Singer-songwriter Vusi “The Voice” Mahlasela is one of South Africa's most gifted and respected musicians, described by Nadine Gordimer as a "national treasure". He has toured the world, garnering international acclaim and awards for his distinctive musical style. He also happens to be an epileptic.
Vusi talks about his epilepsy in much the same way as he discusses his life and music - with humour, energy and humility. His colourful anecdotes tell of how a mixture of western and traditional medicine was employed in his treatment.
He recalls, for example, when he was in hospital as a child, undergoing investigation for his epilepsy: "My mother believed my seizures were due to my being haunted, so she came and put some beads round my head to get rid of the spirit responsible. The beads were hidden by my hair, and caused quite a lot of confusion when they appeared on one of the scans!"
"A smell of bananas"
His seizures, which used to occur once or twice a month, could be triggered by strong emotions, particularly acute sadness or anger. "I'd get very upset if people shouted or fought, and sometimes this would lead to a seizure," says Vusi.
Strong stage lights during performances were another precipitating factor. Fortunately, a distinct aura would often give him early warning: "For me, it was a smell of bananas. When I smelt that, I'd just sit down wherever I was before the blackness came."
'The one who keeps dying over and over'
Growing up in Mamelodi, where he first learnt to love and play music, also left Vusi with less happy memories:
"The other kids at school used to call me 'mavuka efa' ('the one who keeps dying over and over'). You don't want to be made to feel different, especially as a child. I experienced prejudice later on from adults, too.
"Once at my place of work I had a seizure while I was holding a glass Coke bottle, which I broke with my hands. People who witnessed the seizure gave me the name 'toughstone man', saying everyone should stay clear of me because I was dangerous. I suppose this was meant as a joke, but really it was just rude and ignorant, and it made me angry."
The main effect of such incidents, however, was to make Vusi fight harder to realise his dreams of becoming a musician and not let epilepsy stand in his way.
"I also tried to fight the epilepsy itself. I tried whatever I could. I was treated with medication, which I admit I sometimes skipped - I'd get frustrated and just stop taking the tablets. I also went to sangomas and inyangas, went through rituals and tried muti - which often took up a lot of time preparing, and that was frustrating also."
Both burden and blessing
Vusi's turning point psychologically with regard to his epilepsy came when he decided to accept the condition and learn to live with it in a positive manner. He now views epilepsy as having been a blessing as well as a burden.
"I decided to change my attitude from one of frustration to one of acceptance. I said to myself that I was going to make epilepsy my friend. It seems to me that epilepsy and creativity often go together, and maybe your brain just doesn't rest enough... In my case, it's always going, the melodies keep going - even when I sleep!"
Today, Vusi is one of the fortunate few whose epilepsy appears to have resolved over time: he has been seizure-free for over a decade. With his performance schedule busier than ever, he continues to demonstrate what he so passionately states:
"I'd like to say to anyone who has been diagnosed with epilepsy that you must never despair, never give up on your vision. You are special, one of the chosen ones. Nourish what is special about yourself, find your true calling - whatever it may be - and follow it. Don't give up, and you will eventually see results."
Vusi will be performing this weekend (Sunday, 4 April) at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and 10 June 2010 in Soweto at the FIFA Kick Off Concert, Orlando Stadium.
- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24, updated April 2010
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