Like many simple ideas, friendship benches and grandmothers is an absolutely brilliant one. Zimbabwe has a wealth of people suffering ills, much like every place else on the planet. Mental and emotional difficulties and struggles are stigmatized all over the world, and even when there are abundant resources, many people won’t reach out because of that stigma. Most places don’t have abundant resources, but they do have troubled people who do not want to be stigmatized. So, what to do? There’s a small program in parts of Zimbabwe, where older women receive training, and they spend time on the friendship benches, where people can come and talk them, and be listened to, which I feel is a cure for a great many ills. Most people simply don’t listen, and often, even when someone does, they get awkward and embarrassed because they can’t fix a person’s problem. What gets missed much of the time is that people aren’t necessarily looking for a fix, they simply need someone to listen, someone to care. The Grandmothers are also happy, because they feel needed, rather than lonely and neglected. Friendship benches are an idea which needs to be widespread, all over the world.
The therapy room is a patch of waste ground, and the therapist’s couch a wooden bench under a tree. The therapist is an elderly Zimbabwean woman, in a long brown dress and headscarf.
Her patients call her “Grandmother” when they come along to sit on her bench and discuss their feelings, their depression or other mental health issues.
The benches are a safe place for people struggling with depression, which in the Shona language is called kufungisisa, “thinking too much”.
It is a world away from conventional approaches to mental healthcare, but the Friendship Bench project has changed the lives of an estimated 27,000 Zimbabweans suffering from depression and other mental disorders.
The grandmothers, all of whom are trained to improve a patient’s ability to cope with mental stress, listen and nod, offering only an occasional word of encouragement.
“When they first get to the bench, we use an intervention which we call kuvhura pfungwa [opening of the mind]. They sit and talk about their problems. Through that process, the grandmothers enable that patient to select a specific problem to focus on, and they help them through it,” he says.
Through at least six one-on-one sessions with the health workers, the patients are encouraged to speak about their problems and their mental illness.
Traditionally, elderly women play the role of counsellor for younger members of the community. On the bench, however, the grandmothers listen more, and lecture less.
“We used to talk a lot, ‘Do this, do that’. But now we ask them to open up, open their minds and hearts,” says Sheba Khumalo, a grandmother.