Zimbabwe’s friendship bench to be rolled out at the Qatar 2022 World Cup
Zimbabwe’s friendship bench concept will be rolled out at the Qatar 2002 World Cup.
For a decade, Lucia Ngabu, a member of Zimbabwe’s friendship bench has listened to depressing stories but none touch her like that of a 19-year-old who had approached her in 2018.
The young woman has been suffering episodes of depression after her boyfriend of two years had refused to take responsibility for her pregnancy.
“She was really depressed and contemplated taking her life. She was failing to sleep, had lost appetite and preferred being alone,” Ngabu recalled of the incident. “I comforted her and told her there is more to life before taking her through the session.”
Ngabu, 60, is one of the 400 the grandmothers trained to delivery therapy to people with mild to moderate level common mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression, known locally as ‘kufungisisa’ (thinking too much) in Shona, a Zimbabwean local language, where the project began.
By using the language that the victims can understand – and in a familiar environment, under the trees on wooden park benches – the grandmothers easily connect with people. During training, a referral pathway is established for cases which are considered “red flags” where a higher level of care is needed.
Now what started as an unorthodox method to address mental health among community members in a Zimbabwean township has since expanded to countries such as Malawi and Zanzibar and even been adapted to in New York City, London and at high-profile events around the world such as the Davos World Economic Forum.
In New York, the benches attracted around 30,000 visitors after being piloted in 2016 and launched in 2017. The city so far has three permanent benches in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Harlem. In London, a pilot scheme was launched in April using funds donated by Mackenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
With the 2022 World Cup due to kick off in Qatar, Friendship Benches will be present to offer its services. A total of 32 benches will be installed in prominent Doha locations, including the precincts of tournament stadiums, representing each nation competing at the event. The initiative is part of a joint Qatar-World Health Organisation (WHO) project.
The announcement was made on World Mental Health day last month, with vice chairperson and chief executive of the Qatar Foundation, Sheikha Hind, and British athlete, Sir Mo Farah, unveiling the England bench during World Innovation Summit for Health.
“The bench is a simple yet powerful vehicle for promoting mental health, from park benches to football stadiums,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.
“The Friendship Benches project is a reminder of how the simple act of sitting down to talk can make a huge difference to mental health.
In Zimbabwe, global appetite for the initiative has not dampened local enthusiasm. Dr Dixon Chibanda, who started the Friendship Bench in one of Harare’s townships called Mbare in 2007, is now scaling up the initiative to more than 60 primary healthcare clinics in Zimbabwe.
Dr Chibanda is also the director of the African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) and has led the team through various trials to help streamline effectiveness of the benches.
In Qatar, the famous grandmothers will not be there to lend an ear, but organisers hope the bench itself will be enough to encourage people to talk in a particularly pertinent year for some fans including members of the LGBT community.
“They are there as icons to encourage people to talk about mental health and symbolise connectedness amongst nations, showing no one is immune to struggling with mental health problems, whether you are a stadium cleaning crew or professional footballer we all can struggle,” Zimbabwe’s Friendship Bench spokeswoman Jane Turner said.
For Ms Ngabu, her time spent listening to young people on the bench has been rewarding as she has been able to see speak to many depressed people in her community with problems that often came down to relationship issues or “a lot of mistakes these kids make”.
“They succumb to peer pressure and most of the time, their decisions have dire consequences like pregnancies. The first thing they think about is suicide but it is not the way to go,” she told i.
“So we encourage these children to open up to us so that we can talk about these issues. We are often told by parents or guardians and health workers in clinics who refer us to the affected. When we talk to them, we guarantee privacy and ask certain questions that unravel deep emotional issues,” she explained.
Ms Ngabu said she is proud of lives, especially of young people that she might have saved, including the 19-year woman who she had immediately registered for a counselling session at the community clinic which marked the beginning of recovery.
“She still speaks to me now. One day, she told me that she felt better after some sessions. She delivered and she had been taking care of the child since. She started business and has been using her experience to advise her friends ever since,” Ngabu a member of Zimbabwe’s friendship bench said.