Teen psyche distorts reality

Nongqawuse is the name of the girl generally held responsible for the national suicide of the Xhosa people exactly 150 years ago.

The tragedy has even been elaborately articulated in history books.

Decades later the first modern Xhosa poet who witnessed the suicide as a 17-year old wrote: "It happened that in the Thenjini region of Gcalekaland, in the ward of headman Mnzabele, in 1856. Two girls went out to the lands to keep the birds away from the corn.

"One was named Nongqawuse, daughter of Mhlakaza, and the other, the daughter of a sister of Mhlakaza.

"Near Kamanga river two men approached them and said, convey our greetings to your people, and tell them we are so-and-so and so-and-so," the poet wrote.

"And the names by which they called themselves turned out to be the names of people who were known to have died long ago."

A miracle would happen on the eighth day after the people had burnt their crops and killed their livestock. This is what Nongqawuse conveyed to the chiefs who ordered the destruction.

The rest is history. No wonder that today, if people do not believe you, they say: "You are telling a Nongqawuse tale."

Why am I talking about this?

We have a modern day Nongqawuse in our midst.

Like her, Francesca Zackey is a teenager and at 17, the same age as Nongqawuse. She's white and lives in Benoni, which is about the only difference between them, except that she is Catholic.

My exploring these differences or similarities between the two girls was inspired by the concerns of the eminent specialist psychiatrist, Jonathan Burns, who observed that there was reason to be concerned about Francesca's health.

I wish Burns had been there 150 years ago.

Who knows, his expertise might have prevented the catastrophe of Gcalekaland.

Burns said: "There are a number of possible psychiatric explanations for Zackey's experiences and behaviour as reported in the media. One - and probably the most serious possibility - is that she is suffering from a form of epilepsy known as complex partial epilepsy (CPE).

"In CPE, there is a localised or focal area of seizure activity in the brain that gives rise to specific symptoms. Sufferers usually experience an 'aura' first, and this may take the form of a hallucination in any sensory modality. So they may see shapes or visions, hear noises or voices, feel strange sensations in the abdomen or smell a particular odour ."

Francesca says she saw visions of the Virgin Mary in the sun. Now, two people who believed in her spirituality or gift are blind.

Nongqawuse saw visions of Xhosa fallen heroes inside a river. Thousands died.

Burns said these visions may present medical symptoms. Where were you then, Burns?

We have many Francescas out there. The question is: "How many?"

Imagine waking up to news headlines announcing the discovery of gold under an informal settlement.

I strongly suggest that all teenagers be banned from dreaming and in the case of Francesca from smelling roses.