MEMORIES WE LOST a short story by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi (South Africa)

MEMORIES WE LOST  a short story by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi  (South Africa)

                    Chris Hani Misama Ogweno (

The story is narrated by a girl whose elder sister is schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that causes periodic episodes of hallucinations known as psychotic episodes. The story explores the struggles of the narrator, her mother and her community at large  as they take care of her schizophrenic sister girl at a time when they know very little about the condition.

Plot Summary of Themes in Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

The story begins with the narrator mentioning the nature and unpredictability of the illness that troubles her elder sister. It causes her to lose her memory and speech. The narrator recounts some of the happy, sad and traumatic experiences she had with her sister. She remembers the long embraces they had to calm her sister down after her psychotic episodes. In one such incident, her sister ran away from home throwing the whole village into a panic. In another incident, her sister had banged her head on the wall repeatedly until she bled. Her sister also scalded her when she threw hot porridge at her. The narrator also recalls the day her sister caused an unrest at school by tossing desks and chairs in her classroom. Eventually, the condition makes her sister drop out of school.

The narrator refers to her sister’s psychotic episodes as “the thing” denoting the mystery surrounding schizophrenia in that society. It is this lack of knowledge that forces her mother to seek spiritual help from religious leaders and traditional healers called sangomas. 

Her mother and uncle conspire to take the girl to a sangoma far away who is known to cast demons out by burning patients. The sangoma would make a fire from cow dung and wood and then the “demon possessed” would be tied to a piece of zinc roofing then placed on the fire. The sangoma said that this way the demons would be baked and the burns recovery would take a week. The narrator hears about this plan and decides to run away with her sister at night. They walk until morning when they eventually see a hospital and the narrator is optimistic that maybe her sister can find help here.

Themes in Memories We Lost by Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

Mental illnesses

The author explores the community’s struggle with mental illnesses. From the onset, it is clear that the community lacks knowledge on the causes and effective treatment of schizophrenia and mental illnesses in general. This is despite that fact the condition ran in the family as the narrator’s father had also suffered similar psychotic episodes. This lack of knowledge leads to the myth that schizophrenia is caused by demons which can be cast out by healers. It also leads to stigmatization of the mentally ill. Such stigma endangers patient’s lives because of the dangerous rituals that healers use to cure their condition. The narrator resorts to run away from home with her sister to save her from a healer’s ritualistic burning. 

Through the flashbacks in the story we are able to see the traumatic effects of schizophrenia to the characters in the story.  First, The ‘thing’ took away the girl’s speech and then took her memory. The narrator mentions that her sister began speaking in a language that was unfamiliar and then the memories faded until she could not remember a thing from their past. One day the girl runs away from her home into the fields during the night. This awakens the villagers from their sleep so as to search for her in the fields. Her mother carries on the search up to morning until she finds her. She robs the village and her mother of their night sleep and peace.

The narrator remembers her sister banging her head on the wall until she bled. When she tries to calm her she resists by pushing her away, almost hurting her. The blood she left on the wall lingers on the narrator’s mind long after it had been wiped and covered by the “Sangomas”. This blood stain continues to trouble the narrator as she could still smell the bloodstain in her dreams and clothes long after the incident. She remembers when her sister burned her by throwing hot porridge at her. She describes the pain as unbearable. The narrator however says it had been her own carelessness that led to the burns so as to save her sister from the guilt. This shows the narrator as a caring and sympathetic person.

The illness made her sister dropout of school and it also caused her to be truant. This happened when the ‘thing’ struck while in class and she tossed a desk and chair in the classroom and was screaming in an unknown language leaving the other students shaken. She had to drop out and the narrator became truant so as to take care of her sister while at home again showing her caring and loving nature.

In one of his psychotic episodes, the narrator’s father had mounted his horse and left; never to be seen again. Mental illness robs the girls of their father while still young thus causing family disintegration.

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