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Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.

His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district.  But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake. With little awareness about the disease at the time, a young Kagaayi watched his panicked community resort to witchcraft, and, failing to find reprieve, waste away in alcoholism, provoking a spate of domestic violence and breakdown of families.

“It was a really difficult time. With no treatment at the time, people would suffer and gradually waste away, in agony, sometimes abandoned by their family who thought they had been bewitched. I lost close relatives myself, and even as a little boy at the time, those traumatic memories stayed with me,”

Neither did home offer much respite for Kagaayi. With 12 siblings from three mothers, life at home was dotted by routine sibling conflict over limited resources, domestic violence, and the family’s humble means meant that school fees for him and his siblings were not guaranteed.  But rather than dissuade him, these experiences served to steel Kagaayi more. He persevered through school determinedly, becoming the first in his family and local community to complete the Ugandan school cycle, from Primary to University.

“My background challenged me to break the chain of destitution, resignation and underachievement in my community – I wanted to be a beacon of hope for the kids coming after me,” he says.

Even then, it wasn’t smooth sailing. In 2009, Kagaayi was admitted for Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery at Makerere University but would not be able to complete the program. The program was one of the most expensive, and considering the financial constraints at home, he struggled to raise tuition, and gradually descended into depression.  which he could not talk about because of the prevailing stigma at the time.

“I was very depressed, yet I couldn’t open up to anyone because very few people appreciate depression as a serious health challenge. It is even worse when you’re a man, because our patriarchal society does not make room for you to be vulnerable,”

Eventually, Kaggayi abandoned Medicine and enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences, which was a much “lighter” and a more affordable program.  But his experience with depression left him determined to make it easier for future mental health victims like himself to find space to open up and get help.

Accordingly, in 2012, in his final year at university, Kagaayi started a social and emotional support group at Makerere, which he fittingly named; Let’s talk!

“We would empathetically listen to the patients to appreciate their triggers and counsel them. We would then follow them up to their families to train the family members on how to manage and relate to these patients to support their full recovery,” he says.

In 2017, the Befriender project ended, but Kagaayi had left an impression on the doctors at Mulago. Impressed with the Befriender Centre’s work, Mulago’s mental health unit wanted to continue following up their patients after clinical treatment, and they asked to work with Kagaayi on the initiative. Smelling an opportunity for more impact, Kagaayi run fast to start Twogele Centre for Mental Health, a community-based organisation (CBO) that would scale work around mental health, beyond suicide prevention.  

“With Twogele, we were seeking to expand our support to include all mental health patients, including those suffering from bipolar disorder, anxiety, schizophrenia, depression, name it,” he says.

Under the new arrangement, Mulago’s mental health unit refers recovering mental health patients to Twogele, the latter organises them in peer groups to benefit from peer-to-peer support, after which it follows up with their families on how they can support the patients’ complete recovery. Twogele then proceeds to organise community barazas in the patients’ communities to raise awareness about mental health, using the recovered patients as ambassadors to assure the community that like any other diseases, mental health issues are preventable and curable. From the community, they then identify other patients whom they refer to Mulago for the preliminary clinical treatment, before repeating the cycle.   

“Our complete cycle model is actively demystifying the stigma around mental health,”

Since 2017, Kagaayi says they have been able to support about 690 mental health patients referred to them by Mulago hospital. In turn, he says, Twogele has been able to identify over 100 patients through their community mental health barazas, whom they have referred to Mulago for initial clinical treatment.

To maintain this work, Kagaayi says Twogele has also trained 35 Village Health Teams (VHTs) from across Kampala and Wakiso districts on how to identify, support and refer, where necessary, people with mental health symptoms. “We have also identified and trained over 30 peer-support workers who support patients at our mental health clinic at Mulago. These also often support our community work as mental health ambassadors during Twogele’s mental health barazas,” he says.  

Twogele’s efforts have not gone unrecognized. In February 2021, the CBO was awarded the Ember International Mental Health Award for their community mental health work. This year, in March, Kagaayi was appointed Principal Coordinator for the Movement for Global Mental Health (MGMH), an international initiative dedicated to improving mental health and well-being worldwide. He says Twogele’s goal is to decentralize mental health services, make them accessible and reduce stigma: 

“Most mental health services are urban based. So as Twogele, we would like to see these services decentralised to at least every district to benefit more people who’re stuck at the grassroots without any form of support. That is what we’re trying to do in the communities. Our hope is that progressively, we shall be able to de-stigmatize mental health, and normalize its treatment as we do with physical health, he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Pamela Angwench Judith

For most of her life, Pamela Angwech’s existence has always been a defiant and simultaneous act of survival and resistance. In 1976 when she was born, the anti-Amin movement was gathering pace, and her family was one of the earliest victims of the then dictatorship’s reprisals in Northern Uganda. Her father, a passionate educationist in Kitgum district was one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorship’s human rights excesses, which made him an obvious target of the state’s marauding vigilantes.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Joseph Oleshangay

As a human rights lawyer and advocate with the High Court of the United Republic of Tanzania, Joseph Moses Oleshangay spends most of his time crossing from one court to another, litigating human rights cases, some with life-altering implications for ordinary people. It is a monumental responsibility, one he never envisaged growing up.

As a young boy born into a Maasai household in northern Tanzania, his entire childhood revolved around cattle: “Our entire livelihood revolved around cattle. As a child, the main preoccupation was to tend to cows, and my formative years were spent grazing cattle around Endulen. It a simple lifestyle,” he says.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Julia Onyoti

The situation of South Sudan’s women and girls remains one of those enduring blights on the country’s conscience. The country retains the unenviable reputation of having the world’s highest maternal mortality rate, and at 51.5%, one of the highest cases of child marriages. It is even worse with gender-based violence(GBV): A 2019 study by UNICEF found that one in every two South Sudan women have experienced intimate partner violence, while a recent UN study, alarmed at the widespread nature of conflict-related sexual violence in the country, in which women are tread as “spoils of war” described it as “a hellish existence for women and girls.

Human Rights Defender of the month:SHIMA BHARE

Shima Bhare Abdalla has never known the luxury and comfort of a stable and safe existence inside her country’s borders. When she was 11, her village was attacked and razed to the ground, sending her family and entire neighborhood scattering into an internally displaced People’s Camp, at the start of the Darfur civil war.

That was in 2002. Shima and her family relocated into Kalma refugee camp in Southern Darfur, where, alongside over 100,000 other displaced persons, they had to forge out a living, under the watch and benevolence of the United Nations – African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur, known as UNAMID. It is here that Shima’s human rights consciousness came to life. She enthusiastically embraced whatever little education she could access under the auspices of the humanitarian agencies operating in the camp, to be able to tell the story of her people’s plight.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Martial Pa’nucci

Martial Pa’nucci is a child of what is fondly known as Africa’s second liberation. In 1990 when he was born, the Republic of Congo, like many other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, was undergoing a transition from one-party rule to multi-party democracy, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Yet developments in ordinary people’s lives were not as optimistic. Pa’nucci was born in one of Brazzaville’s ghettos to a polygamous family of two mothers and 19 siblings, where survival was a daily exercise in courage. When he was two, his father died, followed in quick succession by many of his siblings. Pa’nucci did not start school until he was nine, and he had to do odd jobs – from barbering to plumbing to earn his stay there, lest he dropped out like many of his peers.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Veronica Almedom

Veronica Almedom is a poster child of successful immigration. A duo Eritrean and Swiss citizen, she was born in Italy, and grew up in Switzerland where she permanently resides. Her parents are some of the earliest victims of Eritrea’s cycles of violence. When Eritrea’s war of independence peaked in the early 1980s, they escaped the country as unaccompanied minors, wandering through Sudan, Saudi Arabia, before making the hazard journey across the Mediterranean into Europe. There, they crossed first to Italy, and finally, to Switzerland, where they settled first as refugees, and later, as permanent residents.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.