In the beginning, it was all about the shoes. In the early 1950s in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, the pantsulas defied their lean material circumstances by dressing in designer clothing. Influenced by American jazz music, they danced with a quick-stepping style, tapping the floor in a way that wouldn’t ruin their expensive footwear.
Sixty years on, pantsula (both the name of the dance and its surrounding culture) still thrives in townships across South Africa, but its character and style have morphed in line with the lives of the people who cultivated it. Only recently has pantsula broken into the mainstream dance world. You can see it in the show Via Kanana, created by the South African choreographer Gregory Maqoma and dancers from the Katlehong township, playing at Shoreditch Town Hall, east London, as part of Dance Umbrella.
Pantsula took its early influences predominantly from tap dance, with traces of jive, gumboot, tribal African dance and everyday gestures like dice-rolling. Its trademark is intricate, on-the-spot rhythmic footwork, where feet twist, shuffle and stamp. But those early pantsulas were as much about style as dancing. With a gangsterish attitude, fancy clothes, expensive liquor and women on their arms, “they’d be the people who were feared the most in the township,” says Maqoma.
Maqoma grew up in Soweto in the 70s and 80s in a conservative Christian household, and the pantsulas were seen as “the bad guys”, but he couldn’t help being intrigued. The groups he knew were named after their favoured labels – the Pierre Cardins, the Valentinos – but Maqoma was more interested in their moves. “I was always curious about their movement and the dance style, the sense of expression,” he says.
In the 70s, the townships were growing, and the gangs were competing for territory and status. But in parallel, the dance was becoming more competitive, and status could be won on the dancefloor, too. “The footwork became more sophisticated, more complex in its rhythms, and each group became known for its own innovative form of dancing,” says Maqoma.
In the 80s came influences from hip-hop and from television. As a boy, Maqoma was more inspired by Michael Jackson than pantsula, but he happened to live near a hostel for migrant workers who came from all over southern Africa and at the weekends would go and watch them dance their own traditional forms. All these things influenced the young Maqoma, and fed into pantsula dance culture as well.
“Pantsula reflected the changing landscape of the township itself,” says Maqoma, “and the fact that the township is made of people from different cultural backgrounds. You learn in your backyard when young people start putting steps together, it’s very much a collective form.”
These days you don’t have to go to a township to see pantsula, you can just search on YouTube, where you’ll find a resurgence of dance groups all taking pantsula in new directions. What’s most striking – aside from the ever-expanding variations in style, the crazy energy and speed, the pounding beats of kwaito house music – is that pantsula is an increasingly political form, reflecting the concerns of the young people who dance it.
You’ll find pantsula dancers campaigning against drink, drugs and violence – things that were all hallmarks of its early days. “It is evolving,” says Maqoma, who believes young people are “more socially aware of their environment and how they can contribute and respond to their circumstances. They’re surrounded by the social imbalances within their townships and they are part of the new post-apartheid struggle.”
Maqoma feels an urgency in the air that is perfectly captured by the relentless attack of pantsula. “It’s young people stepping up and creating a revolution in their own way,” he says. “Responding to what’s going on in the political sphere, in terms of corruption, the complex nature of land rights, the decay in just … humanity. And young people want to hold those in power accountable.”
The performance Maqoma has created is about corruption. “When we created the work we were still under the leadership of probably the most corrupt leader in our country, our ex-president Zuma.” It draws on the lives and concerns of the dancers of Via Katlehong. Maqoma remembers: “One of the guys said: ‘You know, my grandmother still lives in a shack, and I live in a shack, and it’s 24 years after apartheid: what has the fight really been for? Why are things still the same? Why are things worse?’”
Amid the problems and the protest, though, there is always time to dance. Maqoma now lives in north-east Johannesburg, but the life of the city is still in the townships, he says, and every weekend that’s where he goes. “It’s part of killing our own depression, to party, to make noise, to come together. It’s psychological therapy for our people. Dance and music is what we own and it gives us life.”
Although it originated in northern parts of Ghana, the rice-and-bean-based dish known as waakye is today consumed on a national level.
Whether it’s eaten for breakfast or lunch, this dish can be made as rich and as filling as one likes by adding an almost unending list of accompaniments. The most typical ones include fried plantains, the spaghetti-like talia, a black pepper sauce called shito, boiled eggs, avocados, a tomato-based soup which contains meat, and gari foto — a mashed sauce made with finely grated cassava. This versatile dish is a favorite street food and comes served on a large waakye leaf.
Preventing poor mental health in childhood and in later life needs a two-pronged approach.
Poor mental health among young people is on the rise in the UK, while access to support and treatment remains patchy. There is now a pressing need to build resilience in young people to minimise their risk of poor mental health later on, as our latest report argues.
There are 12.5m young people in England, and one in ten will experience poor mental health. Half of all lifelong mental health problems start before the age of 14, but only one in four young people uses mental health services. An extra 23,800 staff, at a cost of £1.77 billion, is needed so that every young person who needs mental health support can get it. In the short term, though, this is unrealistic.
To address this treatment gap, we need to invest in building young people’s resilience in order to minimise their risk of developing poor mental health in the first place. A recent study from Wales showed that people with high resilience in childhood are less than half as likely to develop a mental health condition, compared with those who have low resilience during childhood. The early years, before the age of 18, are the best time to build resilience as it provides lifelong mental health benefits.
Resilience is the ability to deal with life’s challenges and stresses in a healthy and positive way. This involves drawing on personal resources, such as the ability to manage anxiety and negative thoughts, as well as social resources, such as having positive relationships with family, friends and adults, including teachers.
Social and economic circumstances also affect a child’s ability to develop resilience. Children from low-income families are much more likely to experience poor mental health, compared with children from high-income families.
Preventing poor mental health in childhood and in later life needs a two-pronged approach. First, parents need support so they can provide a secure home for their children. Alongside this, parents, schools and youth organisations need to help children develop positive relationships and teach them how to deal with relationship problems and other difficulties in life.
Second, we need to minimise the risk to children’s mental health. These risks include all forms of abuse, poverty and other negative experiences during childhood, such as being bullied. Positive relationships with family members, friends, teachers and other adults can act as a buffer against these negative experiences.
Investing in prevention would save the government, the NHS, education, the criminal justice system and employers money in the long run, so investing in the resilience of children should be everybody’s business.
While there have been repeated calls for action over the past ten years, progress has been sluggish. Many areas lack a strategy, and investment in preventative activity is often short term.
Planning for a resilient generation requires public health to work with health, education, parents, young people and other partners. Together they need to identify the actions they can take for the whole population as well as for those groups that are particularly at risk. And they will need to prioritise what to invest in. There is good evidence for specific interventions that will improve mental health and deliver an early payback on the investment. For example, providing social and emotional learning in schools can achieve a saving of £5 for every £1 invested over a three-year period.
Local government also needs to take action to ensure that vulnerable families and young people have a secure income, housing and access to health, education and employment. This includes a concerted effort to reduce the harm caused by negative childhood experiences, such as abuse, and by focusing on young people who are particularly at risk of poor mental health, as is the case with young people who have been in care.
Even with a robust resilience programme, there will always be young people who experience poor mental health, so it’s still important to respond quickly to the first signs of distress. This has implications for all of us in knowing how to respond well and how to access the right support.
Mental health services for young people have long waiting lists and we need to develop accessible and friendly one-stop-shop services that can better meet their needs, such as the Australian organisation, Headspace, a national youth mental health service, designed with input from young people.
Building resilience, minimising risks to mental health and ensuring effective support is available has the potential to halve the number of children experiencing poor mental health within a generation. The benefits of this will be realised not only by young people and their families but also by wider society and the economy.
Investing in the resilience of young people is everybody’s business. It is time for the hand-wringing about the poor mental health of children and young people to stop and for action to be taken. A first step is for investment in the resilience of children and young people to be a clear priority for government and public services.
Extreme heat has gripped the northern hemisphere in recent months, and the year 2018 is on track to be among the hottest ever recorded. Higher global temperatures are expected to have detrimental effects on our natural environments and our physical health, but what will they do to our mental health?
New research from an international team of scientists suggests that one of the most tangible impacts may be an increase in suicide rates.
Suicide is already among the leading causes of death worldwide. For people aged 15-55 years, it is among the top five causes of death. Worldwide nearly one million people die by suicide each year — more than all deaths from war and murder combined.
Using historical temperature records from the United States and Mexico, the researchers showed that suicide rates increased by 0.7 per cent in the U.S. and by 2.1 per cent in Mexico when the average monthly temperatures rose by 1 C.
Why this is remains unclear. There is a well-documented link between rising temperatures and interpersonal violence and suicide could be understood as an act of violence directed at oneself. Lisa Page, a researcher in psychology at King’s College London, notes:
“While speculative, perhaps the most promising mechanism to link suicide with high temperatures is a psychological one. High temperatures have been found to lead individuals to behave in a more disinhibited, aggressive and violent manner, which might in turn result in an increased propensity for suicidal acts.”
The effects of hotter temperatures on suicides are symptomatic of a much broader and more expansive problem: the impact of climate change on mental health.
Climate change will increase the frequency and severity of heat waves, droughts, storms, floods and wildfires. It will extend the range of infectious diseases such as Zika virus, malaria and Lyme disease. It will contribute to food and water shortages and fuel forced migration, conflict and war.
But effects are not limited to people who suffer direct losses — for example, it has been estimated that up to half of Hurricane Katrina survivors developed post-traumatic stress disorder even when they had suffered no direct physical losses.
The feelings of loss that follow catastrophic events, including a sense of loss of safety, can erode community well-being and further undermine mental health resilience.
Vigorous greenhouse gas reduction strategies will reduce the chance of dangerous runaway climate change and help mitigate the worst effects of climate change on mental health, but these efforts may not be sufficient.
Installing more air conditioning units, for instance, may not significantly reduce suicide rates or mitigate the effects of extreme heat on health and well-being. Adaptation, including substantial investment in mental health services, will be essential.
Building resilience through increased social connectedness within and between communities will be vital.
Research is a matter of life and death
Mental health problems have diverse manifestations that vary across contexts and throughout a lifetime. They are the result of long and intricate causal pathways. Climate change is not an isolated cause of suicide, but one of several factors.
Integrating these pathways into a conceptual framework — for example using systems thinking — is a crucial step toward developing public policy, practice and research that will equip us to respond to climate change.
Climate change is a daunting global public health challenge without ready solutions and we have been far too slow to take the risks seriously. We have also missed promising opportunities to use climate change as a mechanism to promote improved mental health.
There is an urgent need for research that informs our understanding of the mental health consequences of climate change so that we can prepare for the challenges ahead.
For some, it really is a matter of life or death.
International suicide prevention and support hotlines can be found here.
Kenya has made big strides in improving the life expectancy of its citizens, who are poised to outlive their East African neighbours except Rwandese by 2040, a new global demographic report says.
The report published in the international medical journal Lancet last week says Kenyans are expected to live for 73.9 years by the year 2040.
This will be a significant improvement from the average life expectancy of 66.9 years in 2016 that placed the country 146th among 195 nations.
“Kenya could rise to a rank of 134 in 2040 with an average life expectancy of 73.9 years, an increase of seven years. Kenya’s life expectancy could increase by as much as 11.1 years in a better health scenario or decrease by 0.7 year in a worse health scenario,” the report says.
Using data from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease study, which examined data and estimates from 1990 to 2016, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle generated predictions from 2017 to 2040 for the 195 countries.
“Whether we see significant progress or stagnation depends on how well or poorly health systems address key health drivers,” the director of data science at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) and lead author of the study, Kyle Foreman, said, adding that the future of the world’s health is not pre-ordained, and that there is a wide range of plausible trajectories.
Mr Foreman said understanding potential trajectories in health and drivers of health was crucial to guiding long-term investments and policy implementation.
The study predicts that non-communicable diseases will be the major cause of death for East Africans going forward.
Projected average life expectancy in 2040
Average Life expectancy 2016 – Average Life Expectancy in 2040
It cites the five biggest drivers of health in the region as high blood pressure, high body mass index, high blood sugar, tobacco and alcohol use and predicts that more non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, will continue to replace infectious diseases as causes of death.
Rwanda, the outlier in the region, beats Kenya with an average life expectancy of 67.8 years in 2016, ranked 139 among 195 nations.
However, if recent health trends continue, it could rise to a rank of 124 in 2040 with an average life expectancy of 74.8 years, an increase of seven years. Tanzania, which had an average life expectancy of 64.3 years in 2016, and ranked 163 among 195 nations, comes in third in East Africa while Uganda with an average life expectancy of 62.2 years in 2016, is ranked 172.
The study predicts that if recent health trends in Uganda continue, the country could climb to a rank of 168 by 2040 with an average life expectancy of 69.5 years, an increase of 7.3 years.
Uganda’s life expectancy could, however, increase by as much as 10.6 years in a “better health scenario” or decrease by as much as 0.1 years in a “worse health scenario.”
Tanzania is tipped to rise to a rank of 151 in 2040 with an average life expectancy of 72.3 years, an increase of eight years.