UNBINDING ETHIOPIA THROUGH ERK MEAD

AWiB this year focuses on Erk Mead, a mental wellness center that specializes on trauma healing. In Ethiopia, where mental health is given inadequate attention and awareness level is minimal, a private social service provider organization Erk Mead has taken the initiative in awakening the society and creating awareness and started a live radio psycho education and reconciliation program between families.

Tigist Waltenigus and Endalk Assefa are the founders of Erk Mead Wellness Center. Tigist is one of AWiB’s 2019 Women Of Excellence, recognized for her achievements in creating awareness about mental health in the nation, helping underprivileged women get treatment and working tirelessly throughout Ethiopia to uncover the trauma and help a society break free from the pain through Erk Mead.

SHEDDING LIGHT ON MENTAL HEALTH

Mental illness has become an alarming issue in Ethiopia.  In a country where the majority of the population is affiliated with religion, mental illness is believed to be a possession by evil spirits, punishment from God for the sins committed by the individual.  This belief exists even in areas where education is adequate. People with mental health issues and their families seek admission to psychiatric clinics, therapy or counseling after exhausting all other choices like bathing in holy water (“tsebel”) and traditional medicines.  Even then most people prefer to keep it a secret so they won’t be discriminated or isolated.  As a result mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, schizophrenia, psychosis and personality disorders are becoming prominently growing problems of Ethiopia.  Most of the mental health problems have socio-psychological causes such as loss of job, death of loved ones, adjustment issues, burden of work, weak family bonds, stressful relationship, breakups, etc.  Social psychology plays a significant role addressing these mental health issues.  It is a sub discipline of psychology that studies an individual’s behaviors in relation to others.

WHY ERK MEAD?

Tigist says, “What we do at Erk Mead is help people end their pain.  We can’t break up with our past but it is possible to break up with our pain that the past has brought to us.  So basically our work is to help people break free from their pain.”

Erk Mead is a mental wellness center that specializes on trauma healing.  Trauma is a single or repetitive incident that happened in the past but still disturbs or holds the individual back in the present time and continues until it is resolved. There are no official studies done on trauma in Ethiopia, but from their experience and based on the number of people they treat, the founders assume that 90% of Ethiopians are traumatized and need help one way or another.

“Ethiopian history by itself is traumatizing,” say both Tigist and Endalk.  Tigist adds, “Looking back a hundred years, there was war, there were famine and drought, there were traditional practices like abduction of girls and female genital mutilation.  Of course, we still have those problems but it used to be worse back then.  And we are going from generation to generation without processing and healing these traumas. We say it has passed. But sometimes the time might have passed and the pain still remains.  When we observe this as a nation, there is pain; pain that we carried from our ancestors to our generation.  If we can’t sit and process these pains, we will become a society that always whine and complain.”

Endalk says, “In order for a society to heal, families and individual traumas should be healed first.  If an individual is not at peace in the house with the family, they cannot be at peace anywhere else…that is why we focus on reconciling families with each other and that is why we call our program Erk Mead (“Reconciliation Feast”).”

The three main focuses of Erk Mead are mental health, education and media. The media outlet Erk Mead Media and Communications is a radio show that reaches up to 10 million weekly.  According to their data 65% of people who come to the center are women mostly with children, who cant afford therapy.  The Erk Mead Community Support Project (ECOP) designed to reach these women is supported by the income generated from the radio show so they can get equal treatment.  Since establishment over 1500 clients have been treated free of charge.

12 YEARS AND GOING STRONG

The idea of Erk Mead started when Tigist and Endalk were final year students at Addis Ababa University, volunteering at a kindergarten and came across a little girl about the age of six that was a witness of domestic and sexual abuse of her mother.  They decided to be involved and support the community in a way they can and come up with ideas to reach out to children suffering from such trauma.

With no help from the government, the journey of Erk Mead was a struggle.  People who were in a position of power and even in the ministry of education due to lack of awareness rejected their idea.  Some even mocked them saying it is better to open a bakery than a psycho educational center to help the society. They finally borrowed money from their family and rented a small room as an office for three months where they held meetings. Tigist used to write meeting minuets using Endalk’s back as a table.

As a way of reaching the community, they started publishing a newspaper called Miklol with the money they saved working for two years.  The newspaper was not a success because our society does not have a habit of reading.  There were only 40,000 copies per week being sold in a country of 80 million people.  They realized that they were not reaching people, went bankrupt and sold their belongings to try a different approach.

Next, they decided to start a radio program, designed the project and tried to convince radio stations for airtime.  Many turned them down or asked for a lot of money that was not possible with their budget.  They finally got a chance to do their program in a newly founded radio station, Zami, but with a smaller reach at the time.  They did their program for about four months before getting noticed by the bigger stations in the country.  After airing one show on Fana Radio Station, they found sponsors and the amazing journey of Erk Mead radio program began.  It has been 12 years and counting since they have been licensed.

SEED WELLNESS PROJECT

Seed Wellness project is Erk Mead’s new project designed to preserve the mental wellness of children and adolescents at school and to give psycho education for counselors, teachers and parents on resilience, window of tolerance, attachment and generally how to understand the behavior of a child.

In their 12 years of experience Tigist and Endalk came across countless children sent from schools to be evaluated and treated, some issues that could have resolved in the school.  So they started investigating what the counselors were doing in the schools.  They found out that the office of the guidance counselors (if any) was called discipline office to begin with.  No child wants to go in to an office labeled “discipline office” willingly to get help because the approach is not friendly.  To make matters worse, the “counselors” were not trained as counselors and only speak from their personal experiences, comparing how times have changed, how easy this generation has it and how lucky the children are to live in this time.  Some counselors even resort to corporal punishment when they do something wrong.  In a society where domestic violence and abuse is common, the children don’t have anywhere to go whether they are the victims or witnesses of domestic violence. Traumatized children dissociate in the classroom and cannot understand what they learn. A traumatized child grows up to be a traumatized individual.

That is when Tigist and Endalk decided that the education system in Ethiopia needs another plan involving the future generation.  Endalk says, “School is where the seeds are planted. If the seed grows protected from weeds then it becomes fruitful.  That is why the project is named seed wellness and the aim is to create a stable and resilient society.”

The project is designed in a pyramid model consisting of parent, child and counselor. Usually we all point finger at the child when something goes wrong. But there is nothing wrong with children.  Children are the reflection of their parents.  So the program is designed to give basic psycho education for the family.  It is also designed to coach and train teachers so that they can be aware of their classroom and say something when there is a problem. It builds the capacity of the counselors and coaches them so they can take over the program in every school and supervise them through online meetings.

Tigist says, “Children don’t know how to describe their feelings.  All they know is emotion, so we want to teach them how to understand those emotions and support each other when someone is feeling sad.  The project is designed to teach them a coping strategy through songs and drawings. They should know where they should go when they witness or are victims of violence at home.  We are giving them a raincoat in this rainy world.”

Currently the project has been designed and five different schools are chosen to start the pilot program.

Few Success Stories:

  • Erk Mead worked with Ethiopian National Football Team over a year that resulted in the qualification of the team to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 31 years.
  • In partnership with PACT Erk Mead worked with Anyuaa and Nuer tribes on trauma healing and breaking free that brought lasting reconciliation between the two tribes.
  • Melkamu is a traditional clothes designer who lives in Addis Ababa. He has a wife and two children. One ordinary but unfortunate day, he had finished his work and went home after a long day to find his little girl about the age of seven playing in the house. Excited to see her father, she hugged and kissed him and they played together in the house for a while. They both fell asleep on the sofa where they played and the next thing he remembers is waking up to a sound of his daughter being slaughtered by her mother (his wife).  At first he thought it was some kind of dream and couldn’t believe his eyes.  When he realized what happened was real and saw his daughters’ blood all over the house he lost his mind right there and went crazy.  This was an incident beyond his imagination and he could not handle it.  His hands and legs were tied when he went to the funeral because he couldn’t control himself and people were afraid he would hurt someone.

After the funeral he sold all his belongings and went to a countryside where no one knew him.  He was isolated from society with just one mission, to kill his wife and all her family, to eradicate her bloodline.  He bought bombs and other firearms and started planning his attack.  One day he heard Erk Mead program on the radio and began to contemplate his action being unsure if he was in his right mind.  So he came to the office seeking help.

It took more than a year to process what happened to him, to heal from the trauma and to break free from it.  He learned that it is okay to be angry, mad or even crazy but the most important part was to bounce back.  He says that as he processed the trauma and break free, he felt peace within.  He forgave his wife and even went to court to help get her treatment instead of a prison sentence.  “She must not be in her right mind to do this kind of evil, so she should get a psychiatric evaluation and treatment, not a prison sentence,” were his words when he was asked to testify in court.  She was sentenced to 20 years in prison and he regularly visits her.  Now he is working as a traditional clothes designer, managing his family and raising his son.

SUPPORT SYSTEM

Endalk said, “The government has not been giving enough attention for the mental health sector.  Private sectors like Erk Mead and psychiatric clinics are making an impact doing what they can on their own. When Erk Mead was competing in Health Innovator Competition that WHO organized and got in the top 3 finalists out of 2,400 organizations from 77 countries; it was the only one representing Ethiopia.”

Tigist adds, “When I was celebrated as one of AWiB’s 2019 Women of Excellence, I was so ecstatic not just because I was recognized, but also because I realized that mental health is getting the attention it deserves. And I hope the government turns its (attention) towards mental health in the coming years.” 

ORGANOGRAM

Future Plans

The future looks bright for Erk Mead.  They have a succession plan and trained two psychologists who are currently working in the clinical practice and management of the SEED Wellness project.  There are also interns that are volunteering at the center with a possible job opportunity ahead.

They plan to expand based on their three values: mental health, education and media. They plan to open a school in the near future where parents are not afraid to send their children to.  “Children and teenagers are being exposed to substance abuse and pornography at a very young age and we are loosing a generation,” Endalk said.  Erk Mead plans to break this cycle and save the next generation.

They are also doing a feasibility study to open a clinic that specializes in mental health issues. The long-term plan is to make Erk Mead a center of excellence where people come to do researches and unleash their potentials.

AWiB invites the community to partner with Erk Mead—from the government, organizations, to individuals—to support this movement that stands for an emotionally strong society.  Become part of this visionary institution and put your mark in the process of unbinding Ethiopia.

Address:  Addis Ababa, Mickey Leland Street, on the way from Atlas Hotel to 22 road, NB Business Center, 8th floor, office no. 804

Phone: +251 913 513 702; +251 911 380 544; +251 921 333 331 +251 984 454 445
Website: www.erkmead.org
Email: erkmeadmedia@gmail.com 
FB: www.facebook.com/ErkMeadMedia
Twitter: www.twitter.com/ErkMead
Instagram:www.instagram.com/erkmead

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