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A happy childhood? Stress paints an uneasy future for Zimbabwean youth

The first time Mandisa had the night terrors, her mother was convinced she was being murdered in her bed.

“It was 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.

When Tenjiwe 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 brawl.

Peter’s crime: 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.

Mandisa, who 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.

Speaking to Tenjiwe in Essex, England, where the family now lives, she remembers the period as if it was yesterday.

“We’ve 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.

“It was 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.”

Tenjiwe has noticed a significant difference in Mandisa since moving to the UK.

“Little 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.

“When 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.

“The doctor 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.

Thandiwe, a mother of two, remembers the era of food shortages and how it affected her children, at the time aged four and seven.

“I still 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 before.”

The effects of stress on the young are, however, most pointedly felt within the schools.

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.

“The school 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.

“One of 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.

“The situation 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.

“We’re 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,” she said.

She remembers 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 Africa.

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 a meal.

“Sometimes, if his parents were late sending money, he would have to walk home. He was just perpetually exhausted, and not coping at all,” she said.

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.

“They’re 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.

“Who knows 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.

“What 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,” she said.

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.

“What 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,” she said.

The counselor 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.

“PTSD 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.

“A car 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.

“However 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 many households.

A resultant 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.

“You get 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.

Counseling centres 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 concern them.

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 else.

“No-one 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.

“And with 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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Brilliantly sad article. 

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