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#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Health Policy in Kenya, the few infrastructures, few staff, little financing by the government, little information, outdated policy framework and least but not last the stigma.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 Photocredit by Fredrick Leica Oloo
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 MMAKA – What 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

Sitawa Wafula Photocredit by Fredrick Leica Oloo
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"

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