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Cultural Causations and Expressions of Distress: a Case Study of Buufis Amongst Somalis in Johannesburg

An Erratum to this article was published on 26 December 2016


Buufis is a well-known concept amongst Somalis at home and in the diaspora, although its meaning shifts across time and space. Literally meaning ‘to blow, or inflate’ in Somali, buufis initially referred to the dream of resettlement amongst Somalis in refugee camps in Kenya in the early 1990s, spreading to refugee camps across Africa through transnational networks and mobility, and later used by scholars to describe a form of mental illness that ensued when this dream of resettlement was not realised. In this paper, I examine the use of buufis amongst Somalis in Johannesburg, South Africa to describe multiple forms of distress. By exploring the narratives of a group of Somali refugees and asylum seekers, I show how a range of social, economic and political factors intersect to create triggers of distress. These are identified and articulated by the respondents as a state of buufis associated with feelings of distress, unhappiness and a desire to escape their current situation in the city. I argue that buufis is part of an invented language used and adopted to give meaning to cultural expressions of distress by self-settled Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Johannesburg. Underlying this argument is a call for a broader understanding of mental health perceptions, outcomes and responses that moves beyond biomedical perspectives in order to better understand and respond to some of the experiences raised here.

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  1. See, for example, Cardozo et al. 2004; Porter and Haslam 2005; Nicholson 1997; Keyes 2000

  2. Keyes 2000; Momartin et al. 2006; Kirmayer et al. 2011.

  3. Interview 10 April 2011

  4. Being returned to the country in which there is a threat of persecution

  5. Definition provided in the UNHCR Resettlement handbook, 2011 edition

  6. Groups of families who share a lineage. Clans play an important role in social grouping in Somali societies.

  7. Interview 3 August 2010.

  8. Women are expected to wear skirts and dresses only in parts of Somali culture.

  9. Fieldnotes 12 November 2009, 2–4 December 2009.

  10. Fieldnotes 23 August 2009


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Correspondence to Zaheera JINNAH.

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The original version of this article was revised: The word caste in the article title should have been case.

An erratum to this article is available at

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JINNAH, Z. Cultural Causations and Expressions of Distress: a Case Study of Buufis Amongst Somalis in Johannesburg. Urban Forum 28, 111–123 (2017).

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