Naponi survived a violent husband, then faced a new battle — getting her community to believe her
Posted August 13, 2019 08:50:19
Anyone who hears Naponi’s* story might wonder how different her life could have been if she’d never met her husband, Deng*.
She remembers the day they met — in 1990, at a school for adults in Sudan’s capital Khartoum.
But she couldn’t have known then that he would try to kill her, or that their complicated relationship would turn her community against her.
“He was very quiet, but sometimes he was just a bit moody,” recalls Naponi, who is South Sudanese.
“But you know, sometimes we all have [a] bad day and good day.”
From very early on in their relationship, there were signs that something wasn’t right with Deng.
When Naponi first took him to meet her family, he started “beating everybody”, she says.
It was sudden, unpredictable. Was it the alcohol, or maybe it was just a momentary aberration? Naponi wondered.
But the violence didn’t abate — it intensified.
Seeking help from a witch doctor
Access to modern healthcare was limited in Khartoum, so Deng’s brothers suggested the help of a traditional healer, or witch doctor.
“[The witch doctor] said to take him to the river, to buy two goats,” Naponi says.
“And then they have to kill the goats.”
Naponi and Deng then spread the animals’ blood all over their bodies, and those of their three young children.
“You have to put it all on them, and then he will become better — he won’t kill you and he won’t kill the kids,” Naponi remembers being told.
It didn’t work.
Deng’s paranoia got worse; he became obsessed with the idea that Naponi was being unfaithful.
“I knew that something [was] wrong,” Naponi says.
When she asked Deng who told her she was being unfaithful, he replied with: “The angel”.
It was the first time she had heard of Deng hearing voices, but it wouldn’t be the last.
From Sudan to southern Queensland
In 2003, civil war raged between North and South Sudan, forcing millions of people to flee.
Naponi, Deng and their three children were among them. They eventually settled in Toowoomba in southern Queensland.
“There was not much information about their family, apart from the number,” says Anyuon Liai, the family’s case worker.
“What I realised, and we weren’t told about it, was that the father had some mental health issues — very, very serious mental health issues.
“I’m not an expert in mental health, but this was quite obvious.”
At the time, Anyuon happened to live within earshot of Naponi and Deng, and what he heard made him uneasy.
“I was worried that some sort of uncontrollable violence could happen, which actually eventually happened,” he says.
Early one morning in 2005, Anyuon woke up with an uneasy feeling.
He stepped onto the deck of his outer suburban brick-and-timber Toowoomba home. It was then he saw Naponi.
“I saw her running, and her husband behind her with a knife,” Anyuon recalls.
Naponi ran past him, into the house, then out the back door.
Anyuon — a tall, wiry, initiated Dinka man — scrambled down the steps to intercept Deng.
“He’s a very strong, large man, but somehow I was able to hold him,” Anyuon says.
Emergency authorities arrived, and Deng was taken away for assessment at the local hospital, where he stayed.
Deng was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia, sanctioned and moved to a local psychiatric facility.
Fourteen years later, he’s still there.
Community disputes diagnosis
Naponi has faced suspicion and ostracisation from some in the Sudanese community who disputed Deng’s diagnosis.
In 2017, a group of men visited Deng in the psychiatric hospital.
While they were there they broadcast a live social media video, with Deng talking to camera about his situation.
Its dissemination made things worse for Naponi.
“I saw him as very cool,” says Chol*, a relative of Deng and one of the men in the group.
“He talked normally and is very healthy, if you see a picture this is very healthy.”
From Chol’s perspective, it is some of the wives who are to blame.
“Maybe some the ladies sometimes can say [it’s a] mental [health issue], he wants to kill me,” he says.
“If you don’t have evidence, you get the charge.”
He does not accept Deng’s diagnosis.
“He doesn’t have mental health [issues], because somebody [who does], he cannot [think] about the past for 20, 30 years,” Chol says.
“If you’ve got mental health [issues] you forget everything.”
A part of the group of visitors was Simon Angok, the leader of the Australian cultural subgroup that Deng belongs to — Mading Aweil community.
He’d travelled from Adelaide to visit him.
“When he walked in the room, just the excitement and the joy in his face could not be concealed,” Simon recalls.
Simon is also a mental health social worker.
He says that without knowing Deng’s medical history, it was hard to make an informed judgment.
But the man he saw that day appeared to be highly functional.
“He was culturally congruent, all the stuff that he said checked out,” Simon says.
“He could recall long-term memory, short-term memory. He was not thought-disordered at all.”
Simon has lobbied Queensland Health to release Deng from the psychiatric hospital, and let him live with next of kin, or friends in the community, or interstate if the safety of his wife and children is still a concern.
He’s received no response.
No noun to describe mental health
Misinformation still washes around sections of the Sudanese community, and there is some cultural context for the suspicion about Deng’s diagnosis.
“In our cultural background, there are certain mental health situations that do not have nouns in our language,” Anyuon explains.
“We lump them up under something that can be translated into madness.”
He is more blunt when it comes to the treatment of Naponi and possibly others.
“They think that certain things are being made up, they … confuse the situation with the general understanding in the community that women try to get rid of their husbands,” Anyuon says.
“A lot of judgements, which is based on ignorance.”
Naponi believes the psychiatric facility is the right place for Deng, with his record of violence, which allegedly includes an incident involving staff in the facility as recently as 2016.
But even after decades of tumult, they remain married.
Naponi regularly visits Deng, who still has contact with his family and attends church, among other external trips.
Naponi still sees the good in her husband.
“He [is] drawn to God, every time he says ‘thanks to God, and thanks to Australia, to find out what is wrong with me’,” Naponi says, recalling their conversations during recent visits.
Naponi now runs her own cleaning business, and she’s single-handedly raised four children.
Two of them have university degrees and the youngest has just finished year 12. She was the school captain.
Naponi wants to move on with her life, but she wants to do it with the support of the Sudanese community.
“You have to be with people — human beings are supposed to have connection with people,” she says.
“Most of the people who support me is the white community, to be honest, but I just need my community to help me.”
*Names have been changed.