LETAMO GAME FARM â€" After the depressing outskirts of Johannesburg, with its paved-over shopping centers, garages and the smell of greasy chicken, the countryside isnâ€™t all that much better. At the local gas station, there are men in bush hats and shorts, all khaki and autumn-colored, looking like theyâ€™re either going for a friendly day of hunting or organizing a guerrilla warfare. This is what the caged South African countryside looks like: the veld, a grassy, monotonous plateau where poor farm workers look beaten and white men in shorts are heavily armed.
In the middle of this world, thereâ€™s the discreet Letamo game reserve, turned into a closed domain, with homes and fences, an enclave like the many others that have begun appearing in South Africa. Inside, animals â€" zebras, greater kudus, and jackals that make quite some noise in the evening â€" are drinking at the artificial watering holes. But if Letamo is protected by electrical wiring, and if guards keep watch 24 hours a day, itâ€™s not to prevent the ostriches from escaping.
The more troubling reality is that Letamo is protecting itself from the outside, to the point that it can sometimes feel like an autonomous republic. No one will admit it in front of a stranger, but here, there are only white people. The houses look identical, painted in the same light brown as the long, dry grass or the guard uniforms. Not a single black person is to be seen, apart from the guards at the imposing entrance.
In the garage of one of these houses, Anthony English is working on a little hobby of his that might make him rich: assembling electric batteries. The man clashes a bit with his surroundings. First, heâ€™s charming. And he seems possessed by mysterious and infectious enthusiasm for his devices, designed to store energy, either to move around â€" his electric Jeep is parked outside his house â€" or to supply the electric machines in his home. And there are solar panels to top it all off.
Perspicacity and paranoia
Itâ€™s the world of tomorrow. In South Africa, some people have understood this, thanks to a mix of perspicacity and paranoia. Yet, when Anthony English assembled an electric car in his garage, his neighbors made fun of him. â€œNobody believed in it at the time,â€ he recalls.
That was in 2004. Since then, almost every single major car manufacturer has begun working on electric models. English drives around in his Jeep, packed with connected batteries stabilized by a system he himself invented. But he also has more recent creations: batteries for homes, called â€œLite.â€ Thatâ€™s his project, an almost crazy challenge to the South African-born, Silicon Valley-based billionaire Elon Musk.
Musk's Tesla company now includes the Gigafactory in Nevada, which is expected to soon flood the planet with a new kind of household battery. And Tesla is currently recruiting a team in South Africa.
On site at Tesla's Gigafactory â€" Photo: Steve Jurvetson
Why are these batteries so important? English grabs a calculator to answer the question. He has estimations on the price of electricity in South Africa: â€œIt should triple in the next ten years. As for the price of batteries, itâ€™s going down, like the prices of solar panels have. At one point, the curves will cross each other," he explains.
English says it's already profitable to buy his Lite batteries and charge them up with solar energy, instead of paying electricity from Eskom, the national energy company. "In ten years, youâ€™ll earn money," he says. "And youâ€™ll be the master of your own energy.â€
The mining engineer has called his company Liberty Won. Heâ€™s looking for a warehouse, the garage is no longer big enough, with cans of chemicals and batteries everywhere. Those from Tesla or Liberty Won belong to a category of lithium-ion. A whole family, really. Those Anthony English buys in China are made up of lithium-iron-phosphate (LiFe Po4), which could provide the â€œpossibility of more â€˜cyclesâ€™ (charge/discharge) than other forms of lithium-ion.â€
The entrepreneur says his Jeep counts about 4,000 cycles, and has already travelled 70,000 kilometers. But recently, there have been shortages of these LiFe Po4, because of pollution peaks in China.
The link? â€œAt the moment, theyâ€™re making electric buses all over China. Theyâ€™re making so many that weâ€™re having trouble getting enough batteries.â€ Still, Liberty Won finds enough for its clients, setting up systems complete with solar panels and the regulator invented by English. Itâ€™s not cheap: 313,300 rands ($17,500) to â€œsay goodbye to Eskom and its problems, forever.â€ It all sounds both expensive and grandiose. Like the future, all in all.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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