Dorcas Gwata is one of those women who is so accomplished and passionate that it is hard to comprehend. How can one person have such a huge and positive impact on the world? Dorcas is astounding. A Global Mental Health Expert and African Affairs Analyst, these two extremely important titles do not fully capture the complexity and depth of Dorcas work or the strength of character she holds as a person. I’ve decided to start with a list of her achievements and let her amazing interview speak for itself.
An overview of the Fierceness that is Dorcas Gwata
- Awarded for Mental Health and Gangs Interventions 2015
- Global Health Specialist, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Ethiopia
- Visiting Global Mental Health Lecturer at LSHTM and Kings College
- Global Mental Health Expert and African Affairs Analyst
- Winner, Zimbabwe Achievers Community Champion 2017
- Winner Zimbabwe International Women Humanitarian Award 2016
- Nominated Zimbabwe International Women Blogger 2015
- Trustee for Zimbabwe Health Training Support Diaspora Charity
- Sponsor at National Arts Merit Awards, Zimbabwe
- Vodafone World of Difference Winner 2013
- Women of the Year UK 2016
Can you tell us what sparked your passion in global health?
I moved to the UK when I was 20, I was then fairly unclear about my career pathway, meanwhile the HIV/AIDS crisis was wreaking havoc in Africa; we lost many breadwinners, children were orphaned, many migrated in search of greener pastures, better treatment perhaps. The more I pondered these things, the more I realised I wanted to work in a role that bridged my interests in mental health, gender and migration. Today I am grateful to serve and give back to the continent that gave me so much. I have just been appointed Chair of the Zimbabwe Health Training Support Charity, a diaspora-led charity focusing on mental health and epilepsy training in Zimbabwe.
You are very well educated; can you tell us a little about the path you took to get where you are today?
I am actually dyslexic, I don’t recall my parents ever celebrating my grades. In my Shona culture, the word ‘dofo’ is a dehumanizing and stigmatising term inflicted upon people who achieve poor grades. I lived in the shadows of that stigma.
I truly believe in the art and power of emotional intelligence. Our sense of compassion, empathy and ability to navigate difficult terrain, the choices we make about the people we choose to surround ourselves with make us much more resilient and attuned to the issues that the world faces. These are matters of emotional intelligence. When we allow ourselves to be receptive, we open ourselves to an inner learning which protects and guides us.
If we collectively cared more about the issues of gender-based-violence, climate change, disturbing violations of human rights that continue to mar our lives generation after generation, our policies and approaches would demonstrate better care. That said, education is at the heart of most Africans, I waded through and later studied at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, it was here that I sealed my global health journey. Today I work with young people and families affected by gang culture in London many of whom are from minority backgrounds. In delicate moments they share their experiences of trauma, grief and vulnerability, I learn from every one of them. I know how vulnerability feels, I have lived it.
A vast majority of African families lead lives the outside lens would term as very normal. Many are true to their faith, they have incredible social and cultural attachments which foster community coherence and resilience, social characteristics that are drastically missing in western society. Many Africans work long hours, their children excel with top grades as well as in the workplace, many of us regularly send money back home to support our families in Africa. Issues of witchcraft-branding are few and far between however when they are associated with poverty, migration, trauma and mental health complications they can be complicated. Women, children and the disabled, at times people living with albinism are most vulnerable and more likely to be drawn into that circle. We still have work to do. Governments need to do much more to protect these vulnerable groups.
From your experience, how have attitudes toward mental health in Africa changed?
Culture is intrinsically linked to health. The HIV crisis and to some extent the Ebola crisis helped to raise much needed awareness on the links between disease and culture. Much work has been done through research, media, faith groups and civil societies who work tirelessly to address the issues. Yet we still have so much more work to do in reducing stigma on mental health across the globe. Mental health and its stigmatisation is a global challenge; it is not unique to Africa. Switzerland and Finland are some of the richest countries in the world, they have very high suicide rates.
In the African context issues of poor and fragile health care systems, lack of funding, a deficiency of robust and updated polices along with inability to address gender and human rights issues make the experiences of those living with mental health problems much more challenging. Social and cultural factors such as domestic/gender-based violence, substance misuse and forced migration continue to compound the challenges further. Our data on suicide rates in Africa is still poor. In many parts of the continent, people who commit or attempt suicide are shunned; in some parts, one is not even given a decent burial.
Within the UK, what health issues are of most prevalent among immigrants? Are outcomes for these patients vastly different to non-immigrant communities?
Many migrants come to the UK and Europe as a whole and make significant contributions to local economies, adding many dimensions of cultural diversity that enrich these countries. I am reminded of the Caribbean communities who moved to the UK in the 50’s and 60’s and worked in the NHS; they built up the health care system that we access today. Of Irish and Polish communities who moved to the US and helped develop the fundamentals that Americans defend so fiercely today, and the fine Middle Eastern and Asian scientists that have contributed to our body of knowledge that helps us live in a better and safer world.
I reject the notion that migrants are burdensome to the west. That said, I think we need to reduce the push and pull factors that result in forced migration. Migrants are affected by the same health issues as natives; however the loss of community-support and challenges in cultural assimilation can further complicate their mental health. In these industrial Western countries, we live such individualised lives, we are lonely, we are losing our social and cultural skills to social media, there is a price to be paid for globalisation and development, that price is our mental health.
Presently you are involved in helping families and individuals who are affected by gang culture. Can you provide some insight as to why gang culture is so complex and difficult to navigate? What groups are most at risk to gang culture and why?
Gangs are a product of communities, environment, inequalities, questions of identity, generational violence; challenges in parenting, small economies, control and exploitation, in the midst of this are some very vulnerable young people. Gangs are invariably associated with violence and exploitation, often those who have been bullied become the bullies, young people affected by stabbing and gun crime are often traumatized and can develop mental health challenges such as anxiety, social phobia, psychoses, suicidal ideas, and poor nutrition. Substance misuse is high amongst those exposed to gang culture. Many young people affected by gang culture in London are from minority backgrounds, the lack of positive role models: fathers who continue to father at a time when identity, belonging and validity are so critical. This often leads young people into seeking unhealthy emotional attachments, gangs seek to reflect family needs, they offer protection and a sense of identity, the very issues that are critical in adolescent development. There is a strong co-relation between gangs and inequalities, we must do all we can to reduce inequality gaps in our society.
I am a passionate advocate of grassroots movements and activities and there is a growing recognition for the power of these movements within larger global organisations, however we need to ensure that policies reflect issues at grassroots. Policy makers, politicians, need to be embedded and in tune with the very issues that matter in people’s daily lives, social mobility is better achieved when everyone feels a sense of ownership of the process.
You are a passionate advocate for the testing of HIV and have recently been involved in a campaign encouraging people to get tested. Can you tell us a little about this campaign and why you support it so strongly?
I lost 3 brothers to HIV and AIDS, they were breadwinners, and their loss had a huge impact on my career development. At its worst HIV wiped out Zimbabwe’s middle class society, the very core of society that stimulates economic development and growth. I wanted to stand up for the issues that compound our development including the impact of health on development. HIV has had a huge impact in the African continent and Africans living abroad. That said, we have made remarkable progress in containing HIV, however the social, cultural and economic impact is still with us. Many children have been raised by their grandmothers, many homes are single-parent led, often headed by women, it is important we recognise the role that women in raising stable homes, raising orphaned children, often unacknowledged or validated. Their smiles, laughter, renowned singing and resilience urges me to push on for better outcomes for our communities.
The Terence Higgins Trust does an amazing job in engaging Africans in the UK, we need to encourage more African men in the UK to test early, there are many methods to test for HIV, and confidentiality is strictly observed.
In the Terence Higgins HIV National campaign you wear clothing made by Zimbabwean women artists some of whom are also HIV positive. And you yourself are an advocate for the African fashion and arts industry. Can you tell us a little about the female African artists you know and work with and how important their work is for the African narrative?
I took a leaf out of one of my favourite writers’ approaches to life. Nigerian author Ngozi Chimamande Adichie wears Nigerian designers, by doing so she is shaping the Nigerian narrative. There is more than one Zimbabwean narrative, when I wear an African designer, I feel whole, and when I wear a Zimbabwean designer I feel on top of the world. I love wearing Joyline Munaiwa’s Clothing, her products reflect the warmth of her heart. I love rocking Thandi Wraps, Thandi Haruperi’s work and heart reminds me again and again that there is more to the human soul than a condition. The Ndebele people in the southern region are renowned for the bold colours, vibrant arts and culture, for jewellery and all that is drama in African fashion, I run to ever vivacious Fikile Mqhelekagogo Dube. My dear friend Pumela Salela of Brand South Africa wears mouth watering African outfits, we are cut from the same cloth.
There is a symbiotic relationship between art and mental health, indeed artists are as fascinated about mental health as we are mesmerized by their work. I am proud of the collaborative work that I have been doing with Zimbabwean artists to champion health and social challenges in our communities. Philani Amadeus Nyoni’s poetry has enriched our work in mental health and epilepsy in Zimbabwe. Artist, Tariro ne Gitare is engaged in ground-breaking work with adolescents living with HIV in Zimbabwe. Hope Masike supports our work in people living with epilepsy, who are often marginalised and impoverished. The great Oliver Mutukudzi is a true champion of health and healing, he often visits patients in hospitals in Zimbabwe. I am loving the conversations we are having with Gemma Griffiths on how we can collaborate and address issues of substance misuse in young people in Zimbabwe. In our culture grief, trauma and happiness are often expressed through arts.
My yoga mat is my prayer mat, it is there that I find solace, clarity and vision. Yoga is my breath. I was also raised by strong matriarchs, wide hipped African women who fought against all odds to ensure we had a viable future. I constantly draw on their values, their outstanding resilience and strive to live up to my worth, always standing in my truth. It is what we make out of what we have not what we are given that separates one person from the other. I love spending time in our village in Zimbabwe, I love the organic life, simplicity and quietness. My soul is at ease here.
When we find and acknowledge the voice within, and we surround ourselves with the right people the rest falls into place. There is great value in mentorship, I love the mentoring relationship that I have with global health enthusiasts, Dalia Majongwe, Barbara Makunde and Marwa Mohammed, they are truly tomorrow’s leaders. There are many men who support women, they are feminists in their own right. Every challenge in our life is an opportunity to grow and learn; in our growth we must support girls and young women as they develop into this ever-challenging and giving world.
Out of the many things you have achieved so far, what are you most proud of and why? What is next for you?
I was awarded for my work in gangs and mental health, In 2017 I was awarded The Zimbabwe International Women Humanitarian Award, and earlier in 2016 I was awarded The Zimbabwe Achievers Community Leader Award. I now sponsor young artists in Zimbabwe and mentor a number of young leaders.
I am absolutely proud of the Global Health Café platform that I co-run with Ade Adebusuyi. We formed the first African led platform for global health enthusiasts to meet, network and develop. We have grown from a start-up into a thriving global health community that meets regularly with leading global health leaders with focus on Africa. Of all that I have done, I am mostly honoured to have carried my mother’s charitable heart forward. I miss her dearly.
The future looks bright; I would love to tuck into a yoga retreat somewhere in Asia, alone with plenty of herbal teas, my books and yoga mat.
It is often said that the beauty of African fashion comes from the authentic hands that craft it, the innovation that turns a worn out maize sack into a head turning figure-hugging skirt, the visionary eyes that see beyond our everyday waste, and the delicate hands that put finishing touches to wearable arts fit for grand ceremonies.
African fashion is actively participating on the global stage, we are shaping the global fashion industry with our bold colours, tribals prints and wraps that have no beginning or ending.
Fikile Mqhelekagogo Dube hails from Southern Africa, her world is wrapped in all things African, she is as unclaimed as her brand, there are no cliches here, there is nothing ordinary about Fix, as I call her. Her jewellery has clout, it is loud and bold yet grounded in a deep cultural presence that our collective ancestors would approve. I love her unique accessories designs, she embodies strong Southern African themes that have a strong sense of belonging, yet not tied to any particular country or tribe. Fikile is present, she is here and she is not afraid to ‘go there’ and disrupt our cultural norms. She whips up our usual culturally themed styles into mesmerising garments, the kind that acclaims remarks wherever you are. I love that she continuously pays homage to her roots and honours the origins of her inspirations, that she sources her materials from the continent and actively supports local women to produce materials, collaborating with them to improve their participation in showcasing the best from Southern Africa.
I caught up with the ever vivacious Fikile Dube on my blog, Tribal Sands, and she shared her journey on how it all began with your brand, South of Africa.
‘I have always been unapologetically afrocentric and in the 90s when I arrived in the UK African accessories and clothes were not easy to find (unlike now), and because I enjoyed working with indigenous mediums in Zimbabwe I was more than eager to make my own rather than to abandon wearing my African clothes and accessories . A friend of mine came to visit me one day and said “these shoes are Dope! why don’t you just make these to sell?” and the rest is history,’ Fikile smiled.
Fikile’s ethnographic approaches embody the ethos of Ubuntu culture, she has a way with fabrics, kaftans, shawls and rems of mouthwatering jewellery. I wondered what grounded her so firmly in her roots.
‘I like to think I was raised in the spirit of Ubuntu and it’s importance for our ability to thrive and grow as a people. It’s something that was ingrained in me from childhood and up to this day I believe, live and practice it. I therefore believe that it translates naturally into my brand.’
‘My inspiration is without a doubt drawn from the African continent and her traditional cultures, her colours, her smells, her vibrancy, her people, her pain. My emphasis on Southern Africa is mostly because of my diverse heritage from the region. I have Ndebele, Sotho, Shona, Swati and Zulu blood and influences from those cultures have been constant in my life’
As an Analyst and Global Mental Health Specialist, I see synergies between art and mental health, I love supporting African artists. I am all too aware that we are documenting African fashion at a time when the continent is rising, and the African Diaspora is keen to play its part in the continents development. African women in particular are defining their own narrative through spectacular designs. This is an exciting time to engage in African Fashion. African designers too have social responsibilities and can leverage and amplify cultural impacts in the community.
‘Africa is trending,’ Fikile insists, ‘African influence is at the forefront of not only the fashion industry but a vast majority of other disciplines in the creative world. This is our moment as fashion and accessories designers to not only tell our story about Africa but also to influence how people dress. This is our opportunity to influence how people perceive Africa and how us Africans perceive ourselves. It’s an opportunity for our young girls to realise the beauty of Africa and the beauty of being African’ she adds.
Although many African women are progressing well, the issues of domestic violence, which are further complicated by our cultural beliefs and practises continue to affect us all at all in the continent and in the diaspora, I wondered how Fikile was using her brand and voice to advocate on these challenging issues.
‘South of Africa works with women who have been affected by issues of abuse. We source and sell products on their behalf. We also work with a team who proactively work with these ladies to make sure they have access to information and knowledge on how to access resources for women who may be abused. In addition, we at South of Africa have been proactively vocal on issues of abuse. In this day and age no type of abuse should be considered acceptable,’ Fikile says with a passion that is clearly seeking for a better tomorrow for us all.
‘You are out and about and unapologetically bold about your accessories, how does this reflect your personality,’ I asked Fikile. She smiles, broad red lipsticked, adjusts her bold signature squared glasses and whisperers, ‘I am unapologetically African, vibrant, vivacious, and a non conformist’ Our spirits mingle and I breath into a timeless friendship.
Fikile’s craftsmanship skills are fascinating, she dyes her own materials to enhance her designs, I wondered why is it important to her to maintain the traditional skills of design, even with all the technology that we have today.
‘For me the perfection of Africa is in its imperfections,’ she says. ‘The flaws in my design give them character and the traditional skills best reflect this beauty. Whilst technology might be quicker and more efficient I don’t believe that it can adequately capture all the skills of design that we’ve acquired over years and years.’
Fikile has been awarded for her work. ‘I have had many happy moments,’ she said ‘but being recognised by my peers as a fully fledged designer rather than someone who just makes accessories for fun in her living room was a very happy moment for me, she adds.
‘There have been challenges too’ she says ‘challenges that I’m sure many other African designers face too. The economic challenges in Zimbabwe make it difficult to import and export our crafts, we hope that this improves and opens up greater opportunities for the local producers and the diaspora, the scope for development is immense’
Fikile maintains a ground footing in a number of community projects in Zimbabwe. ‘It is important for the diaspora to support home based brands,’ she says, ‘because Zimbabwe is home and whether we like it or not it has moulded each and every one of us into who we are today and where we end up. It’s only right that we give back to the earth that has given us so much,’ she adds.
Young and experienced designers look up to Fikile, I wondered what advice she would you give to a young person who may be considering a career path in African fashion today.
‘Believe in yourself, she says, believe in your talent and don’t ever create anything that you would never publicly endorse. Don’t let your fears inhibit your goals. Embrace your fears,’ she concludes.
Fikile Dube thank you for talking to me on Tribal Sands.
Director of Tribal Sands
Photo’s credit to Fikile Dube
Thank you to Dalia Majongwe, Manager at Tribal Sands
January 2018, all rights reserved.
I have a thing for Africa and African fabrics, when I wear an African designer, I feel grounded and stylish, when I wear anything by a Zimbabwean designer, I feel on top of the world. Whilst so many designers stand out, old and new, over time I have been blown away by Joyline Kim Munairwa’s work. Her’s is more than just a love of fabrics, I caught up with Joyline Kim on Tribal Sands, she tells us how it all began.
‘There years ago I had a tragic accident at work that left me seriously injured and out of employment’ Joyline begins, ‘inspired by my family, especially my little girl, I picked up a pencil and pad to jot down my first drawing of a little dress I had been imagining. From there on I enlisted myself into a few weeks basic college of sewing, which taught me from threading the machine to cutting of different materials’ she says.
‘In order to enhance my knowledge I decided to grab whatever information about the design world I could find and I have been working as hard as I can since then,’ Joyline continues, ‘God has continued to bless me until now and it has been a whirlwind of amazing opportunities coming my way. In the next few years I would like for Joy-Line Clothing to be internationally recognised as a statement for all the women that no matter what size, colour or shape you are ,we are all amazing in our own special way’ she says.
Joyline’s work speaks for itself, she is unapologetic about her African heritage and her love for long skirts and dresses peppered with African jewellery. She has the ability to visualise fabrics in three or four dimensions, then as ever, whip them up with an authentic African angle, quenching our thirst for innovation in fashion.
‘I have worked and met plenty of supportive people on this wonderful journey and would like the continuing growth of our company to be an inspiration to anyone who has ever had a dream, that with hard work and determination you will succeed’ Joyline concludes.
African designers are rising, they are embodying and modernising the African fashion landscape to new heights, they are embracing a new dimension of creativity with dazzling layers and colours that can light up even the darkest of rooms. I love wearing Joy-Line Clothing.
Director of Tribal Sands
All images have been posted with the consent of Joyline Kim Munairwa
The Nursing Times kindly featured my career journey as a role model in nursing. I weep as I reflect on this journey, many challenges all of which I embraced as opportunities for a better tomorrow.
Dorcas Gwata started as a hospital cleaner, and now she’s a clinical nurse specialist who works with young people affected by gangs
Dorcas Gwata’s career has been nothing short of impactful. In addition to her current work in the UK, Ms Gwata has worked in healthcare on a global scale in order to address poor access to healthcare in low-income countries. She worked on the Friendship Bench Project in Zimbabwe, an evidence-based programme that uses problem solving to address mental health issues in the community.
Ms Gwata’s current role is very much community based. She works with Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust’s Westminster Integrated Gangs Unit where her team uses innovative methods to engage with young people who are involved with or affected by gangs.
“We meet them wherever they are – in schools, youth clubs, prisons or hospitals,” she tells me.
Adolescents affected by gang culture have high exposure to trauma and are often shunned by society, resulting in isolation, Ms Gwata explains.
She has been in this role since 2013. The Integrated Gangs Unit was set up when strong evidence emerged of the effects of gangs and gang culture on the mental health of adolescents.
Although her specific role is within a specialised unit, Ms Gwata works with a multi-agency team, which she says helps broaden her perspective in helping young people affected by gangs.
“Adolescents affected by gang culture have high exposure to trauma”
“The greatest value of this role is the innovation and clinical skills that I am able to bring to the team, while also understanding the roles that different agencies play in keeping the community safe from gang culture,” Ms Gwata says.
She is someone who has worked hard to reach her current role. Ms Gwata started out as a hospital cleaner at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. She then worked as a healthcare assistant.
As a healthcare assistant, Ms Gwata was looking after a woman with anorexia, a condition she says she didn’t fully understand at the time. But they developed a good therapeutic relationship, and one day the patient asked: “Have you ever thought about becoming a nurse?”
It struck a chord with Ms Gwata.
“I always thought that was powerful coming from a patient, and I started my training soon after,” Ms Gwata says. She started training as a nurse in the late 1990s.
“In each role, I have learned so much about humanity and the challenges that people face, particularly about people from low-income communities,” she says.
Ms Gwata worked in various roles after getting her nursing qualification, including time at an A&E and working for the charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (Afruca). It was then that she was approached to take on a role in the Integrated Gangs Unit.
“I have learned so much about humanity and the challenges that people face”
“It was a great opportunity to get involved in adolescent mental health and address the trauma they face due to high exposure to violence and sexual exploitation,” she explains.
Ms Gwata says that studying public health and gender violence prepared her well for this role, as did her role with Afruca. This position allowed her to come into contact with survivors of human trafficking, female genital mutilation and witchcraft branding. Her experiences have all helped in her role working with adolescents affected by gangs and gang culture.
“Nursing is a unique role”
Ms Gwata has received a number of honours for her role in healthcare, including the Zimbabwe International Womens’ Humanitarian Award in 2016. But in the end, it’s the support from family and friends that “kisses her heart”, she says.
“Nursing is a unique role that puts us in contact with people at their most vulnerable times,” she says. “I have learned so much about myself and humanity through nursing.”
Director at Tribal Sands
All rights reserved
I gracefully strolled into Marion Boehm’s art space and Parisian time seemed to stand still. My entire world was instantly drawn to the most magnificent piece of art I had seen in a while. In this drama of a community that the artist had created, a group of African women stood tall in their elegance, their long colonial dresses hiked up to their breasts, giving way to their wide hips.
This was no ordinary art. Imaginary soft winds seemed to whisk the delicately entwined indulgent natural fabrics, revealing mysteries of under layers worthy of huge ceremonial events. These women had a presence, they were there and I was one of them, I was amongst them. I moved closer to the piece, my consciousness slowly bringing me back to my surroundings. I was reminded of the Herero women of Namibia who adopted their colonialist style long after their freedom. Culture and conflict whipped into voluminous long wide dresses that hang on layers of wide petticoats, the kind that demands grand postures, good mannerisms and certainly no running or fretting.
Artists and art enthusiasts mingled away in whispery conversations at the Paris Art Fair. Oblivious of their presence, I moved my gaze from one art piece to another, only to return back to that one piece within the gallery. I was in conversation with this community: I heard their laughter, not their suffering, I saw their vulnerability and their resilience, I knew of their grief; and yet their compassion and beauty outweighed their struggles. The artist had gone a long way in validating their humanity.
“Who is the artist?” I asked around.
Marion Boehn stood in her truth and presence. She was friendly and accessible, her art work much more pronounced than the tone of her voice, artists are introverts like that, leaving all emotions to splash out in their work.
I stumbled on my speech, reciting my Southern African heritage, our collective colonial history and a culture that has remained somewhat unshaken in the face of a dark history. Marion knew what I was on about, of course she did, she had lived in Southern Africa for years observing African lives and cultures and summing them up in her art. I was immediately at home with her, I felt I could trust her with our culture, that she would always portray the truth, even if the truth is not always pleasant.
In documenting the stories of these communities, Marion did not seek to invoke pity or misery, she wanted to tell the story of their beautiful natural skins, their hair, fabrics and smiles, the kind you may never see in a glossy magazine, and in doing so she shaped the narrative of everyday African women and who we truly are.
“How much is this piece?” Emma Menell from Tyburn Gallery asked me the next day when I returned for another dose of Marion’s work.
“Are you sitting down?” I turned to look at Emma and smiled.
Above photo credit to Art-Co Gallery and top photo credit to Marion Boehm’s FB page.
Thank you to Marion Boehm and the team at Art-Co Gallery
Director of Tribal Sands
Above photo credit to Art-Co Gallery
This year, I was hugely honoured to win the Zimbabwe International Women Humanitarian Award (ZIWA), I was totally humbled, I cried. I cried to all the work that I continue to pour into my work in Global Mental Health and my grassroots work with young people affected by gangs in London. I cried to the sadness that my mother is sadly no longer with us to share these beautiful moments, I also cried with joy, sheer joy and gratitude for the journey I have walked. Humanitarian work is taxing and is selfless, as humanists our compassion has no boarders of boundaries, we care because it is the right thing to do. Any validation is extremely heart warming and pushes us to do even more for vulnerable people. Below is my interview with The Heroine Collective.
As a Public Health Specialist, Dorcas Gwata’s work is wide-reaching. Recently awarded the Zimbabwe International Women Humanitarian Award, Dorcas is connected to a large range of mental health projects across the UK, Zimbabwe and Tanzania; she works to safeguard and raise awareness on issues like FGM, HIV and AIDS, as well as the health impacts of gang culture.
“I come from a family of grassroots civil-servants,” she says when I ask her about her early influences. “My mother had great compassion for helping vulnerable groups – particularly women and children. These humanist seeds were planted in me long ago.” From her studies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to working as a cleaner in an Edinburgh hospital – where she got first-hand experience of the issues faced by low-income groups – she is passionate about equality. “I advocate tirelessly for these groups because I understand the issues,” she says.
After her studies, Dorcas worked as a Mental Health Adviser for AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse), a charity which was formed as a response to the Victoria Climbié case in 2000. Victoria, an 8 year old Ivorian girl, who’d been suffering severe abuse without appropriate social-care intervention, was eventually murdered by her guardians in 2000. The case was widely reported by the media. Dorcas says it “struck a code”, resulting in much-needed change across care systems, and raising questions on the role that religion and culture plays in shaping cultural practises. At AFRUCA, Dorcas explored African cultural practises such as FGM, Human Trafficking, Witchcraft Branding and child chastisement. “Working here shaped my understanding of advocacy in terms of looking at what makes policies successful at grassroots levels.”
Despite the notable health improvements in the African population in the last decade, the continent still faces enormous healthcare challenges. “There is no health without mental health,” Dorcas explains. “Physical health is intrinsically tied to mental health and in low-income countries these challenges are compounded by poverty, poor access to healthcare, and poor healthcare systems. Mental health across the globe receives very little recognition and funding – and this is even more the case in low-income countries.”
But Dorcas says she is always moved by the resilience of people who are so disproportionately burdened with such challenges. “I think communities in high-income countries could learn so much from those who have so little – they’d do well to adopt their models of social and cultural cohesion.”
Dorcas was tasked with evaluating the African Ebola crisis of 2013-16; she describes it as one of the most striking epidemics of our time. “Viruses don’t respect borders,” she says, acknowledging the speed that the disease travelled across countries. “I learned – more than ever – that the best of our scientific knowledge is not complete without a robust understanding of local cultural practices. I also learned that communities have capacity to mobilise themselves, even when governments fail to do so. And it’s important that Africans take ownership of our own challenges, and provide better healthcare for the African population. Equally, we need to credit the African response to the Ebola crisis – Nigeria was Ebola-free before the U.S.A. was.”
Dorcas is currently working on mental health interventions in London for young people and families involved in gangs, and also young girls affected by sexual exploitation through gang culture. Her current research supports adolescents who often have high exposure to trauma, and are often stigmatised and/or isolated from their wider society. “My work takes a broader approach to understanding the push-and-pull factors that drive young people in and out of gangs,” she says and notes that a significant proportion of young people involved in gangs come from minority backgrounds and suffer high levels of poverty. “My role challenges the notion of ‘Hard to Reach’ groups. It adapts culturally-adjusted methods of outreach engagement – we’ve taken the clinic to the streets, for example. It’s our priority to keep young people safe from knife-crime and to keep young girls safe from sexual exploitation.”
I wish my mother were alive to see the seeds she planted. I miss her dearly. I blame her entirely for my restlessness in seeking a better tomorrow.
Winning the Zimbabwean International Women Humanitarian Award in 2016 was one of Dorcas’ career highlights, and she notes the responsibility that comes with it to mentor others. She was also named Nursing Standard Nurse of the Year 2015 for her work with young people involved in gangs. “The real heroes of that award are the young vulnerable people I look after – people who are striving for a better and safer life, often with little acknowledgement,” she says.
But it isn’t just the awards that inspire her; she loves the arts. “I believe the arts have an important place in people’s recovery and well being,” she says. “What would it mean for patients in a mental health hospital to hear a few lines of poetry or the thump piano?” She feels the arts ground her, and often looks to women in this field for inspiration. “I love Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s writing,” she says. “I remember meeting her briefly once, and she said to me: ‘We need to hear about Zimbabwe. Keep writing about Zimbabwe’. And Arundhati Roy – her pen knows no boundaries. She’s unapologetic about advocating for the voiceless, for the forgotten groups in her society. I take a leaf out of her book.”
I am grateful to The Heroine Collective for featuring me on their sacred space.
Tribal Sands 2017
This year, I am incredibly proud to a sponsor at the National Arts Merits Awards (NAMA) in Zimbabwe. My brand, Tribal Sands is sponsoring the category of ‘Outstanding First Creative Published Writing. I love reading, so much can come from reading. Books are growth, reading is development, we must all do all I can to foster Zimbabwean talent. Beyond sponsorship, I am looking to run yearly writers workshops that provide a space for upcoming writers to to grow and share their work.
Thanks to all who support this important work.
I am very grateful to LSE Academic, Dalia Majongwe and Zimbabwean Poet, Philani Amadeus Nyoni for their active support on this project.
Director Tribal Sands
He is young and transient, the kind that would write a letter in one continent and post it in another. I first got of wind of Abdul Adan’s writing through Philani Amadeus Nyoni, a fellow countryman whose ideas and pen are equally off the radar. I met Abdul at the 2016 Africa Writes Festival, an encounter months in the planning. He is warm, his mannerism reflects a cultured upbringing, yet his writing is unleashed. Writers are the most insecure and vulnerable creatures, he once acknowledged. I push boundaries and insist on calling him Adan which he allows. Adan embodies all that is global, an undeclared nomad he pitches his tent as he wishes and articulates the world through inquisitive anthropological lenses. He takes the reader along, and holds them in a suspense that lingers way beyond the last page.
Abdul Adan talks to Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands
Abdul you were shortlisted for the Caine Prize Award 2016, how did it feel to be nominated?
I was very excited at the news of my nomination. It meant I will get a trip to England, meet people who are passionate about what I do, and get to learn more about myself in the process. This is the first literary shortlist I have been on, and the second time the Caine Prize took me on a trip—for almost making the 2013 shortlist.
The Caine Prize 2016 ultimately went to a South African writer, should writing be competitive?
Writing, being art, shouldn’t be competitive. Prizes, though, will have to be won by one writer at a time, so that there’s a reason for curiosity, suspense, and a means to give money to a writer every year. Who is to say for sure the five of us wrote the ‘best’ stories submitted? It was a strong list but still… Any shortlist is a reflection of the collective tastes, experiences, or even politics of the judging panel.
In your short story ‘The Lifebloom Gift’ you lead the reader through comfortable and uncomfortable conversations about sexuality and mental illness … what inspired Ted’s character?
I drove a medical transportation car back in 2011. One day I took a middle aged woman from a St. Louis hospital to a small Missouri town where she lived. Her place was behind a small Episcopalian church and her overweight son of about 25 lay outside in the yard, stroking a dog. The details are now sketchy but he looked really well rested. Something about his eyes stuck with me, and he ended up becoming Ted Lifebloom three years later. His particular disorder came out of my own loneliness those first years in America. People seemed too cold and detached for me; I couldn’t see at what level I could connect. I had just come from this other part of the world where people are more demonstrative, and where even a quick chat with a stranger carries with it some genuine emotion. I was really confused by all the airy polite smiles on the faces of people who really barely acknowledged me. By the time I wrote the story my earlier confusion had long ended, but the memory of it had to be pumped into Ted for preservation but also for my own self-education.
Would a female African writer been able to write the same story with the same level of autonomy and authority?
Of course. I don’t see why not, but I am inclined to think African critics might be harsher with her.
How and why did you give yourself permission to write the narrative of character completely different from your own cultural background?
Well, by 2014, when I wrote the story, I had made so many American friends and was just about getting to feel out America’s cultural core. I had undergone my fair bit of Americanization already. I was even understanding their humour, something that eluded in the years prior. And when you feel the humour of a place, you know you are home. I should also add that we are not the only ones who are exotic. White people too can offer plenty in the same regard. They have written about us for ages, perhaps its time we returned the favour, don’t you think (smiles)
You embody many different cultural backgrounds, Somali, Kenyan, American and recently Kazakhstan, who do you pledge your heritage to?
I don’t care much for flags and borders. I only acknowledge them as far as staying out of trouble. I love all these places equally, but I can adjust faster into some than others. In the US for instance, it took me years to feel the humour alone, while in Kazakhstan, my Kazakhanization was well underway within months. Speaking of heritage my nomadic roots is probably what I hold in the best regard.
In 2015 you attended a Writing workshop in Zimbabwe, what did you make of the country?
Harare looked like a cleaner less populated version of Nairobi. People were very friendly. In fact, this is the friendliest country I have visited. Barbara Mhangami, a fellow participant at the workshop, took me to Harare’s city centre where, while she tended to her business in the shops behind me, I listened to a young, thin, street preacher most intently. I remember that we went to a tailor’s shop, too, and saw nice, hardworking godly women whose mere sight invokes their country’s innocence and the day to day mixture of optimism and just cold discipline. We have lost that innocence here in Kenya. I miss it actually.
In ‘The Somalification of James Karangi’ you tell a hilarious, and somewhat disturbing tale about a Kikuyu suitor who must go through painful experiences like chewing khat and wear ing a noose around his neck in order to be ‘Somalified’. Was this a critic of Somali conservatism and African tribalism?
I suppose so, but I can’t say criticism of Somali conservatism was on my mind as I was writing. I was just having fun, and trying get James to undergo something darkly comical. Generally though, I do keep a keen eye out for prejudices against anyone, even from my own people.
Who do you read and how do other writers inspire you?
I am a very slow reader and only pick up a book if I really believe in it, usually through a friend’s recommendation. I read a lot of short stories back when I was starting out. Among those I read extensively was Anton Chekhov, Guy De Maupassant, Chinua Achebe, H. H Munro, and Bessie Head. I am not reading anyone now in particular. I just open random excerpts, stories, and read to the end if I like them. I think am one of the least read people writing today.
Chekhov, Achebe, and Munro, pretty much taught me how to write stories. I don’t bother with their themes when reading as a writer. I only pay attention to the flow, and the transition between scenes, diction, etc. Writers are craftsmen, and all craftsmen have secrets; I try deciphering their journey in a story, undo their knots, and suddenly the whole thing isn’t that mysterious. This is when I jump up and say, ‘So that was it? I can do that.’ The only problem is that sometimes the English is just not enough. The really worthy ideas, though, compel me to find ways of skirting around the English problem.
Tell us three random things we don’t know about you?
a) I am a recovering chess addict. I can’t go cold turkey, but I am playing less than I used to.
b) I got my first ever smart phone four months ago. It’s an old Samsung, gifted to me by little brother. I still don’t know how to use it well.
c) I get lucid dreams quite often. Sometimes I would ask the people in my dreams if they know I am dreaming them up. Other times, I would run around and engage in little mischievous exploits—stuff I thought about in the real world but couldn’t do—telling everyone, ‘It’s just a dream, folks. All is legal. Chill out.’
Abdul Adan, thank you for talking to me on Tribal Sands
Director of Tribal Sands November 2016.
Global Health is increasingly interconnected and interdependent. As health systems and resources in Africa are increasingly compromised, there is growing evidence to suggest that the African Diaspora has a critical role in scaling up health services in the continent. The Zimbabwean Diaspora has a wealth of expertise and bi-cultural skills. They understand the social, cultural and political context of their home country and are well placed to deliver training and interventions in local norms. In Zimbabwe, we have effectively contributed to the scale of mental health training for health professionals and provided culturally adjusted mental health interventions through training and interventions.
There are few accounts of evidence-based interventions for depression and common mental disorders (CMD) in primary care in low income countries (Chibanda et al 2016. The Friendship Bench program provides indigenous culturally adjusted problem solving therapy in areas with high exposure to HIV and social deprivation. The word ‘bench’ derives from the Shona word ‘Chigaro chekupanamazano’ which translates as ‘bench to sit and exchange ideas’ Therapy is delivered by female lay health care workers who are familiar with the local challenges and are culturally accepted to deliver mental health interventions in their local areas. This collaborative mental health program was started by a local Psychiatrist, Dr Dixon Chibanda in response to a request from the local stakeholders for a ‘no- cost’ community mental health intervention and is now being scaled up to wider parts of the country. The Bench itself is a specifically wooden bench placed in the grounds of the Primary Health care setting where the screening and psychological therapy takes place.
More than 300 lay health workers have now been trained to deliver these interventions across the country. I have worked on the Mbare Friendship Bench project and have been involved in training lay health workers in scale up training program.
London has a diverse population, and the demographics are increasingly changing. My public health role explores and provides mental health interventions for young people and families affected by gang culture in inner London. 80% of this cohort are from minority backgrounds, and affected by trauma of events from migration, stabbings, kidnapping, sexual violence and poverty.
My qualitative research extrapolates lessons learnt from the Friendship Bench model of care into my clinical work with young people and families affected by gang culture in Central London. It informs evidence based of culturally adjusted model of care in high resourced setting which is struggling to achieve better health outcomes for minority populations. It explores the broader issues of cultural adjusted interventions that are useful in improving engagement with ‘hard to reach’ groups and explores the lessons that NHS can learn from low in-come countries like Zimbabwe. These lessons could inform a potential scale up of these culturally adjusted interventions in wider parts of the UK.
In Zimbabwe we have used the WHO Mental Health Gap Training package to deliver training in the assessment and management of self- harm and suicide as well as addressed the global safeguarding challenges faced by vulnerable individuals affected by mental illness. Our Diaspora involvement seeks to validate efforts of health care professionals working in low resourced environment, scale up skills and knowledge at grassroots level and in doing so strengthens our partnerships.
This has by no means, one woman’s journey. I am hugely indebted to my clinical supervisor, Dr Tami Kramer, my partner in clinical excellence. I am forever grateful Raj Boom for giving me a chance. Debbie Ariyo OBE and her wonderful charity AFRUCA, will always have a warm place in my heart. In Zimbabwe, I am warmed by the kindness shown to my by the Friendship Brench staff, in particular the Community Health Workers and Dr Dixon Chibanda and Dr Melanie Abas. I am grateful to the young people and families that I look after in the Gangs-Mental Health project, it is they who push my clinical and innovative skills.
Thank you to the Florence Nightingale Travel Grant, I am very grateful.
Director, Tribal Sands