Been there, gone Mal, got the T-shirt
Biénne Huisman12 October 2014 15:00
A drum session at Lentegeur, where participants show off the institution’s cheeky T-shirts. Picture: Jaco Marais
“Mal adjusted,” read the T-shirts worn by staff and patients at the Lentegeur Psychiatric Hospital in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats.
It is clever wordplay. “Mal” is Afrikaans for insane.
The shirts are just one part of a broader project to redesign the stark 630-bed hospital that was built in 1968.
The hospital is referred to as “die malhuis in die ghetto” (the loony bin in the ghetto) by the area’s residents.
Poverty, gangsterism and drug abuse are rife in Mitchells Plain, and Lentegeur is one of its more ironically named suburbs – literally translated, it means “the scent of spring”.
About two years ago, the metaphor in the name struck Dr John Parker, whose tenure at the hospital started in 2004, and he started the Lentegeur Spring Project.
“It is this classic apartheid name just dumped on this place. To me, the name was a beautiful gift that must be brought to life,” he said.
So on Heritage Day, Lentegeur’s gates were opened to the public for the Lentegeur Spring Project.
People were given a rare opportunity to look behind the high walls and barbed wire fences, and to see the changes planned for the grounds and the hospital.
Speakers addressed patients and members of the public in venues around the 80-hectare grounds. Famously “tjatjarag” puppet Chester Missing drew smiles, while drum circles and marimba bands lent a pulse to the chilly spring day.
Comedian Lunga Tshuka told the crowd that once our society could laugh at itself, South Africa would be well on its way to recovery – which drew a burst of giggles and cheers from a burly man based at the hospital.
Speaking to City Press, Parker said much of his thinking was based on the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault, a significant premise being that recovery is not about being “sick” or “well” – it’s a journey and we’re all on it.
In his office, Parker’s black hair stands awry. His left ear lobe is pierced and adorned with a small silver ring.
There’s a poster of revolutionary icon Che Guevara on the wall behind him, and his speech is thoughtful and laced with humour.
Parker cites Foucault’s 1961 book History of Madness, which criticised institutionalism – the banishing of “unreasonables” from society.
This practice originated in the “age of reason” in the mid-17th century.
“The so-called unreasonables were hidden away forever in these big, weird warehouses of the doomed,” said Parker.
“We see echoes of that in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“Even at Lentegeur, with its barren buildings, it’s like a prison. When you walk out, you get lost in the space. Aesthetically, it’s hardly a place of care and nurture,” he said.
Parker’s mission is to change this.
He said people with mental illnesses should be cared for and, if possible, reintegrated with friends and family.
Moreover, he wants to reinstil a sense of pride among community members whose heritage was stolen when they were forcibly moved from across Cape Town to the Cape Flats, as per the apartheid government’s Group Areas Act.
On September 24 at Lentegeur, yellow flowers nodded on lawns flanked by recently planted lavender and aloe plants.
In the past year, Parker, staff and patients have planted 300 trees, among them olive, waterbessie and milkwood.
Patients are also managing a food garden with cabbages and onions. These vegetables are then used in meals by the hospital’s cafeteria.
“When you are proud, you don’t sh*t on your own doorstep. You don’t sell tik to your neighbour’s son, right?” Parker pointed out. “This culture of addiction is all about instant happiness. People are not connected with the consequences of what they do – ‘I want this now and to hell with tomorrow.’
“People throw things away, but they don’t realise there is no ‘away’. Everything is connected,” he added.
Even though he suffered a nervous breakdown five years ago, Parker is not about to leave.
“I don’t want to work anywhere else in the world. This place is home.”
Do you want to boast that you are “Mal adjusted”? The T-shirts can be purchased online at the Thrive Magazine website, www.thrivemag.co.za, for R100 each