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Veronica Betani photographed in front of the Umlibo artwork.

Veronica Betani

Climate impacts and mental health

For Veronica Betani, the strelitzia flower motif she embroiders onto cloth is the perfect expression of her life: “Sometimes that flower looks like it has vanished, but it sleeps for a bit and comes back. I take that as a symbol of myself. There are ups and down in life and I have overcome challenges, but I come back.”

She adds, “Even when there’s a drought, the strelitzia’s roots are still there. I am the same.”

Sitting in her rondawel near Hamburg with a grandchild on her lap, she weaves together her story of hardship and hope, and tells those in her presence that her anxiety about climate change does not exist in isolation.

It arrives on the back of life’s other difficulties.

Veronica was born in 1968 in a small Eastern Cape village near what was then King Williamstown with a population of around 10 000 but today is known as Qonce with three times as many people. She grew up under the dark veil of the apartheid system and was raised by her mother – a domestic worker doing long hours for little money.

By age 36, life seemed hopeful. Apartheid had ended, she had married a man she loved, she had three healthy children, and got a contract with an NGO.

But then, things took a turn.

Her husband fell in love with another woman, and she was ejected from the house she had built with him.
From there, life became near-impossible, and Veronica became a living example of how mental and physical health cannot be separated.

“It started off with terrible headaches,” she says, adding that epileptic fits soon followed and became increasingly frequent.

The one time, she stopped breathing and was rushed to hospital. But, while her life had been saved, her mental health deteriorated and she ended up in the psychiatric ward.

“I told the nurse, ‘These are not my people’, but the nurse said, ‘Sisi, you belong here, you have the same problem as these people’.

Nine long months passed before she found her footing, and the words of the doctor still ring in her ears. He said, “We can treat you, but until you solve the problem causing this, you will feel sick.”

“I had told myself I didn’t care that I had to move out of my house,” she says, “but inside, it was really working on my nerves and the doctor helped me see that this was the main problem.”

When she mustered up the courage, she returned to her home and told her husband and his new partner that “over her dead body” would she stop fighting for the house she had built for her children.

This was the beginning of a new chapter in Veronica’s life, one that itself would see more ups and downs, including an HIV diagnosis like many others in the region.

The needle and thread brought her some solace and during that time, she worked hard on a section of a stunning 2010 group masterpiece – Keiskamma’s own version of Picasso’s Guernica which measured the same as the original (3.5 metres high and nearly 8 metres wide) and explored the lives of the women who had contributed to it.

Today, she feels healthy. She takes chronic medication for her epilepsy and HIV, lives in the rondawel she built with her ex, who has since passed on, and is a pillar of strength at the Keiskamma Art Project where she has a leadership role as the head seamstress.

And yet, her anxiety about climate change is not something she can always keep at bay.

She worries about the impact of climate change on the already degraded mostly mono-crop fields that quilt the rural lands of the Eastern Cape.

“People ploughed their fields. But fewer things grow now. Standards have dropped and the soil is now bad,” she says.

But Veronica’s main worry concerns the very house that has come to symbolize much of her life’s battles and victories.

“My home has so many cracks,” she says, “so when someone is talking about climate change, I feel my house won’t be safe if it gets windier as the weather patterns change. You can’t stop what is in our future, but we must find ways to protect ourselves.”

  • Research has found that rapid climate change poses a threat to mental health and psychosocial well-being, with distress, anxiety, depression and grief expected to rise.
  • Climate change affects physical health because it affects air quality, drinking water, food supplies and shelter. 
  • Research indicates that extreme weather events could disrupt health systems and inhibit HIV service delivery, while also leading to more forced migration which itself interrupts HIV treatment adherence.

Veronica Betani is the head of her intergenerational household and has survived many challenges during her life

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