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WATCH | These grandmothers are counselling a nation from park benches

There is no ear as attentive as a grandmother’s. In Zimbabwe, they are prized members of the community.

And in a country of over 14 million, there are countless more grannies than psychologists.

Dixon Chibanda is a professor and psychiatrist working in Harare. Recognising that people in under-resourced areas struggled to find help, he had an epiphany – who better to be counselled by than a grandmother?

According to recent estimates by Doctors Without Borders, there are about 20 psychologists in the whole of Zimbabwe.

This limited access can have devastating consequences. So in the year 2006, Chibanda began an initiative called the Friendship Bench, training grandmothers as lay health workers.

“The most reliable resource that is rooted in the community are your grandmothers,” he says.

By establishing discreet and welcoming spaces on park benches for people to speak with grandmothers, the intimidation and clinical atmosphere of a mental health facility melts away.

Over 700 grannies have qualified as community workers to serve their neighbours.

To date, they’ve helped more than 50 000 people make sense of what’s going on inside their hearts and heads through conversations using cognitive behavioural therapy tools. 

 “These grandmothers are the custodians of local wisdom and knowledge,” Chibanda says.

A crucial advantage that lay health workers hold is that they are not clouded by medical jargon.

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In the local Shona language, mental distress is known as ‘kufungisisa’ – thinking too much.

Being familiar with concepts like this enables the grandmothers to cut to the core of what someone is feeling and empower them to move towards healing in a constructive and effective way.

 So far, research on the impact of the Friendship Bench has shown an 80% drop in depression and suicidal ideation, and a 60% improvement in people’s quality of life.

The initiative has found legs and universal appeal in four more countries: Malawi, Zanzibar, Kenya, and the United States of America.

“I realised the amazing power that these grandmothers have,” Chibanda says.

Thanks to them, thousands of lives have been impacted by widespread, compassionate mental healthcare.