TEDxLSHTM

Fierce Women: Dorcas Gwata, Global Health Expert Interview

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.

You have worked extensively in the field of mental health and worked as Mental Advisor for charity AFRUCA. Can you tell us a little about this charity and what their primary functions are?Victoria Climbe was trafficked from West Africa into the UK by her aunt as a young child. Many Africans particularly the poor believe moving to the West will better their lives. Victoria was extensively abused by those who should have protected her. When their own lives began to fall apart, they stigmatized and abused Victoria, they believed that Victoria was a witch. Victoria came into contact with many experienced multi-agency professionals including doctors, nurses, social workers, and teachers who all failed to pick up the critical signs of abuse associated with African cultures. Victoria later died a gruesome death in an inner London hospital, in one of the most developed countries in the world.Today my mentor Debbie Ariyo OBE runs AFRUCA Charity, https://www.afruca.org/ The charity looks into cultural practises affecting African families in the UK such as Female Genital Mutilation, human trafficking, child chastisement, modern slavery and the impact of culture and religion to safeguard vulnerable lives. I was privileged to work with the charity as their Mental Health Adviser, later as a Trustee and now a Consultant. The charity is embedded in communities and faith groups. Their model of outreach engagement with communities that are otherwise tarnished as ‘hard to reach’ is relevant and replicable in many communities around the world.How prevalent are issues such as witchcraft branding and human trafficking today and what is being done to help prevent these injustices?

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.

BZS 2017

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.

How has your experience been as female immigrant to the UK yourself? In your own experience have you seen a change in attitude toward immigrants, either positive or negative?When I first moved to the UK I worked as a hospital cleaner, a job that taught me so much about the British society. Many years later, well into my global-health career, I am occasionally mistaken for a cleaner, I take no offense to this; I only ask that we treat everyone equally, including cleaners. In Europe some still hold the stereotype that all African women are cleaners. Our  value is not wealth, education or class, it is measured by our servitude to society. Despite stereotype,  Black women tend do well in the UK, our greatest challenge is in protecting and fostering young  black men who grow into role models that multiply generations and beyond, the need has never been greater.
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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 organisationshowever 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.

In a recent article for Zimbabwe Abroad Magazine, you identify silent killers such as obesity and hypertension as presenting a new challenge in the future of African countries and communities. Given the complexities of socioeconomics and equality of access to education, how do you believe these issues will be best tackled in the future?HIV is now a chronic disease, people are living longer with better quality of life, Africa’s middle class is growing, they are adopting western eating habits and their waistlines are growing. In the African culture, roundness and firmness is sought after in relationships and marriage, in the western culture many go to lengths to keep their weight extremely low. These differing obsessions of culture and health and extremely interesting to observe, this is the stuff of anthropology.In many ways infectious diseases such as Ebola have their shock and awe, they make their presence known, whilst hypertension and diabetes may linger on often undetected. I am excited about the appointment of Dr Tedro Ghebreyesus new Director General at the World Health Organisation. Dr Tedros is the first African to hold this important role; he is familiar with the global health challenges, not least because Africa holds the highest burden of disease. We are ready to serve and support his policies. I recently spend some time at the World Health Organisation in Geneva shadowing WHO Chief Nurse Elizabeth Iro, along with Lord Nigel Crisp and Professor Sheila Tlou who have championed the Nursing Now global campaign which is pushing for greater recognition of the nursing and midwifery role in its capacity to support health care systems and economic development.  I pushed on the need to ensure that there are more women in leadership roles and that mental health is a priority at all levels, including the health of the health care worker.IMG-20160717-WA0004Part of the purpose of this project is to encourage confidence in women. You are an incredibly accomplished woman who has found her own voice in a number of fields. How do you encourage confidence in yourself?

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.

Rambi 8

 Photo credit: Tirivam
Interview by Fierce Women Collective
Blog entry by Dorcas Gwata 2018
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