Zimbabwe’s ‘Friendship Benches’ provide support for thousands with mental illnesses

Zimbabwe’s ‘Friendship Benches’ provide support for thousands with mental illnesses

Mental health clinics around Zimbabwe’s major cities have implemented nontraditional offices to provide further support to their clients. These spaces are called Friendship Benches and are staffed by community health workers known as “Grandmothers.” The Grandmothers are trained to listen and offer help to patients living with common mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.

The Friendship Benches and their influence on Zimbabwean communities has recently been studied. The study shows that the initiative has had an unprecedented effect on those who have used the benches. In addition, the initiative has the potential to serve millions more, especially those who have little to no access to mental health care in their countries.

According to questionnaires, participants saw significant decreases in the severity of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts after having six weekly “problem solving therapy” sessions on the Friendship Benches. Patients were four times less likely to have anxiety symptoms and three times less likely to have symptoms of depression, compared to patients who received standard care. The study showed that the Friendship Benches also helped improve the health outcomes of vulnerable individuals. Of the study’s participants, 86% were women, 70% had experienced domestic violence or physical illness, and over 40% were HIV positive.

The study’s main author, Dr. Dixon Chibanda, co-founded the Friendship Bench Network in response to the shortage of evidence-based treatment for Zimbabweans who suffer from mental disorders. This, sadly, is a common problem in Africa.

“Common mental disorders impose a huge burden on all countries of sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr. Chibanda. “Developed over 20 years of community research, the Friendship Bench empowers people to achieve a greater sense of coping and control over their lives by teaching them a structured way to identify problems and find workable solutions.”

Dr. Peter A. Singer, Chief Executive Officer of Grand Challenges Canada, applauded the Friendship Bench Network. “In developing countries, nearly 90% of people with mental disorders are unable to access any treatment. We need innovations like the Friendship Bench to flip the gap and go from 10% of people receiving treatment to 90% of people receiving treatment.”

Over 27, 500 Zimbabweans have accessed treatment through the Friendship Benches. The Friendship Bench Network team is focusing on expanding to reach more vulnerable populations, such as youth and refugees. They have formed a partnership with Swedish company, SolidarMed, and are planning to implement Friendship Benches in the Masyingo province and in refugee centers on the border with Mozambique.

Africa Twitter campaign challenges stereotypes of the continent

Africa Twitter campaign challenges stereotypes of the continent

Young Africans have taken to Twitter to challenge mainstream media’s oversimplified stereotypes of the continent. Using the hashtag #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou, Africans have been posting pictures that showcase the food, fashion, culture, tradition, architecture, and landscape of Africa’s more than 50 countries.

These images show a side of Africa that the media rarely highlights. Often, news coverage of Africa focuses on negative images such as poverty, starvation, illness, social and political unrest, and violent conflict. This narrative defines Africa by its struggles rather than acknowledging Africa’s traditions and innovations.



Diana Salah, a 22 year old Somali-American student living in Seattle and one of the participants in the campaign, told Fusion, “I got involved because growing up I was made to feel ashamed of my homeland, with negative images that paint Africa as a desolate continent.  I used to get questions ranging from ‘were you born in a hut’ to hurtful comments about disease and poverty.”

Due to her experience Salah feels that it is necessary to show positive images of Africa, “It’s so important to showcase the diversity & beauty of Africa and with mainstream media not up for the task, social media was the perfect outlet. #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou will continue to promote a positive image and also change misconceptions along the way”

TakePart, an online news and lifestyle magazine which encourages social action, points out that the struggles that Africa faces are very real, but at the same time, Africa has shown great advancements such as economic growth and innovative technology that is helping to improve the lives of many people.

Portland nonprofit connects African students to college and internships

Portland nonprofit connects African students to college and internships

A Portland nonprofit is helping African students gain access to education and internship opportunities in Hillsboro and the Silicon Valley.

The organization, These Numbers Have Faces, aims to help Africa’s brightest students create positive change in their countries. In order to do so, the nonprofit gives loans to talented, economically-disadvantaged students so that they can attend Africa’s top universities. If the students graduate from college, 25 percent of the loan is forgiven. Additionally, another 25 percent of the loan is forgiven if the students graduate in the top 10 percent of their class.

Currently, the organization serves 78 students and has already made a big difference in their lives. One student, Jean Paul Mugisha, 21, credits the nonprofit for his education. “There is no other way I’d go to school,” he said about These Numbers Have Faces.

Mugisha and his family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and relocated at a Rwandan refugee camp. While there, Mugisha’s family lived on 24 cents per day and without electricity.

Mugisha was a bright student; he achieved perfect scores on national physics, chemistry, and math exams. However, as a refugee, Mugisha was denied access to a college education.

This is where These Numbers Have Faces stepped in. Mugisha received a “leadership loan,” through the organization which made it possible for him to enroll at the National University of Rwanda where he studied electrical engineering. The nonprofit connected Mugisha to an internship at Allion USA, an engineering services company in Hillsboro. Mugisha is interning there this summer, learning the skills he hopes to use to bring electricity to his refugee camp in Rwanda and his home village in Congo.

These Numbers Have Faces has made it possible for two other students from Rwanda to intern in the U.S. this summer. Jean d’Arc Mukakagame, 22, and Arnold Kamanzi, 23, have internships at Amazon’s Lab126 in the Silicon Valley. The lab makes Amazon’s Kindle tablet.

Both Mukakagame and Kamanzi studied computer science. Mukakagame hopes to use her degree to help people in Rwanda purchase bus tickets using their phones. Kamanzi plans to use online tools to provide educational materials to Rwandan students.

Taylor Smith, the organization’s community engagement advocate, spoke of the students’ aspirations, “These guys have really awesome visions, and that comes from talking about what their dreams and passions are.”

Mugisha appreciates the efforts of These Numbers Have Faces, “Everybody here, they are doing a great job. It’s really changing people’s lives.”

Charismatic Christian named one of Time’s Person of the Year honorees

Charismatic Christian named one of Time’s Person of the Year honorees

Katie Meyler, a 32-year-old graduate of the University of Valley Forge, recently joined FDR, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, Albert Einstein, and Queen Elizabeth II as a Time Magazine Person of the Year honoree.

Time’s Person of the Year feature seeks to recognize a person, or, in some cases, a group of people, who have had great influence over the past year. This year, Time chose to recognize “Ebola Fighters,” including Samaritan’s Purse doctor Kent Brantly, Doctors Without Borders health worker Ella Watson-Stryker, and many others who have battled the disease on the front lines.

Katie Meyler grew up poor by the standards of what she now calls “U.S. poverty.” The family got food at a food bank and her mother worked a near-minimum wage job. Meyler now considers this an American version of poverty; the family still had food and the children were able to go to school for free.

“There were a lot of drugs and abuse and chaos in my family when I was growing up,” Meylers said.  “My uncle died from a heroin overdose when I was eight. I thought my life kind of sucked, not just because we were poor but because of the drama.”

“Then in high school, my youth group did a service project in Haiti,” she added. “When I got there, I met a little girl who didn’t have running water, deep in a village. I realized, oh my God, I’m not poor and I never was. It just really changed me.”

With the help of a scholarship, Meyler attended college and was hired by a non-profit to help promote literacy in Liberia. As she helped adults learn to read, she was deeply saddened by the plight of children. Most of them could not attend school, instead working on the streets. Girls as young as 10 were forced into prostitution. Many children begged Meyler to pay their school fees.

“I would cry all night and send text messages to anyone whose phone number I could remember,” Meyler said.

Three years later, Meyler began “More Than Me,” a non-profit that works to keep girls in school. She divided her time between working in Liberia and fundraising in America.

“It’s a little weird,” she said of fundraising. “We live on one of the richest areas of the planet, and then I work in one of the poorest areas. I love them both, though. And I love the kids I meet here. They really care and they want to help.”

“In the beginning I was very judgmental of people here in the States,” she added. “I found comfort in reading Mother Teresa quotes. She would say, ‘You are sending money to Calcutta, but do you even know your neighbor?’”

Meyler also realized that poverty comes in different forms. “It is easy to cure one type of poverty by providing schools or meals,” she said. “In the U.S., our poverty is that someone next door could have a baby and we don’t know about it. Or a family goes through a death and we don’t know about it. We don’t know and we don’t help each other. We would help each other if people would be vulnerable and share their successes and failures. Meanwhile we’ve created this society of people who are living life by themselves.”

Meyler feels safe in Liberia despite the conditions. “The people on our staff are born and raised in the community,” she said. “People know us and they know More Than Me. Some of those drug dealers and prostitutes are parents in our program. We send their daughters to school, too.”

The More Than Me website describes the school as “…the first tuition-free, all girls school in Liberia. Not only do we give these girls an education, but we also provide them with two hearty meals a day, access to healthcare, access to a computer lab and library, and a robust afterschool program, ensuring the girls are off the street for the entire day from 7am to 5pm.”

After the More Than Me Academy was closed due to ebola, Meyler used her resources to fight the disease.

“Since Ebola was confirmed in West Point in August 2014, our story has evolved,” she said. “We have partnered with the Ministry of Health (MOH) and other partners on the ground to get Ebola out of West Point, and then out of Liberia. It’s working! We’ve been asked by MOH to expand our work to 5 other Ebola hot zones.”

Meyler is determined to continue fighting until the epidemic is over. “As long as there is Ebola in Liberia, our girls are at risk,” she said. “More Than Me is fighting with everything we are made of to end this epidemic that terrorizes our children and the communities in which they live. We are doing this by understanding the pulse of the local people, remaining flexible to respond rapidly to urgent needs, and supporting efforts that have the highest return.”

“The past few months have been filled with some of the most intense moments of my life, but they’ve also been some of the proudest,” Meyler said. “I’m honored to be listed next to these truly inspiring people and want to take this time to recognize everyone, on this list or not, who has helped fight Ebola on the front lines.”


The war on Ebola: worldwide response and where we fit in

The war on Ebola: worldwide response and where we fit in

It’s difficult to say which is spreading faster – the deadly Ebola virus or the rising global terror.

Persistent through the chaotic scrambling of health organizations is the aid flowing from long term nonprofits already established in the most afflicted regions.

“Hopelessness and fear needunicefebola2 to be overcome,” Mike Mantel, the CEO of Living Water International, told Relevant concerning the organization’s response to the crisis. “We need divine spiritual intervention.”

A Christian aid organization, Living Water works to provide clean water to Liberia and Sierra Leone. With the onset of Ebola, the organization launched a new platform to provide updates about the crisis. Most importantly, the site shares how people can help.

“Where Ebola is not yet affecting communities, we’re trying to get out ahead and educate church leaders as well as community leaders — even police and prison populations — about what Ebola is and how to take steps to fight Ebola. But the Church is very much, along with our staff, the hands and feet in our water sanitation and hygiene programs,” Mantel said.

Other organizations are also working to combat the disease in various locations with complementary approaches.

Doctors Without Borders

Active in three West African countries, Doctors Without Borders currently employs 270 international and approximately 3,000 local staff in regions affected by Ebola. The organization treated 4,900 patients, shipped over 877 tons of supplies, and maintained six Ebola case management centers, since the beginning of the outbreak.

The organization’s critical priorities remain to “stop the spread of the disease, treat the infected, ensure essential services, preserve stability, and prevent the spread of the disease to countries currently unaffected.”

To learn more about supporting Doctors Without Borders, click here.

World Vision

Besides providing personal protective equipment and medical supplies to health care workers in Sierra Leone and Senegal, World Vision is working with government officials and health agencies to plan cooperative efforts against the virus. The organization participates in the World Health Organization’s Ebola Task Force.

World Vision is a key player in active education on preventative measures, through both radio programs and house-to-house information sharing.

“When so many communities face such terrible suffering, the church must be there to combat fear, stigma, isolation, and hopelessness with both love and tangible support,” said Bruno Col, World Vision communications director in West Africa.

To donate to the organization or to sta
rt your own fundraiser, click here.

Samaritan’s Purse

Samaritan’s Purse is establishing and managing Community Care Centers across Liberia. Trained locals run these health facilities, which assist those infected in the most remote rural areas. The organization also spearheaded public health initiatives in Liberia, including caregiver training, kit distribution, and massive public education campaigns. Since March, the organization provided potentially life-saving information to more than 1 million people.

“Our efforts are moving in the correct direction,” said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and government relations for Samaritan’s Purse. “We are training people to take care of their loved ones, while protecting themselves and their families from infections.”

To donate to the organization’s West-African Ebola Response, click here.


UNICEF has reached 5.5 million West African people with disease preventative information and supplied over 600,000 bottles of chlorine bleach in Guinea and Liberia. By caring for affected families, offering education, training medical personnel, and providing medical equipment, UNICEF is adamant to stop Ebola.

Thanks to the generosity of the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, every donation to UNICEF will be matched $1 – $1. To learn more about donating, click here.

Numerous other aid organizations are working to halt the spread and impact of the Ebola virus. Mantel encourages those concerned to play a role in the fight by spreading vital information and giving to aid organizations

“You know, even in the United States where we have so much access to information, we still don’t totally understand what’s happening in West Africa,” Mantel said.

“I think the readership should respond with prayers and should respond with helping us, come alongside and partner with organizations and provide water and sanitation training and keep the Church engaged and at the center of this.”