Zimbabwe’s therapeutic ‘friendship benches’, coming to a city near you

A legacy of poverty, genocide and dictatorship left Zimbabwe fighting an epidemic of despair, colloquially often known as kufungisisa, or ‘pondering an excessive amount of’. Enter the Friendship Bench: a landmark challenge that employs grandmothers to ship remedy of their neighbourhoods, which is coming to cities all over the world. Up subsequent? London

Would you prefer to share your story with me?” The aged girl within the lengthy yellow costume softly enjoins her companion: a slight man who sits along with his head bowed in the direction of his lap. It’s springtime in Zimbabwe’s capital metropolis, Harare, and the setting, a easy picket bench shaded by wild banana bushes, makes for an unconventional remedy room.

Often known as ‘gogos’ (elder girls) or ‘ambuya utano’ (neighborhood grannies), these Zimbabwean neighborhood well being staff (CHWs) have a report in treating delicate to reasonable anxiousness and despair that beats many conventional speaking therapies and pharmacological interventions. Meet the Friendship Bench grandmothers of Zimbabwe.

Based in 2007, the Friendship Bench project has handled 280,000 folks in its 16 years of existence, in 70 communities throughout Zimbabwe and at spin-off tasks in Malawi, Kenya and most lately Zanzibar and Vietnam.

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In 2024 it is going to arrive in London, with a sequence of Friendship Benches set to be put in within the metropolis’s most marginalised communities.

“Whether or not it’s London, New York or Zimbabwe, all over the place the problems are related,” Friendship Bench founder, Harare-based psychiatrist Dr Dixon Chibanda tells Optimistic Information. “There are points associated to loneliness, entry to care, and to only having the ability to know that what you’re experiencing – whether or not you name it stress or despair or anxiousness – is treatable.”

Have been it not for the tragic demise of a younger girl referred to as Erica the challenge may by no means have come to cross. Late one night in 2004, Chibanda acquired a name from a hospital physician 100 miles south of his clinic within the capital: a 26-year-old who Chibanda had handled at his Harare hospital a couple of months earlier had tried suicide. Chibanda talked to the younger girl’s mom by way of phone and determined that as quickly as she was launched from hospital, the pair would come to satisfy him to re-evaluate Erica’s therapy plan. Per week handed, after which two extra, with no phrase from the younger girl. Lastly, Chibanda acquired a name from her distraught mom. Erica had killed herself three days earlier than.

“Why didn’t you come to Harare?” Chibanda remembers asking .“We had agreed that as quickly as she was launched, you’ll come to me…”

“We didn’t have the $15 bus fare to journey to Harare,” her mom replied.

It was a lightbulb second for the Zimbabwean hospital psychiatrist, who had assumed that these in want of his assist would be capable to entry care at his metropolis clinic. “I knew then I wanted to take psychiatry out of the hospital and into the neighborhood,” he explains. Chibanda additionally wanted to realize this feat in a rustic with a excessive degree of stigma and superstition round psychological ill-health, through which 70 per cent of the inhabitants reside under the poverty line and the place there have been simply 13 psychiatrists in a nation of 16 million.


Juliet Kusikwenyu was one of many first Friendship Bench grannies. She says that serving to folks enhance their lives “offers me power to work till I’m 80!”

In keeping with the World Well being Group (WHO), greater than 300 million folks undergo from despair globally. It’s the world’s main explanation for incapacity and contributes to 800,000 suicides per 12 months, the bulk in growing international locations. In 2006, the 12 months the Friendship Bench launched, Zimbabwe’s suicide price was 20.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, twice the worldwide common and one of many world’s worst data in a nation that has suffered a sequence of population-level traumas: from the five-year Gukurahundi genocide, to an HIV pandemic that noticed 25 per cent of the inhabitants contaminated with the virus by 1997, and dictator Robert Mugabe’s 2005 marketing campaign to forcibly clear slums (Operation Murambatsvina – ‘take away the filth’), which left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless.

Elton Mudzingwa, 47, had hit all-time low when his neighbour urged he attend grandmother Felistas Gasa’s Friendship Bench in Harare. The road vendor had misplaced his spouse and was struggling to deal with his grief concurrently elevating two sons alone. Together with his youngest son slipping into avenue drug dependancy, father and son had been not talking, and Mudzingwa had begun to drown his sorrows with low cost beer. Mudzingwa arrived at his first session drunk, he admits.

“However grandmother was affected person sufficient to talk with me,” he says. “She requested about my mind-set and if I used to be entertaining any suicidal ideas.” As Gasa was a pleasant neighbourhood face, Mudzingwa felt emboldened to open up. “I felt as if she cared for me, she was not telling me what to do or being judgmental,” he explains.

Gasa beams. “Within the early days [of Friendship Bench], most of the individuals who got here to us had been stranded on the streets with their youngsters [due to Operation Murambatsvina],” she says. “My work then and now was about altering lives as a lot as altering the best way folks take a look at their lives: a homeless girl may want recommendation on the way to get funding to start out a small enterprise so she will return to her village along with her youngsters, for instance.” Gasa feels completely satisfied when she sees lives change. “I feel to myself: what if I had simply ignored their story. The place would they be?” she provides.

Kusikwenyu on the bench with client Vimbai Madziwa in Zimbabwe

Juliet Kusikwenyu counselling shopper Vimbai Madziwa. She says: “My husband is a drunkard and I usually feared my 4 youngsters would die as they had been so usually hospitalised with sicknesses as a consequence of poverty. These periods have given me the arrogance to get work to feed my household myself.”

The Friendship Bench technique begins with speaking remedy. Many of the therapists are older girls, who’re historically turned to for counsel in Zimbabwean tradition. The ladies are educated within the fundamentals of cognitive behavioural remedy [CBT] and allotted a park bench of their communities. They’re paid a wage by the Zimbabwean Ministry of Well being [equivalent to a community health worker’s wage], topped up by cash fundraised by Friendship Bench. Referrals to the service, which come by way of major healthcare, colleges and police stations, and extra lately self-referrals by way of social media, are screened by way of a validated questionnaire that’s couched in Zimbabwean ideas of psychological ill-health: the Shona Symptom Questionnaire. Medical instances, reminiscent of these susceptible to suicide, are referred to hospital settings, with chosen instances happening to obtain two to 4 bench periods. After these, shoppers are invited to affix a peer help group for individuals who have acquired the Friendship Bench remedy (a circle kubatana tose or ‘holding palms collectively’ group), at which attendees are taught revenue-generating abilities, reminiscent of making baggage out of recycled supplies.

Grandmother Juliet Kusikwenyu, 70 and primarily based in Mbare [south of Harare], was recruited to the Friendship Bench from her job as a well being customer. It was Dixon Chibanda’s enthusiasm for neighborhood primarily based psychological healthcare that attracted her.

“He stated that persons are affected by complications and different signs however that the trigger might be despair or stress,” Kusikwenyu says. “This made sense to me, and I needed to assist.”

Serving to folks resolve their issues brings me a lot pleasure

Integral to the Friendship Bench technique is its articulation by way of native cultural ideas moderately than western medical diagnoses, which may contribute to stigma. “Grandmothers speak within the periods about kuvhura pfungwa, which is a Shona phrase for ‘opening up the thoughts’,” Chibanda explains, “in addition they discuss kusimudzira, a Shona phrase for ‘uplifting’ and kusimbisa, which suggests ‘strengthening’.”

Certainly the time period ‘Friendship Bench’ was urged by the challenge’s founding grandmothers, Chibanda provides. “Initially we referred to as it the Psychological Well being Bench, however the grandmothers instructed me nobody would wish to come to a challenge with such a stigmatising title,” he says.

Kusikwenyu’s most memorable shopper was a younger man referred to as Samson, who got here to the bench after discovering out he was HIV optimistic. His prognosis led to separation from his spouse and he was left with three youngsters and his aged mom who had angrily rejected her son as a consequence of his HIV.

Elton Mudzingwa, a street vendor who struggled to cope after his wife died, in Zimbabwe

Avenue vendor Elton Mudzingwa, who struggled to manage after his spouse died. With the grandmothers assist, he has give up consuming. “I felt as if she cared for me, she was not telling me what to do or being judgemental,” he says.

“I inspired Samson and his mom to come back to the bench collectively so they may each settle for his [HIV] standing,” Kusikwenyu says. “Then I urged him to get therapy for his situation and, when he began taking his medicine, we checked out his stresses round offering for his three youngsters.” With the grandmother’s counsel, Samson borrowed seed cash to start out a vegetable merchandising enterprise. His enterprise started to develop and right this moment Samson is fortunately remarried to a girl he met at church who can be residing with HIV. Now a tenant farmer, Samson has constructed a home for his household. “Tales like this deliver me a lot pleasure,” says Kusikwenyu. “It offers me the power to work until I’m 80!”

In 2016, Chibanda – collaborating with colleagues from Zimbabwe and the UK – revealed the outcomes of a six-month-long randomised management trial within the Journal of the American Medical Affiliation. They break up 600 folks with signs of despair into two teams and located that the group that noticed the grandmothers had considerably decrease signs of despair in comparison with the group that had typical therapy.

Thus far there have been greater than 100 peer-reviewed publications on the Friendship Bench, together with a 2021 study which discovered that 67 per cent of ladies shoppers in Zimbabwe had maintained or expanded their income-generating tasks, and one other that discovered broad advantages within the mannequin for grandmothers’ personal psychological well being. An upcoming research, in the meantime, finds that the Friendship Bench improves the well being outcomes of shoppers with diabetes and hypertension.

Lay-delivered psychological well being programmes such because the Friendship Bench have a spread of advantages, says Dr Nilofer Naqvi, an instructional psychologist who works in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally they maintain classes for increasing psychological healthcare entry to marginalised communities within the world north, together with Indigenous peoples.

“With psychological well being carrying a lot cultural perception and stigma, there are additionally real advantages in utilizing interventionists, reminiscent of these grandmothers, who’ve an in-depth native, cultural data and who’re a part of the neighborhood,” she says.

But there are dangers, she notes. “[These programmes] can let well being programs off the hook from investing in knowledgeable psychological healthcare.” Naqvi worries in regards to the emergence of a pool of lay psychological healthcare suppliers within the world south “who should not geared up for the burdens they face in an absence of emergency psychiatry settings”, reminiscent of coping with a violent psychotic episode.

Chibanda admits that there have been errors in translating tasks to different contexts. Whereas the Friendship Bench is flourishing in Zanzibar, the place the nationwide Ministry of Well being is scaling the challenge nationally, and in Vietnam with younger folks with HIV, a challenge in Jordan was wound down after authorities help did not materialise, and in New York’s Bronx and Harlem after a sympathetic native administration was voted out. “With out native stakeholder buy-in we don’t have ample capability or certainly native data,” he says.

Grandmothers speak within the periods about kuvhura pfungwa, which is a Shona phrase for opening up the thoughts

Friendship Bench packages as a part of firms’ company social accountability provision – provided by firms together with Delta, First Mutual Life and Econet – have been criticised for providing slimmed-down variations of the mannequin in settings not conducive to looking for psychological well being help: the Friendship Bench lite.

Chibanda, nevertheless, is unfazed. “We’ve got helped virtually half 1,000,000 folks up to now few years – and that’s truly not sufficient once you consider the magnitude of the issue and the care hole that exists,” he says, breaking off from negotiating his subsequent rank of benches in London. “Our imaginative and prescient is to have a Friendship Bench inside strolling distance – all over the place.”

Mudzingwa, who’s now sober and on good phrases along with his sons, warmly encourages fellow Zimbabweans who’re struggling kufungisisa to offer the Friendship Bench a strive. “What do you need to lose?” he asks.

The sunshine is fading in Harare as a grandmother takes up her place on the bench. “Would you prefer to share your story with me?” she asks. The person lifts his head.

Photos: Cynthia Matonhodze and Costa Juta

Creating psychological wealth is a sequence produced by Optimistic Information and funded by the European Journalism Centre, by way of the Options Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Invoice & Melinda Gates Basis

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