By Hopewell Chin’ono
Today it is World Autism Awareness Day, a day that ordinarily we should be reflecting on this condition and how it affects many families around our communities.
A Broadcaster’s fundraising trailer for Hopewell Chin’ono’s upcoming Autism documentary film
Autism is one of those thoroughly misunderstood conditions and I am not even sure that it even has a name in Shona or Ndebele, just like depression, it has been nameless in our varied African communities.
That lack of definition reflects a very deep-rooted problem that extends and fuels the stigmatization of individuals living with Autism.
I am interested in Autism because my next documentary film will be looking at this condition, and asking the most uncomfortable questions that reflect on the emotional pain suffered by Autistic individuals and their carers in our communities.
Why is it that as Africans we have been generally unable to accept Autism as part of our human existence, something no different to any other medical condition like diabetes or High Blood Pressure?
Something that one can live with as long as it is well managed and not stigmatized by society.
I met Tawana last year as I was researching for my last documentary film, State of Mind, which looked at mental illness disorders.
As with all my documentary films, I started off filming State of Mind without institutional funding.
A friend of mine then saw my Facebook post requesting for participants for State of Mind, she directed me to her own friend called Flora.
Flora is a lawyer and a very accomplished and engaging corporate professional, but she had one problem that she struggled with together with her husband Gordon.
They couldn’t find a school where their son Tawana could fit in and be accepted just as another child in class, Tawana lives with Autism.
When I finally got funding for State of Mind in 2017, it turned out that the Director of the organization funding State of Mind, Sipho Malunga, had gone to university with Flora.
Sipho started talking about other people around him who had kids with Autism, and then I suddenly realized that it is a condition that is alive in our communities, but unfortunately ignored and stigmatized.
Tawana was meant to be in State of Mind, but suddenly I made a film director’s decision after realizing that Autism was a completely different story from the mental illness disorder stories in State of Mind.
I am yet to make the Autism film, it will be called Beautiful: A Zimbabwean Autistic Odyssey.
It is indeed an odyssey for these families, they thrive under very difficult societal circumstances and attitudes towards Autism.
Many in our communities suffer from the stigma associated with Autism, as Africans we have defined Autism in very painful and inordinately ignorant ways.
At times it is associated with witchcraft, and invariably Autistic kids are made to go through the misplaced and emotionally abusive rituals associated with witchcraft.
In today’s Pentecostal churches, Autism is associated with demons and satanic powers that the pastors purport to be able to exorcise.
Extended family members always put pressure on affected parents to go through these unhelpful and ineffective rituals.
In progressive spaces some of these rituals would easily pass for child abuse, kids are “beaten” with all sorts of things that are supposedly meant to drive the so called demons and satanic powers away.
It is all a tragic charade that at its core is meant to get money from these families or meant to justify the ignorance in our communities about Autism.
Some of these families do these things to retain or gain acceptance in their communities because these spiritual leaders have towering and disproportionate influence in these communities.
On one occasion Tawana and his parents were kicked out of a traditional church because their child was said to be abnormal.
Tawana was simply being playful in the best way that he knew how, he is Autistic after all and should be treated as such and not stigmatized.
Kicking out Tawana out of church reflects that even the spiritual leaders who are supposed to provide a leaning arm for families in stigmatized anguish, are themselves simply part of our community eco system.
Tawana’s father never went back to that church, only Flora goes there but without her child, it broke my heart when they painfully sobbed as they explained that incident.
We have watched Western movies like Rain Man, we called them amazing and even though Rain Man was made exactly 30 years ago, it is still celebrated today even by black Africans.
It is easier perhaps to see this condition in Western lenses and be mesmerized by how Autistic individuals in those movies are super smart as seen in Rain Man.
It is now time to see Autism in our own African lenses and start having an honest conversation about how we treat Autistic individuals in our communities.
Beautiful: A Zimbabwean Autistic Odyssey will hopefully be a small contribution towards that herculean task of changing attitudes in the same way that State of Mind is doing to those who have seen it.
Flora and Gordon have turned their servant’s quarters at home into a school for Autistic kids, they have to do this because even the state is in disorder in regards to this condition.
With only 14 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe, this is one battle that should be at the foremost of our minds, a society which can’t look after its most vulnerable members would have lost its moral compass and right to be respected.
April is Autism month, learn something about this misunderstood neurological condition.
We need to start a serious conversation that will lead to a meaningful understanding of Autism and do away with the archaic explanations rooted in our cultural and religious beliefs.
• The dictionary definition of Autism is a disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour.
Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.
He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa Leadership Institute.
Hopewell has a new documentary film looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind, which was launched to critical acclaim.
The recently departed music superstar Oliver Mtukudzi wrote the sound track for State of Mind.
It was recently nominated for a big award at the Festival International du Film Pan-Africain de Cannes in France and in the UK at the Heart of England International Film Festival. You can watch the documentary trailer below.