February 24, 2022
Exhalation: Charne Lavery, Garrett Barnwell, Bianca Masuku

‘Exhalation’, a panel discussion at the #Breath Symposium, brought together academics from psychology, literature and anthropology to discuss the role of breath in their fields: Garrett Barnwell, a clinical psychologist based in Johannesburg; Dr Charne Lavery, a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Pretoria; and Bianca Masuku, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at University of Cape Town. 

The discussion was moderated by Dr Benson Mulemi, Associate Professor in Medical Anthropology, Kenya. 

Barnwell spoke about the psychological impact of climate degradation and poor air quality on marginalised communities, while Lavery drew on her experience of scuba diving and oceanic studies to unpack the idea of breathing underwater. Masuku discussed the Eh!woza short documentaries, a collaboration with young people in Khayelitsha to destigmatise tuberculosis. 

Watch the full conversation here and keep reading for key quotes by each panelist. 

Garrett Barnwell 

  • “The argument that I make in my research, and what I want to continue to develop, is that psychologists have an important role to play, not only in witnessing distress but attributing the stress to structural issues that are perpetuated today.”

  • “There is a sense of distress among communities about how poor air quality and water contamination can cause health issues, such as breathlessness, especially now that the world is in the middle of a pandemic.”  

  • “Having worked with the community of North West, a mining town, I saw how psychological distress caused by the environment impacted the community. When I was walking in Cinderella, residents would show me barricades they built to stop dust from coming into the homes.” 

  • “The sense of intrusiveness and the health uncertainty of potential contamination causes distress.” 

  • “This really changes the way that we see psychological distress in these settings. Psychology for a very long time has taken a very ameliorative kind of response - so looking at treating the symptom rather than the cause. But when we follow breath, and we follow environmental health issues, [it]  actually leads to justice struggles.”

Dr Charne Lavery 

  • “I had been studying oceanic studies for about 10 years, and it was very much about linking the surface networks of globalisation across the Global South, across southern shores, particularly focused on the Indian Ocean, but I had never been there.” 

  • “In 2018 I had the opportunity to do a month's research at the University of Dar es Salaam, where I saved up my monthly stipend to learn how to dive. The experience of being a body underwater… I have thought of my lungs as filled with air, but I hadn't felt so viscerally the other cavities in my body – which also have air pockets.” 

  • “Breathing underwater does things rather than simply reflect changes in your emotions and physiology. It's as much a tool as a function… experienced divers can follow the rises and hollows of the sea floor using only the balloon of their lungs, breathing in and out to go up and down. What I was interested in is the way in which this maps experientially on to the external topography of the sea floor.”

  • “There are two very famous, canonical poems that you might have done in school or university. One is Derek Walcott’s The Sea Is History and the other one is Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck. In The Sea Is History, it's kind of read as a canonical postcolonial poem.” 

  • “[The poem] sort of answers the accusation that what [postcolonial nations] don't have is the museums, monuments, history and culture [of developed nations]. But what they do have, as the speaker of the poem suggests, is the sea … and the sea is the history.”

Bianca Masuku

  • “My presentation is about showcasing the work of a public engagement project called Eh!Woza, and I will be talking about the ways in which the programme brings together science and art for young people in Khayelitsha to explore the impact of TB in their community.”  

  • “With the emergence of Covid-19 in the country, Eh! Woza had to suspend its core programme. [There was an] opportunity to shift to producing a new set of films about the underground experiences of the coronavirus in different neighbourhoods in the township, replacing the work that the project was doing about TB.”

  • “Exploring experiences of Covid-19 has been uncovering the ways in which local residents have been finding new strategies and approaches to understand and respond to the disease and the new challenges that it presents to their lives.” 

  • “TB is notoriously a disease of poverty that exists outside of the consciousness of more privileged communities both locally and globally. However, Covid-19 initially erupted in higher income countries around the globe and emerged in more affluent communities within the country, which has created a very different perception of the disease locally. Some residents in the township were calling it a white people's disease, and were saying that black people were immune to it.” 

  • “These kinds of perceptions shape the ways in which people understand and respond to the disease and the many control measures that are put into place.”

This discussion was part of the Breath Symposium held virtually by Medical Health and Humanities Africa (MHHA) from 19 October to 13 November 2020. This article is part of a series of retrospective pieces looking at what emerged from the symposium. Follow #MHHABreath on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more.