The start of 2014 has been one of heartache and joy, intense activity and reflection. Just after New Year, Tanele and I were back at work, implementing the second element of our Safe Sisters project, funded by the US Embassy in Swaziland. We were joined by 43 of our dedicated Peer Educators.
The Safe Sisters project holds a special place for me. Not only is it the only “new” project that I have implemented while in Swaziland (the others were continuations, expansions or revitalisations), but it is also a project that has been designed wholly and solely around community-identified need. Back in 2012, when I coordinated the organisation’s needs assessment, I asked a lot of questions about issues that I, the government, and donors, felt were relevant – HIV, income, education etc. It wasn’t until we conducted the participatory focus groups that the most important issue of all was revealed, an issue that we had completely missed – grief.
The impact of the HIV epidemic in Swaziland cannot be overstated. Add to that the extraordinarily high rates of abuse, and it’s not surprising that these focus groups ended in tears. Yet, in Swaziland, when you are so poor that you live a hand-to-mouth existence, you cannot afford to take the time to mourn. When all those around you are experiencing the same devastation, it would be too selfish to ask for help. When abuse and death has become so normalised, the whole idea of it requiring special attention seems incongruous.
The aim of Safe Sisters is to create a safe space for rural community members to grieve. The plan was to equip our peer educators with the skills to provide basic crisis and grief counselling, and to support survivors to access more specialised care if required. In most cases, this would be the only psychosocial support available in Swaziland’s rural communities AND it would be accessible at any time, at no cost.
Teaching someone to be a counsellor is not a simple affair. In Australia, a four year tertiary degree is the minimum requirement so we did not expect anything extraordinary from our well-intentioned mothers and grandmothers (and one man). They spent five days learning about the signs of human trafficking, the cycle of abuse, the importance of asking “Are you okay?”, and the basic steps to help those that aren’t. It was practical and powerful, with each participant putting themselves and their own personal stories out there. A part of me wishes that I could have understood more (it was all in siSwati), but after sitting in the corner trying to fight back tears from the few translated stories of rape, incest, neglect and death, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom, though. When the facilitators came to me, beaming from ear to ear and exclaiming, “These women have achieved the extraordinary”, I have to admit I felt a bit like a proud mother. When one of the women stood and declared her thanks to God because “before, I thought I was helping by judging. Now I know that I shouldn’t judge. I should listen”, it was my turn to beam from ear to ear. By the end of the week, there was no illusion that the peer counsellors were now psychosocial experts, but there was a new and very deep sense of optimism. As Tanele put it, “It’s like they’re not leaving here with new knowledge. They’re leaving with a new way of thinking”. Only time will tell the impact of this project in the community, and by then I will be long gone. My feeling, though, is that the change we’ve already witnessed among these participants is value enough.