By Heidi Thulin, Photography by Joshua Thulin
On Field Media
It’s a chilly, sunny morning when I sit with two counselors under the shade of a mulberry tree in the Tumaini Counselling Centre garden. A variety of birds and an occasional vervet monkey wander through the tree branches, and I marvel at the garden’s tranquility. Despite being an office on the outskirts of East Africa’s biggest and busiest city, the place is wonderfully quiet. In fact, the grounds themselves provide a beautiful and peaceful environment for missionaries to contemplate and relax, pray and heal. “At times, clients have said it is like coming out of a desert and into an oasis,” says Dr. Roger Brown, a psychiatrist who joined Tumaini when it was only seven months old. He, more than anyone else, knows that for those working in harsh physical, political, and spiritual environments, Tumaini, which means “hope” in Kiswahili, is truly a God-sent haven.
Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Tumaini is a multi-disciplinary counselling centre and is one of a kind on the African continent. Other organizations have come to learn how the centre works, so they can follow a similar model in their own setting. Sessions are available in four different languages, and the centre’s specialties include child, adolescent, and adult psychological and psychiatric assessments, trauma care, learning disorder assessments, and marriage, family, and individual counseling and spiritual care.
Clients of Tumaini tackle and discuss an incredible variety of topics: transition plans, parenting issues, concerns for family back in their home country, team or leadership stress, feelings of spiritual oppression, coping with a hostile host community, or dealing with loss. “It’s a huge spectrum,” Roger says. “Some people come just to have someone confidential to talk to who will allow them to think out loud and can help them process things.”
The fact that surprises people the most about Tumaini is that all of the skilled psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors are missionaries themselves. Since the counsellors have experienced similar overseas issues, they can understand their missionary clients in a more intimate way.
“Missionaries are humans too,” adds Mark Phippen, a psychotherapist who has more than thirty-five years of experience in the counselling world and serves as Tumaini’s Clinical Team Leader. “We are not exempt from having emotional stresses or mental health problems. The stresses of mission life are pretty tough, and Africa Inland Mission is increasingly and deliberately at the forefront in some of the more difficult places. Working in those contexts, that’s hard. And so, the needs for mental health support in the missionary community is growing.”
A SIGNIFICANT MILESTONE
Since 1991, Tumaini has offered vital mental health support to missionaries from 160 different organizations. Nairobi’s easy international access has made the city an ideal place for Tumaini’s base of operations. Many people work in the area. Others travel to the city to stock up on supplies, to bring their children to boarding school, or to rest and recuperate.
“It was a God thing [that we were even created],” Roger remarks as he sips his coffee. “In those days, the idea of Missionary Member Care wasn’t as developed or even accepted. Psychiatry, psychology. Christians still viewed them with skepticism. For Christians to see a counsellor was not something to be considered. It was groundbreaking in many ways for AIM to capture that vision.”
Because of that stigma, Roger was warned that he might see only a handful of people during his first missionary term. Yet once he opened his office, his calendar filled quickly. Missionary care of this kind was an obvious need.
Now, as the centre’s 25th Anniversary approaches in January 2016, Tumaini is eager to step out into new waters. To make their missionary care services more accessible to people in places like South Sudan, CAR, Uganda, Rwanda, Congo, and Chad, Tumaini will open a new office in the capital city of Uganda. “There are a lot of people working in that area, not just AIM,” Mark mentions. “And we want and need to be available to them.”
During this exciting time, Tumaini also continues to expand its long-distance therapy and counselling opportunities. As the internet becomes more accessible, even in quite remote areas of Africa, counsellors are able to interact regularly with their clients via email or Skype.
Recently, they launched a series of online support groups that work much like a forum. “For six-week periods,” Mark explains, “we’re supporting people by discussing topics like burnout, marriage in difficult places, compassion fatigue, team dynamics, and other topics like that. It’s not remedial counselling. It’s preventative work to help people not get into problems in the first place or to tackle problems when they’re very small. It gives [missionaries] strategies on how to cope with looming difficulties.” Tools like these empower the people on the field and help give them longevity in their ministries.
“We’re involved in reaching the unreached,” Mark stresses, “but we’re doing it one-removed. We’re helping the people who are [out on the frontlines] so they can do it most effectively. We are supporting the work of missions.”
As AIM and other mission organizations push deeper “inland” and into more challenging environments, the demand on Tumaini is gradually but continually growing. Unfortunately, as the need for Tumaini is growing, the centre’s staffing is declining. In fact, earlier this year, two long-term members retired and returned to the States. “We are looking for people who are well-grounded Christians, people who are missionaries first and foremost,” Mark explains. “Then they also have to be competent, experienced, well-qualified, professionally-registered or -licensed mental health professionals. Finding people who have both of these sides is actually quite difficult.”
Despite the difficulties, Roger and Mark believe that God will bring new psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors to both the Nairobi and Kampala offices. Already, because of the recent addition of a Korean psychiastrist, doors are opening up to a new and growing missionary community. “Most [Korean missionaries] are sent out by their home church and not by big mission organizations at all,” Mark tells me. “That means member care is not readily available for them.” The team is keen to reach out to this steadily-growing community of Asian missionaries, and with the Korean psychiatrist’s assistance, they are spreading the word about the importance and availability of mental health care.
The missionaries at Tumaini are also trusting God to provide the $250,000 needed for a new housing project which will construct four, two-bedroom apartments on their Nairobi property. The housing market in the city is booming and highly inflated, making it nearly impossible to find affordable homes near the Tumaini office. Adding comfortable dwellings onto their own land will provide residences for couples or small families who serve at the office. Even short-term psychiatrists or counsellors who come to assist in the office will have an easy, two-minute walk to work. “We always planned on adding more homes,” Roger says, as we walk across the open lawn where these new houses will stand. “Now seems to be the right time to do it.”
We find ourselves back in the garden again, and I ask the two men how they keep themselves healthy when they are constantly hearing other peoples’ problems. “Does it get depressing?” Mark laughs. “Actually, I don’t find that. I’m much, much more struck and encouraged by peoples’ resilience and how God works through very difficult times and keeps people going.”
“Many times,” Roger adds, “we see people healed and able to resume the work God called them here to do. Families grow healthier and become clearer representatives of Christ to the world. God is glorified. What could be more important?”
The counsellors at Tumaini also take good care of each other. They meet together regularly to sharpen their professional skills, to remind each other that God is the true Healer, to share their own struggles, and to pray for each other and their clients. “God’s work doesn’t depend on me or any other individual,” Mark emphasizes. “God’s work will carry on anyway. And if we can be a part of that, fantastic!”
To learn more about Tumaini Counselling Centre, the staffing needs, and the house-building initiative, visit http://www.tumainicounselling.net.