Sitawa Wafula was diagnosed with epilepsy and bipolar disorder when she was just 17. Her experience of being a woman with a mental illness in Kenya has, at times, been harrowing. She once lost a job because she had a seizure, and had to drop out of university after being raped and finding nowhere to turn for support. For the past few years, Wafula, 31, has been telling the stories of the challenges she faces in a blog. In 2014, the blog, which has been cited as one of the only honest accounts of living with mental illness in Africa, won Wafula $25,000 from Google. She used the money to set up Kenya’s first free mental health support line, My Mind, My Funk.
Two years on, the helpline receives around 25,000 text messages a year and is estimated to have helped nearly 11,000 people. Wafula says she personally answers, on average, 100 emails a day from people who want advice on things like alcoholism, suicide and drug use.
Women & Girls spoke with Wafula recently, after her talk at an Aspen New Voices evening in September.
Women & Girls: Why do you think people reach out to you?
Sitawa Wafula: Most of the messages I get from people, even today, will say, “I have never told this to anyone.” And it will be from someone who’s way older than me, in their 40s and 50s, who’ll say, “I’ve lived with this since I was a young girl or a teenager and I’ve never told anyone, but I read your story … and I just felt like I need to share it with you.”
Women & Girls: What are the most common problems people face?
Wafula: A lot of depression, although people don’t really know that they’re going through depression, so they’ll be describing the symptoms of the stuff that they’re doing or going through, or their anger issues. There’s a lot of recklessness with alcohol and drug abuse in men, which leads to violence. For women, we have a lot of esteem issues, cutting, self-harm, sometimes to the point of suicidal ideations, or even failed attempts.
Women & Girls: How has your experience shaped your work?
Wafula: My life was all set out and then I couldn’t cope, first of all because I didn’t have any proper information about living with the diagnoses. There weren’t – and I still believe aren’t – safe spaces for such conversations to take place. I remember around that time growing up, the conversation you had about rape always pointed back to the women, like, “What was she wearing? What time was it? What did she do to provoke the man?”
Unfortunately, [at the time] I didn’t understand the magnitude of trauma and how far-reaching that would be. It’s an issue that is mostly seen as taboo in African settings. Because we’ve been told not to talk about it openly, people think that it’s not something to talk about, even though it’s tearing them apart. We have so many people that are going through these things, and my inbox is the evidence.
Women & Girls: Do you reply to them all personally?
Wafula: I try! There are very few psychiatrists in Kenya.
Women & Girls: What’s the most difficult part of your job?
Wafula: I love it because it feels like more of a social thing. I get to learn more about people. People trust with me their innermost [feelings], and that’s a really great honor. But it gets overwhelming at times. I also have to look after my own mental health. Subconsciously, you carry all the things you read.
Women & Girls: What are the stories that have stayed with you?
Wafula: It’s more the success stories. That’s what energizes me. They get the courage and power from me, I get my courage and power from them. It’s the people whose families had given up on them, and now they actually have a job and they’re back to school and they don’t communicate with me anymore, which is a good thing, because it means they’ve managed to build up their own community and network.
Women & Girls: Do you see progress in the area you work in?
Wafula: Without mental health, there’s nothing. But we never see that side of it. It’s very unfortunate that when we think of mental health, we think of sickness, we think about schizophrenia and people removing their clothes and running after cars. We don’t think about it as the basic element that affects how we think or how we feel or how we relate to people, and that’s what development is about.
The World Health Organization says one in every four people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. In Africa, we are starting to talk about 24-hour economies, and removing the low-income bracket, which means that so many people will look forward to being the best they can. That’s what I get a lot in my emails. People are using superlatives and trying to chase dreams, but if we don’t look at the thing that affects our basic way of living, then we’re just chasing the wind.