Tuesday, 28 January 2014

#Kenya- Sitawa Wafula. Activism and Mental Health

As Homosexuality, Female Genital Mutilation, Albinism, Mental Health happens to be one of those issues considered still a taboo in 2014 in many countries across the African Continent. Mental Health has always been considered, without geographical distinction, something to be scared about and people with symptoms of mental illness, up to not long time ago, used to be segregated  being considered an harm for the entire  society. 
I started becoming interested in mental health across Africa thank's to Sitawa Wafula, an amazing woman I had the fortune to stumble upon who is a full time activist committed, a real frontrunner,in promoting awareness on mental health in her country, Kenya, and throughout Africa.  
To have a rough idea on how Kenya deals with mental health it's necessary to weigh the recent statistics. Numbers speak alone. According to Doctor Wambui Waithaka (co-founder of the Kenya Medical Practioners Pharmacists and Dentists Union) the percentage of people suffering from mental disorder in Kenya is  around 10/15% of the population and to support them there are only 79 psychiatrics operating in the whole country. In addition we should consider a whole series of elements for example the total absence of Mental Health Policy in Kenya, the few infrastructures, few staff, little financing by the government, little information, outdated policy framework and least but not last the stigma. Kenya urgently needs a change concerning Mental Health issues and thank's to the action of people like Sitawa Wafula, who works everyday to educate people on mental illness, we are sure to undertake a new path for a radical change.

Sitawa Wafula had a brillant 2013 being awarded with the East African Youth Philantropy Award and Activist of the Year Award; having attended the 1st Mental Health Conference (out of the World Mental Health Month) in Ghana as a speaker and started her 1%Club to raise funds for her hotline dedicated to all those who need information about mental health and for those who need to feel they are not alone and that there are ways to re-identify themselves even with a mental diagnosis.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA-  When  did you start being an activist as a mental health campaigner?
SITAWA WAFULA - In 2008 when I started documenting my daily personal experiences, as a rape survivor and living with a dual diagnosis of epilepsy and bipolar, on my blog  and that was the beginning of my journey as a mental health and epilepsy crusader.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA-  What's the state of mental health in Kenya nowadays?
SITAWA WAFULA  - There is positive head way with different organizations coming up to bridge the gap left by the government especially in areas of policy, research and the introduction of community mental health and establishment of support systems. There is still alot to be done especially by the main stakeholder which is the goverment but we are heading to the right direction.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What is the committemet of the governament on this issue?
SITAWA WAFULA  - There has been loads of talk and little to no action, some government representation at the Mental Health Policy Review meetings but no clear guideline as to when we will eventually have a mental health bill. Currently there is confusion of whether the Division of mental health has been scraped off and what the way forward is, also the budget allocated to mental health is still minimal and ignorance levels at a high. In a nut shell, the government needs to up its game.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You've been recently awared with the Youth Philantropy Award 2013 and Activist of the Year 2013. A part from personal satisfaction, what does it mean to receive such awards? Did it change something in your way of being an activist? If yes, in what?
SITAWA WAFULA - Recieving these two awards in the space of 5 months is above all a challenge to me to be bigger and better in the work I do for mental health and persons with mental health conditions in the country and Africa as a whole.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You were in Ghana where you were on a panel during the  World Mental Health month , what did you achieve in this occasion and what did you bring to Kenya for your future work?
SITAWA WAFULA  - I was able to learn more about mental health in Africa and do a comparision between Ghana and Kenya, and found there is no much difference in the way we handle mental health and the general public’s view of it is the same, the stigma and discrimination faced by families and those with mental health conditions is the same. The only difference is that they have a mental health bill and recently elected a mental health board. things that in collaboration with mental health stakeholders here in Kenya, I will continue to champion for.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - In many African countries mental health illness is still a taboo, often associated with witchcraft, sorcery , supernatural, evil and psychiatrics and psychiatry is seen as something diabolic, see the example of Chad. What do you think can help people in loading these prejudices about mental health?
SITAWA WAFULA  -A lot of investment; time, resources – both human and financial need to be made in creating awareness about mental health and establishment of support systems across the continent so as to break the ignorance barrier that leads to the association of anything mental health with the diabolic.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKAWhat are the main causes of mental health diseases in Kenya and what are the main consequences of it, for example suicide, alienation from the rest of the society etc...?
SITAWA WAFULA - The causes of mental health in the country are basically the same all round the world but alcohol and drug/substance abuse are one of the common causes, the high societal expectations also have a part they play and all these lead to loads of cases of depression which is closely linked to suicide and another common illness is schizophrenia.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Let's talk about art and the power of imagination. You are a poet as well as an activist, or I should say the two things stand aside. You also perform as a spoken word artist, what does art have to do with your activism?  Do you believe in art as a tool to humanize the world?
SITAWA WAFULA  - Art is a voice to me, it is through my poetry performances that I have been able to attract crowds to listen to my rape ordeal and living with epilepsy and bipolar, it is through art that i have been able to get my initial platforms to create awareness about mental health and open channels for discussion for otherwise not talked about channels...so yes, art is a tool to humanize the world.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Can you explain the project of onepercentclub and my mind my funk ? How will this hotline be helping people?
SITAWA WAFULA  -1% Club is a crowd funding platform. My mind, my funk is my mental health organization that aims to bridge the gap of information in mental health by providing information and appropriate support to those with mental health conditions and their families. For this to work, I need to generate content and share it and thats where 1% club comes in; it provides an avenue to raise funds for the work and which will be used to generate a tool; website, app or hotline for people to access and share mental health information.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Your experience means a lot to many people who don't find a way to live with mental illness, what is Sitawa “secret” to have build such a successful life after desperation and pain?
SITAWA WAFULA  -Wow...Sitawa Secret... that sounds grand...well I am not sure I am done with all the experimenting but key things I do; Keep God above all things, exercise alot and eat right, knowning that once you hit the bottom, the only way to go is up and as long as I am here and I am human, I am entitled to all the rights and privileges any other human being is entitled to.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -  How would you describe using three adjectives mental illness in your experience?
SITAWA WAFULA - This is a hard one; I’d say Experimental, Ironic, Life Changing

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - We are in 2014, tell me three things you would like to achieve in 2014 for the mental health cause and how do you think you'll achieve them?
SITAWA WAFULA - Get my  mental health organization off the ground by doing the pilot projects branding and I aim to achieve this by forming partnerships: 
a)    Doing alot more mental health awareness drives and forming support groups and I aim to achieve this by being out there with my blog and pushing mental health information through all possible channels; online, print media, Tv, Radio, Universities, Youth Groups
b)   Pushing for mental health policy and the passing of the Bill and election of the mental health board and i am to achieve this through collaboration with mental health stakeholders in Kenya.

I'm sure after this chat you'll feel somehow inspired by the  strenght and the positiveness of Sitawa Wafula. Her words are really important to understand the urgency to overcome the barriers of prejudices on mental health building a public dialogue, a platform that can enable to dialogue, confront and share experiences. Thank's also to her poetry she reaches poeple's heart delivering a new global consciousness.

Here an interesting Basicneed Fellowship Program. Deadline 5th of February.

Here's Sitawa Wafula  poem "A little more"

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Art and Activism

Very happy to announce that The Cut-Lo Strappo has received the advocacy from Amnesty International - Italian Section.
This recognition is important as it clearly confirms how much art can engage with social activism against oppression.
The Cut-Lo Strappo will be on International Tour in 2014 with many new surprises.

I owe a profound debt with Daniela M. from Lecce who happened to interview me for her university degree thesis on my work, last year, and who kindly linked me to the wonderful staff of Amnesty starting from Rossella Conte. 

To check where and when or to engage me for school visits and presentations contact me via mail.

Sono lieta di annunciare che la Sezione Italiana di Amnesty International ha concesso il patrocinio alla performance The Cut-Lo Strappo. Questo riconoscimento è importante e conferma quanto l'arte possa avere un ruolo determinante nel rappresentare la voce del dissenso contro ogni forma di oppressione.
Nel 2014  The Cut-Lo Strappo sarà al centro di nuove interessanti iniziative internazionali pubbliche anche nelle scuole.

Ringrazio Daniela M. una studentessa universitaria di Lecce che lo scorso hanno mi ha intervistata per la sua tesi di laurea e che mi ha messa in contatto con il meraviglioso staff di Amnesty partendo da Rossella Conte.

Per incontri nelle scuole e presentazioni potete scrivere alla mail che trovate nella pagina dei contatti.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

An African Princess

I read that Palgrave McMillian published The autobiography of an African Princess featuring Fatima Massaquoi, daughter of King of Gallinas of Southern Sierra Leone. She lived in Hamburg-Germany where she experienced the rise of the Nazi movement and were she hosted Marcus Garvey. 
Easy to say that I immediatly connected with another autobiography by another African Princess, Sayyida Salme bint Said ibn Sultanfrom Zanzibar. The book was originally written in German and the English title is Memories of an Arabian Princess, published in 1888 by D. Appleton & Co. 
Arabian princess? Yes, at that time Zanzibar was Sultanate of Oman, so she was African of Arab origins. Princess Fatima and Princess Selma had something in common, below underlined.

I stumbled upon Selma's life while living in Stonetown and recently had the opportunity to write about her life for an anthology.
At the end of last summer a friend proposed me to join her new anthology project of multicultural stories for children. The anthology' s title is Metissakané which in wolof means fusion of cultures. The idea behind the project was to revisit old traditional stories and find their pair in the present time. Something of the past which could relate to the experience of today. It didn't take me so much to know that I would tell the story of Princess Selma of Zanzibar. While I was living in Stonetown-Zanzibar, I've came across her story so many times and from many different people, I've visited many of the places she attended during her life. As I wrote in one of my book "Zanzibar is the only place where I experienced the absence of time" so I felt the presence of Selma as if she never left the Island and as if we were just in the XIX century. Only the presence of cars gave me the perception that we weren't in the past.

Selma as a child
Why did I think of her? Because her personal story seemed to me so close to the present time. To understand it I must start from the beginning. Selma was the youngest daughter of  Sultan Sayyd Said bin Sultan Al- Busaid who had 36 children. Her mother, Jilfidan, was of Circassian origin and it is said that she inherited  her beauty.
Her father was known as a righteous man. And when he died in 1856 her brothers took power and peace became a dream.
She had self-taught herself how to write and read practicing on the Coran, thank's to the help of an educated slave. Girls at that time were not expected to learn much but she felt she had to have a proper education. She was self determined and also a  sporty girl as well, trained to horse riding and fencing. 

Zanzibar at that time was a slave market. Right in the Indian Ocean facing the costs of Tanzania. It was still a major slave trade market (only in 1873 Sultan Barghash was forced to sign adn edict that made slave trade illegal) where merchants from all over the world met for business.
One of these merchants was Rudolph Reuter, a German business man who happened to be Selma neighbour and who soon fell in love with her. Of course it was not going to be an acceptable relationship: too many differencies. She was African, he was European, she was living on a tropical Island him in a cold North European country, she was muslim, he was christian, she spoke Arab and Kiswahili and he spoke German. Surely Selma's family would not accept their marriage. So with the help of friends, she managed to leave the Island. After deciding to marry Rudolph she  waited for him in Aden where he joined her a few weeks later and got married. From there they headed to Hamburg-Germany (same city where Fatima Massaquoi relocated). Here she was introduced to his family who welcomed her and tried to let her feel home. To marry Rudolph she converted to christianity and changed her name, she wasn't anymore Selma but Emily, Emily Reute. She started wearing western clothes and  speaking German. They had three children.  She tried hard to adapt to her new, so different, life but her thoughts were always home, in Zanzibar. She decided to return and see weather she could settle there with her family, but part of her own family in Stonetown didn't welcome her well, while friends had always supported her choice. She travelled back to Germany full of sadness.

Selma died in Germany without returning to her beloved island again (even Fatima never returned to Sierra Leone). She died, as I wrote in my story, holding in one hand the sand of Zanzibar which she brought to Europe in a leather bag during her last trip back home. She was so attacched to her homeland that she couldn't leave forever without smelling and touching its sand.
It is a heart breaking story and I thought at those migrants who nowadays leave their own country to look for better life, to follow a beloved one, to rejoin with the family, to find peace and how much pain and solitude they bring in their heart. I know several women who changed their religion and name for love, I know many people (friends too) who moved to a new country with the idea of returning but never doing so, for a reason or another. I knew also people who died with their heart full of nostalgia for their mother land. 

There's one thing about Selma, which intrigued me as a writer. Selma wrote (as Fatima did) Yes, in her German "exile" she wrote her memoirs. She did it for herself, to stay attacched to the memory of her island; she did it for her children (in the preface she writes: Originally my memoirs were not intended for the general public, but for my dear children alone) to let them know how was life in Zanzibar; she did it for her people who she loved so much.
Writing enabled Selma to heal her pain and solitude. She wrote because she needed to write to preserve the memory of the  different world she belonged to. 
I have many friends who are actually immigrants, I'm an immigrant too... I've always been. I've worked with immigrants (refugees, exiled, asylum seekers) using writing as a "place" where to honestly deal with the identity conflicts within themselves and reading their writing (at least in their early stage) there's much of Selma's desire to portray their motherland, their culture, their people in a style dense of solitude,  loss, frustration and displacement. 

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Resolutions:# 1 Finishing old drafts

I ended the year 2013 with a story on Princess Selma, daughter of Sayyid Said bin Sultan Al- Busaid, Sultan of Zanzibar and Oman in the XIX century, for an anthology called Metissakanè which in wolof means "fusion of cultures". I'll soon write  a post on account of her life.

Now I've just finished  editing my children's story on Female Genital Mutilation. In Italian of course. There's not much literature in Italian language about this subject, so I thought providing with my story. I've been working on this subject for quiet a considerable time. Being a mother of three teen girls has really helped me to focus on  how do children percept the world outisde, developing a proper way to tell them things on a daily basis. Most of their schoolmates and friends don't know what FGM is about and some of their parents shared with me their worries about telling or not telling them what is female genital mutilation. Unfortunately FGM is still a tabu and especially young people don't have the right language to talk about the issue, nor their parents and educators.working with children and teens and motherhood taught me many things. First thing is "BE HONEST".  I'm sure I've always been very honest when it comes to explain things, never hiding or bypassing important topics with minimal and "easy" language. Children do understand more than what we believe.  So my daughters were the first readers of this story and the feedback was quiet emotional and satisfying. 

One of this year's resolution is to finish some of the books I wrote in the past which are still in a draft form. And the first one I decided to finish is a story of a Maasai boy set nowadays who struggles between tradition and modernity in a globalized world.
I wrote the first draft of the story in 2001 (yes... 13 years ago!). I started writing it after a meeting I had with a publisher in Rome who wanted to create a series of anthropological children's books featuring some important African tribes such as Maasai, Zulu, Igbo, Somali etc... I initially wrote it holding on this idea of making a story of anthropological interest. Then I quitted the idea and just got rid of all the technical parts and rewrote the story.
The book has slept over the past years in a drawer while other books of mine have been published . 

Here is just a sketch by my elder daughter Florin who decided to help me with a visual support.
The question which came to me in this revision stage was: which publisher will be interested in publishing a story  of a young Maasai boy attacched to its culture dealing with disobbedience, growing up, living in a country that still "sell" the Maasai as a tourist attraction and that faces environmental crisis and exploitation.
The answer might easily be: "no one". So what to do?
The web came to rescue me. Some time back I read an article by author Zetta Elliott. The article is about SELF PUBLISHING and I just passed it. Then recently I went back to it  and thought that the idea Elliott's expresses would fit the need to be on children's bookshelves with different stories in which  the publishing industry is not interested, by self publishing. Happy to subscribe  Zetta Elliott' words: "I can't force mainstream publishers to open their doors to me, but the industry will be transformed whether they like it or not, and I intend to participate in that transformation". Well if we imagine authors like Edgar Allan Poe, Alberto Moravia, Mark Twain, also self published their work...Once I found out how to set the imprint issue, I'll be out there.

Now I'm working on a speculative YA story set between present and 1840, between Europe and Kenya where at that time a real heroine was born: Mekatilili wa Menza, a woman who fought against British colonialism for the indipendence of her people, the Giriama, and land. I came across her story during my life in Kenya and thank's to part of my kenyan family who brought me in the ancestral land of this extraordinary woman.  Only in 2010 she was recognised as a national hero among Kenyan freedom fighters, when her statue was set at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi - renamed Mekatilili wa Menza Garden - in her honour.
A short story of Mekatilili wa Menza will also be part of an anthology which presents women fighters in the past across the continents.