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Khanyo Mjamba

Khanyo Mjamba

Depression has long been misunderstood in many African communities—especially in men. Usually attributed to misfortune or witchcraft, its destructive effects are visible on families and communities. A young South African photographer visually examines the relationship between the illness, the afflicted and the affected in a poignant series of images.


Cape Town-based photographer, Thembela ‘Nymless’ Ngayi’s recent project The Great African Horror, is a series of monochrome portraits depicting African men’s struggle with depression.

“When one of my peers committed suicide in 2002, the community was quick to say that he was “bewitched” because he was a straight-A student,” says Ngayi. “No one knew he suffered from depression.” The title, explains Ngayi, alludes to the “horrifying story” that follows undiagnosed depression—cases that can destroy families and communities.

Ngayi’s photographic career began in 2010 when he and his hip-hop crew, Street Lyricists, needed album art for their mixtape. At the time, he had a small camera with which he began taking photos at their various performances. This ignited in him the love for photography but it was only in 2014 that he began taking it seriously. He now alternates between photography and a day job in PR. Ngayi is also the founder of Organized Crime, a creatives’ collective.

The Great African Horror moves away from a perspective that might attribute depression to witchcraft or ‘bad luck’. Using monochrome images, the series shows a man and a woman in various settings and with a number of different props. The man in the photos is the afflicted while the woman represents the affected: family unit, support structure or community.

“She is greatly affected by the depression and eventually becomes a victim as she is also not equipped to help the man deal with it,” says Ngayi. “She also represents “society” which can become the catalyst for a person’s depression. Society often turns a blind eye to the condition, hence, in some of the images she seems as though she doesn’t notice his suffering.”

At the same time, even though the photographs are primarily about the man’s struggle, the choice of depicting a man and woman was deliberate to acknowledge depression’s non-exclusivity to gender.

“The woman plays a dual role in the series. At first she represents society, the black community I grew up in. In some shots you see her ignoring the male character while he seeks her attention and this is the same way society will ignore you when you go through a low point in life. Friends start to distance themselves from you.

We also see her sympathise with the male character in shots where he lays dead, the same way people would feel once a person has decided to take their lives because they had no one to help them through their depression. The knife she points at him represents the name calling and sharp hurtful comments that are thrown once a black man admits he suffers from depression. This is why we avoid talking about our feelings and just deal with them internally.”

The photographs are of a personal nature to Ngayi. In 2015 he went through a number of setbacks that led him to what he describes as his “lowest point” where “everything felt like it was old and time stood still.”

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), the rates of depression amongst men in South Africa is climbing alarmingly. They receive up to 97 calls a day. Research suggests that men are less likely to seek treatment for depression, a serious illness which can be successfully treated. Their data also shows that men die by suicide at four times the rate of women.

In coming up with the series, Ngayi says that most of the time involved planning. He spent time reading up on clinical depression and figuring out how best to interpret it photographically.

Hajooj Kuka's delicate treatment of the plight of the people of Sudan's Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile, Beats of the Antonov, offers a rare and sensitive look at the anxiety of communities dancing on the edge of a blade and the music through which they seek to keep their identities and culture intact

One is never at peace with oneself when in the midst of an identity crisis. The internal tug-of-war that transpires between opposing elements vying for some kind of superior legitimacy is recipe for dis-ease. In many ways, Sudan’s north and south offer symptoms to this malady, a rather common ailment in Africa.

Beats of the Antonov opens up with a wide shot of a sky with a solitary airplane cutting forbodingly through cirrus clouds. People on the ground scramble for shelter when they see it. “The plane is coming! The Antonov! It’s here!” A thunderous explosion soon follows as people climb into trenches serving as protection from the sky-borne destruction. When they eventually emerge from their hiding places, off-camera, children are laughing. Unable to contain their relief from having lived through yet another Sudan-sanctioned bombing, they indulge themselves in hysterics. Just an ordinary day in the lives of the people of Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile.

“The laughter is always there. People laugh despite the catastrophe because they realise they are not hurt. Laughter is like a new birth,”

Since independence in 1956, Sudan has been engaged in constant civil war. 55 years later, the people of Sudan voted for a secession from Sudan under the leadership of the Sudan people’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The people of Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, however, remained in the north in spite of the fact that they had fought for their rights alongside the south. A few months after the separation, SPLA rebels from the region entered into a new war waged by President Omar al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).

Between the sporadic Antonov bombings, the local communities eke out a basic existence under UNHCR-supplied tents but hold fast to their way of life, preserving their culture. An intrinsic part of this preservation is their music and their dancing.

The film presents the root cause of the conflict in the region as being al-Bashir’s denial of his blackness and identification with Arabness. This denial also manifests itself in his government’s savage Islamification and attempted erasure of all things ‘African’.

The documentary is one that every African should see. Not just because it has scooped Best Documentary awards in prestigious festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival, Cordoba African Film Festival and the Durban International Film Festival. While being one part ethnomusicological look at the resilient cultures of the region, it also reignites the debate about South Africa’s decision to let President al-Bashir slip out of the country, away from the clutches of the International Criminal Court (ICC) after his attendance of the AU Summit held in Johannesburg this past June. The ICC often comes under criticism for unfairly and consistently targeting African leaders. But, the documentary sheds another light into just one aspect of the atrocities of which President al-Bashir is accused.

While the move by SA can be seen as a nod towards solidarity and Pan-Africanism, questions about the validity of the accusations against al-Bashitr have perhaps not been voiced enough from within the continent. This picture raises those questions without losing focus on the optimism amidst anxiety felt by the oppressed people of the region. Beats of the Antonov is a metaphor of the injustices, the cultural imposition Africa has been faced with over the past several centuries. It is a story of Africans steadfastly holding on to and celebrating who they are while staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.