You know and love our Real Lives section in the magazine, where we delve into the lives of everyday South Africans. Now we are starting the same online.
Our first piece is on four South African women who have extremely dangerous jobs. From a fighter pilot to a forensic psychologist at Valkenberg. They tell us about their daily struggles and what they love most about their jobs.
Here are the first two inspirational women in part 1 of this article. Part two will be featured next week.
Bonnie Currie-Gamwo, Human-trafficking prosecutor
I always knew that I wanted to be a lawyer and never considered doing anything else. With this kind of job, no two days are the same. Every day produces new challenges. More importantly, the feeling of satisfaction and pride when a victim and his/her family thank you is incredible. You know that you have lessened their pain, if only for a moment.
Prosecution means working with all types of people from all walks of life. Some are angry, bitter and despondent. This can be very emotionally draining. I work primarily with crimes committed against women and children. This means, on a daily basis I deal with dockets containing explicit details of a child being raped, a child being murdered, women being murdered and so forth. It is not always easy to separate yourself from the case.
Luckily, my family and friends are very proud of what I do. I also use every opportunity to socialize with a close circle of people, using this time as a distressing mechanism.
Given the criminal element, the presence of danger is inevitable. I have at times had to consult with convicted murderers and rapists who have turned state witness. A chill does run down your spine and you’ re always aware of who they are. But the work must be done. You can’ t take your eye off the ball. Prosecutors are trained to prosecute without fear, favour or prejudice, but luckily I have escaped being threatened thus far.
I am passionate about each case I do, many hours are put into preparing for the trial and the goal is always a conviction. What is very important is to know that a trafficker comes in all shapes and sizes, they are not gender specific, age specific, race specific or country specific.
I wouldn’t want to do any other job, but if I had to choose, I’d choose something that gives me the same sense of fulfillment but with flexi hours!
Tania Swart Barbour, Forensic Psychologist at Valkenberg Hospital
Like many of my colleagues in the Forensic Unit, I landed up in forensic psychiatry almost by default, but I would never consider any other aspect of psychiatry. You either love forensic work or you move on as soon as you can. Forensic psychology in an inpatient psychiatric unit can be emotionally gruelling and demands an analytical, curious and often dispassionate mind in the pursuit of understanding human behaviour, mental pathology and crime. It’s like fitting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together to make sense of why individuals behave in certain ways.
Few clinicians are drawn to a field which exposes them to a combination of offending behaviour and mental pathology. In my work as a forensic psychologist, I am exposed to the disintegration of the psyche that is mental illness, and the enactment of internal fantasies, that is the offence. One of the core aspects of my work and often the most challenging, is the immense responsibility that we undertake as a multidisciplinary team to assess the criminal capacity of a defendant in a trial. We provide a recommendation to the courts as to the capacity of the accused to stand trial, as well as his or her capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the offence committed and/or to act in accordance with this appreciation.
If the individual is assessed as being mentally ill after a 30-day period of observation, in our maximum secure ward, he will return to the forensic unit as a ‘state patient’ and the challenge is then to begin the process of recovery, that will enable the patient to return to his family and community.
We house only male state patients at Valkenberg’s forensic unit, and this presents its own set of challenges for me as a female clinician. Working in an environment with a population of state patients that have committed crimes ranging from murder, domestic violence, rape and assault, to robbery, theft and fraud. I have never yet experienced a life-threatening situation on the wards and despite the inherent danger in my work environment; our patients develop strong bonds with staff that often serve as a protective factor. Complacency, however, is not recommended because the potent combination of mental pathology and offending behaviour equals unpredictability.
As forensic practitioners we’ re exposed to heinous crimes on a daily basis that evoke many intense emotions, which impact on our daily lives. We are trained to remain professional in our judgment and assessment of these cases and the context in which these crimes are committed. When I first began working in the forensic unit, I would carry the gruesome stories of that day inside my head for hours – it wasn’t always easy to put aside the vivid image of the mutilated body of a victim or to forget a chilling tale of rape. But with experience, I have learnt to disengage from work as soon as I drive through the boom gates of the hospital – indispensable advice from a colleague in those early days. Regular time-outs to unwind and forget the dark side of humanity is vital for my own mental health. I find balance and joy in the small things in life, like family, my little cat, friends and tribal-fusion belly dance classes.
My work often evokes strong reactions in people, colleagues and friends alike, who cannot comprehend my attraction to this particular clinical field. The combination of clinical dispassion and objectivity required of me in the assessment and management of risk of these potentially dangerous patients, coupled with the therapeutic aspect of my work, provides a constant source of intellectual stimulation and engagement that is challenging and addictive.
The capacity of my patients to improve and live productive lives mediates the despair this environment can sometimes evoke in me. Severe psychiatric illness is chronic and patients often remain in the unit for several years or become part of a revolving door scenario with cyclical admissions and discharges. However, there are success stories and one in particular stands out for me.
Mr X murdered his wife during a psychotic episode a few years ago and when he first commenced psychotherapy with me he was depressed and consumed with remorse. After 5 years of weekly psychotherapy, he’ s now a productive member of society and is gainfully employed and has resumed healthy functional relationships with the people in his life.
If I had to choose another profession? I wouldn’t!
Photos by STEVE KARALLIS