The Courageous African Women Network have danced, laughed and cried together and in the process have shared their stories and healed some of the trauma many have experienced. Richmond Wellbeing launched a program last year in association with the African Women’s Association.
Bouah Kardio, who has been working in the mental health space in Perth for about six years, is the coordinator of the program. She understands, first hand, the toll social isolation has on particularly middle-aged and older women.
“There are issues that African women, because of their cultural beliefs and expectations, find difficult to discuss broadly but the team at Richmond were committed to develop culturally sensitive ways for these issues to be addressed so appropriate help could be found for them,” Bouah said.
The Courageous African Women Network has members from all over the African continent – Nigeria, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania among them, so with such a number of disparate cultural groups, how does the network achieve its goals?
“Dancing!” Bouah said. “We dance to others’ traditional music and the group is told the significance of the music.”
Music breaks down barriers
It may be something of a hidden process but special moments in people’s lives are brought out by the dance and music which opens up channels of communication.
“If issues arise, they know they can call me and I will talk to them and I can then help them access health services. But it starts by creating an environment where it is safe for them to share their stories.”
Bouah arrived in Australia from war-torn Liberia via Canada in 2006. She was a social worker in her homeland and was married with four sons.
“I lost my husband in the civil war – like a lot of people. Some lost their entire families. I know when I first arrived here I felt totally isolated. I didn’t know who to turn to. So when I started this group I knew what these women were going through.”
Overcoming barriers to appropriate health services is a question of trust and understanding, which take time to develop. Bouah said there were unspoken subtleties for some African women in going to see a doctor even though a growing number of GPs weree training to treat CALD patients.
“Some only feel comfortable with female GPs and often the referral to a doctor will come from the community network.”
There are also different views on illness.
“Mental illness in some African cultures is viewed very differently to Western medicine. There is a spiritual aspect and often if they hear voices that person is considered a prophet! Here they are just thought of as crazy.”
Adrian Munro, the Executive Manager of Operations at Richmond Wellbeing, believes services for such groups as the Courageous African Women Network are essential.
“These people have seen unspeakable things in their home countries and it’s understandable they find it difficult to get established and forge links. It’s vital they are brought together where they can support and help each other with the trauma they’ve experienced and have some connection in the community while keeping links with their culture,” he said.
Welcome to all
“Perth has a diverse population from a number of different cultures and we recognise we have a responsibility as an organisation and as a community to help them feel welcome and accepted.”
“The African Women Network doesn’t just help those women who attend but also those women’s families and friends because they feel more comfortable to reach out and more likely, we hope, to access some of our services and other services in the community. It is a question of knowing that these services are available and that they are culturally appropriate.”
The unexpected bonus of programs such as the Partners in Recovery, of which the African Women Network is a part, has been the cultural diversification of the Richmond workforce. Adrian said that it has been a steep learning curve for the organisation but the result is much more culturally sensitive service delivery.
“Diversifying our staff has been a really important thing for us because that’s how you create culture change. You learn to communicate more effectively and be more attuned – it’s how we learn. Our goal as an organisation is to have staff who can worth with people from all backgrounds.”
“It’s the responsibility of each staff member to understand cultural differences and be able to work with them. It’s the same for all groups – migrants, indigenous people, LGBTI – we are committed to be diverse and inclusive.”