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.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Interview 10 April 2011
Being returned to the country in which there is a threat of persecution
Definition provided in the UNHCR Resettlement handbook, 2011 edition
Groups of families who share a lineage. Clans play an important role in social grouping in Somali societies.
Interview 3 August 2010.
Women are expected to wear skirts and dresses only in parts of Somali culture.
Fieldnotes 12 November 2009, 2–4 December 2009.
Fieldnotes 23 August 2009
Al-Sharmani, M. (2010). Transnational family networks in the Somali diaspora in Egypt: women’s roles and differentiated experiences. Gender, Place and Culture, 17(4), 499–518.
Bakewell, Oliver (2009). South-South Migration and Human Development: Reflections on African Experiences. Published in: Human Development Research Paper (HDRP) Series , Vol. 07, No. 200 .
Bhui, K., Abdi, A., Abdi, M., Pereira, S., Dualeh, M., Robertson, D., & Ismail, H. (2003). Traumatic events, migration characteristics and psychiatric symptoms among Somali refugees. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 38(1), 35–43.
Bhui, K., Craig, T., Mohamud, S., Warfa, N., Stansfeld, S.A., Thornicroft, G., . . . & McCrone, P. (2006). Mental disorders among Somali refugees. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 41(5), 400–408.
Cardozo, B. L., Talley, L., Burton, A., & Crawford, C. (2004). Karenni refugees living in Thai–Burmese border camps: traumatic experiences, mental health outcomes, and social functioning. Social Science & Medicine, 58(12), 2637–2644.
Crankshaw, O. (2008). Race, space and the post-Fordist spatial order of Johannesburg. Urban Studies, 45(8), 1692–1711.
Diller, J. (2014). Cultural diversity: a primer for the human services. Stamford: Cengage Learning.
Ellis, B. H., MacDonald, H. Z., Lincoln, A. K., & Cabral, H. J. (2008). Mental health of Somali adolescent refugees: the role of trauma, stress, and perceived discrimination. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(2), 184.
Elmi, A. S. (1999). A study on the mental health needs of the Somali community in Toronto. Toronto: York Community Services & Rexdale Community Health Centre.
Ettlinger, N. (2007). Precarity unbound. Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 32(3), 319–340.
Gibney, M. J. (2009) Precarious residents: migration control, membership and the rights of non-citizens. Human Development Research Paper 2009/10. http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2009/papers/HDRP_2009_10.pdf.
Good, B. J. (1997). Studying mental illness in context: Local, global, or universal?. Ethos, 25(2), 230–248.
Guerin, B., Guerin, P., Diiriye, R. O., & Yates, S. (2004). Somali conceptions and expectations concerning mental health: some guidelines for mental health professionals. New Zealand Journal of Psychology, 33(2), 59–67.
Hart, G. P. (2002). Disabling globalization: places of power in post-apartheid South Africa (Vol. 10). Berkeley: Univ of California Press.
Horst, C. (2006). Buufis amongst Somalis in Dadaab: the transnational and historical logics behind resettlement dreams. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19(2), 143–157.
Jinnah, Z. (2010). Making home in a hostile land: understanding Somali identity, integration, livelihood and risks in Johannesburg. Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology, 1(1–2), 91–99.
Jinnah, Z. (2012). New households, new rules? Examining the impact of migration on Somali family life in Johannesburg. Paper presented at the Symposium on Family, Migration and Dignity, Doha International Institute for Family Studies and Development, Doha March 2012.
Jinnah, Z., & Lowe, L. (2015). Circumcising circumcision: renegotiating beliefs and practices among Somali women in Johannesburg and Nairobi. Medical Anthropology, 34(4), 371–388.
Keyes, E. F. (2000). Mental health status in refugees: an integrative review of current research. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 21(4), 397–410.
Kirmayer, L. J., Narasiah, L., Munoz, M., Rashid, M., Ryder, A. G., Guzder, J., . . . & Pottie, K. (2011). Common mental health problems in immigrants and refugees: general approach in primary care. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 183(12), E959–E967.
Kleinman, A. (1981). On illness meanings and clinical interpretation: not ‘rational man’, but a rational approach to man the sufferer/man the healer.Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 5(4), 373–377.
Landau, L. B. (2005). Urbanisation, nativism, and the rule of law in South Africa’s ‘forbidden’ cities. Third World Quarterly, 26(7), 1115–1134.
Landau, L. B., & Gindrey, V. (2008). Migration and population trends in Gauteng province 1996–2055 (Forced Migration Studies Working Paper Series, 42). Johannesburg: FMSP.
Mail and Guardian. (2012) Xenophobia rears its head as ‘war’ declared in Mayfair. www.mg.co.za/article/2012-09-03-xenophobia-rears-its-head-in-mayfair. Downloaded 10-0-2012.
Misago, J. P., Landau, L. B., & Monson, T. (2009). Towards tolerance, law, and dignity: addressing violence against foreign nationals in South Africa. Pretoria: Regional Office for Southern Africa, International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Momartin, S., Steel, Z., Coello, M., Aroche, J., Silove, D. M., & Brooks, R. (2006). A comparison of the mental health of refugees with temporary versus permanent protection visas. Medical Journal of Australia, 185(7), 357.
Morris, C. W. (1971). Writings on the general theory of signs (Vol. 16). Mouton and Co: Teh Hague.
Nicholson, B. L. (1997). The influence of pre-emigration and post emigration stressors on mental health: a study of Southeast Asian refugees. Social Work Research, 21(1), 19–31.
Nichter, M. (1981). Idioms of distress: alternatives in the expression of psychosocial distress: a case study from South India. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 5(4), 379–408.
Nichter, M. (2010). Idioms of distress revisited. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, 34(2), 401–416. Chicago.
Palmary, I., Hamber, B., & Nunez, L. (2014). Healing and change in the city of gold. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.
Palmer, D. (2006). Imperfect prescription: mental health perceptions, experiences and challenges faced by the Somali community in the London Borough of Camden and service responses to them. Primary Care Mental Health, 4(1), 45–56.
Paniagua, F. A. (2013). Assessing and treating culturally diverse clients: a practical guide. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Porter, M., & Haslam, N. (2005). Predisplacement and postdisplacement factors associated with mental health of refugees and internally displaced persons. JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, 294(5), 602–612.
Raguram, R., Venkateswaran, A., Ramakrishna, J., & Weiss, M. G. (2002). Traditional community resources for mental health: a report of temple healing from India. BMJ, 325(7354), 38–40.
Rakodi, C. (2002). A livelihoods approach—conceptual issues and definitions. In C. Rakodi & T. Lloyd-Jones (Eds.), Urban livelihoods: a people-centred approach to reducing poverty. London: Earthscan.
Robertson, C. L., Halcon, L., Savik, K., Johnson, D., Spring, M., Butcher, J., & Jaranson, J. (2006). Somali and Oromo refugee women: trauma and associated factors. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 56(6), 577–587.
Sadouni, S. (2009). ‘God is not unemployed’: journeys of Somali refugees in Johannesburg. African Studies, 68(2), 235–249.
Scuglik, D. L., Alarcón, R. D., Lapeyre, A. C., III, Williams, M. D., & Logan, K. M. (2007). When the poetry no longer rhymes: mental health issues among Somali immigrants in the USA. Transcultural Psychiatry, 44(4), 581–595.
Shrestha, N., Sharma, B., Van Ommeren, M., et al. (1998). Impact of torture on refugees displaced within the developing world: symptomatology among Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. JAMA, 280(5), 443–448. doi:10.1001/jama.280.5.443.
Silveira, E., & Allebeck, P. (2001). Migration, ageing and mental health: an ethnographic study on perceptions of life satisfaction, anxiety and depression in older Somali men in east London. International Journal of Social Welfare, 10(4), 309–320.
Skinner, C. (2005). Constraints to growth and employment in Durban: Evidence from the informal economy. School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal: Durban.
Smit, W., de Lannoy, A., Dover, R. V., Lambert, E. V., Levitt, N., & Watson, V. (2015). Making unhealthy places: the built environment and non-communicable diseases in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. Health & Place, 35, 11–18.
Turner, S. (2004). Under the gaze of the ‘big nations’: refugees, rumours and the international community in Tanzania. African Affairs, 103(411), 227–247.
UNHCR. (2011). UNHCR Resettlement Handbook, downloaded 7 September 2012. www.unhcr.org/4a2ccf4c6.html.
Vearey, J., Palmary, I., Thomas, L., Nunez, L., & Drimie, S. (2010). Urban health in Johannesburg: the importance of place in understanding intra-urban inequalities in a context of migration and HIV. Health & Place, 16(4), 694–702.
Vlahov, D., & Galea, S. (2002). Urbanization, urbanicity, and health. Journal of Urban Health, 79, 1–12.
Wedel, J. (2011). Mental health problems and healing among Somalis in Sweden. Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies, 11, 73–89. Article 11.
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 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s12132-016-9300-1.
About this article
Cite this article
JINNAH, Z. Cultural Causations and Expressions of Distress: a Case Study of Buufis Amongst Somalis in Johannesburg. Urban Forum 28, 111–123 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-016-9283-y