, 22 July, 2020 / 11:31 PM
People weighed down by COVID-19 challenges in Kenya have, for the past three months, found solace by speaking to counsellors through an online virtual service launched by Archdiocese of Nyeri and the Diocese of Kitui in the East African country.
The Good Shepherd Centre was launched in June to allow for toll-free calls between a team of counsellors and people facing mental breakdown due to challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The initiative has since brought on board a team of 30 Priests and 12 psychologists who have, since the launch, reportedly handled over 2, 000 distress calls of people who have lost their jobs, suffered COVID-related stigma, as well as those living in the fear and anxiety brought about by the pandemic. Some of those who called were talked out of their suicidal thoughts.
According to officials of the Nairobi-based Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa (AMECEA) Secretariat, the initiative taken by the leadership of the Archdiocese of Nyeri and the Diocese of Kitui is worth emulating by all dioceses and even parishes of the eight Bishops’ Conferences in the region.
To make psychosocial and spiritual support available to a majority of people, the AMECEA pastoral department is working on an effort that will bring together all counsellors providing psychosocial support to the church in AMECEA member countries including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.
“All we are doing is to coordinate the counselling services and provide a platform for spiritual support providers to come together in our regional meetings to share their experiences,” AMECEA Pastoral Coordinator, Fr. Emmanuel Chimombo, told ACI Africa in an interview Wednesday, July 22.
He added in reference to the envisaged regional meetings, “It will be a benchmarking platform and a forum where member (Bishops’) Conferences that haven’t started offering counselling services in their jurisdictions (would) come and learn.”
According to the Malawian Priest, various Bishops’ Conferences of the AMECEA member countries have responded to the COVID-19 lockdown challenges in various ways including distribution of food and protective equipment to vulnerable populations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Fr. Emmanuel, however, notes that not much is being done to reach out to those who need spiritual support due to the psychological frustrations caused by the pandemic.
The Cleric says that everybody needs psychosocial support during COVID-19, including religious people who have lost engagement in their missions.
“We have Priests and Religious Sisters who haven’t been getting a stipend since private schools where they taught closed down. Others have lost their jobs in mission hospitals,” he said.
According to Fr. Emmanuel, the Church in the different AMECEA member countries has had varied experiences in the fight against the pandemic.
In Tanzania where there have been minimal restrictions to combat the coronavirus, with the country’s President John Pombe Magufuli recently announcing the absence of the virus in the country, the Church has been left to its devices in the fight against the pandemic.
“Tanzania’s approach towards COVID-19 has been very differently compared to other countries in the Eastern African region. Most services have been open and this has left individual Bishops with the sole responsibility to ensure that the people of God are safe in the dioceses,” Fr. Emmanuel told ACI Africa July 22.
He added, “While some Bishops in Tanzania are okay with the President’s disposition, there are those who wish that there was a uniform manner to tackle the virus.”
“There is no joint effort to tackle the virus. While some priests are really working hard to safeguard the people, there are those thwarting these efforts by encouraging people to live as usual,” he said.
Malawi, on the other hand, started grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic in the middle of elections. Efforts to combat the virus were, hence, politicized, Fr. Emmanuel said about his native country.
“Every move to combat the spread of the virus was looked at from a political point of view,” he explained and added, “The measures that were suggested by Church leaders were not supported by political leaders in most cases. That is why there has been an uncontrolled surge in COVID-19 cases in Malawi.”
In Kenya as well as Uganda, there have been strict measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, with Uganda announcing the stringent measures even before recording a single case.
The project that is expected to be launched in the first week of August will allow for virtual interactions between counselors and their clients via any form of media convenient to the one seeking the counseling services.
“We want to make the counselling as easy as it can ever get, factoring in the safety protocols hence the virtual interactions,” Fr. Emmanuel said, and added, “People will be able to get services of Priests, Religious Sisters, qualified psychologists through WhatsApp messages, SMS, Skype and even zoom meetings on their communication gadgets.”
Apart from one-on-one interactions, the AMECEA pastoral department is also in talks with Catholic media channels especially radio to provide periodic counselling to listeners in a weekly program that will run for four months.
Virtual radio therapy will include slightly over 30-minute programs that will run by two counselors who will select a topic to address every week based on their analysis of psychosocial trends. The topics will cover family life during COVID-19, issues of school-going children who are staying away from school, the experiences of religious people who cannot celebrate Mass in public gatherings, among others.
“Radio therapy will be open to everyone irrespective of their religious affiliations. But for a start, we want to start with Catholic radio because of our financial limitations,” the AMECEA Pastoral Coordinator said and continued, “In future, we may talk with secular radio that enjoys a wider reach to provide these virtual experiences.”
The program will be aired alongside an online engagement with listeners and at the end of the 30-minute presentation, listeners will be allowed to call in for questions and comments.
Additionally, topics covered every week will be available in recorded format on YouTube and on other social media platforms.
ACI Africa was officially inaugurated on August 17, 2019 as a continental Catholic news agency at the service of the Church in Africa. Headquartered in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, this media apostolate will strive to facilitate the telling of Africa’s story by providing media coverage of Catholic events on the African continent, giving visibility to the activities of the Church across Africa where statistics show significant growth in numbers and the continent gradually becoming the axis of Catholicism. This is expected to contribute to an awareness of and appreciation for the significant role of the Church in Africa and over time, the realization of a realistic image of Africa that often receives negative media framing.
Father Don Bosco Onyalla
Editor-in-Chief, ACI Africa