as black women.
There has been a struggle to find a language to represent our trauma, limited space to cry our tears, and no one to acknowledge our pain. Henna’s is the first book by a black African woman writing about mental illness that I have come across. And she, and others who speak and write of the ‘taboos’ plaguing black African culture, are definitely beginning to reverse our silencing.