Breaking Barriers Through Obedience

The journey of Tumaini Counselling Centre

By Sean W.
Photos by Megan W.
On Field Media

Dr. Roger Brown sits calmly in his chair. His office is quiet, the afternoon breeze blowing through the open window. Roger is currently the world’s only missionary-child psychiatrist. Together he and his wife, Shirley, saw Tumaini Counselling Centre go from a mere idea to a thriving ministry that has provided mental health services for several thousand missionaries over the last 28 years.

From a young age, Roger felt called to be a missionary doctor. While in medical school, he served internationally twice, once in Pakistan and once in India. But just before leaving for India, his sister-in-law died suddenly in an electrical accident. Roger went to India still dealing with the grief. While there, he began to wonder, what do missionaries do when they go through hard times?

This question was the beginning of his journey to helping found Tumaini Counselling Centre.

Over the following years, Roger became a child psychiatrist and practiced in the U.S. During those years, he met Shirley, and they were married. While pursuing ways to serve in missions, they met David Dunkerton.

Dave was a missionary church planter for many years. But he realized that missionaries, as they endured struggles, needed a place they could go and receive help. He went back to the U.S. to get a master’s degree in counselling, then returned to Nairobi and began offering counselling. It was only a few hours a week, but, as Roger says, “He demonstrated, over six years, that there was a [strong] need for counselling for missionaries. And over half of his clientele were AIM missionaries.”

In 1987 as a project for her missions class, Shirley put together a proposal for Roger to work as a missionary psychiatrist in a field based counselling centre for missionaries. “We submitted it to fifty mission agencies and almost all [of them] said, ‘We don’t need anybody like you,’” she says. Roger says the only two organizations that expressed any interest in the concept were Africa Inland Mission (AIM) and Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL). Roger and Shirley then joined AIM in July, 1988.

In 1989, Dave Dunkerton suggested that AIM and SIL operate a counselling centre together. “[Shirley and I] needed somebody who ploughed the way,” Roger says, “and he needed a medical person.” It was a perfect partnership. Roger and Shirley began to plan to move to Kenya to help Dave start this ministry. But the ministry start-up faced many obstacles.

Roger and Shirley Brown stand outside Tumaini.
This building was opened in 2002 after years of fundraising.
Tumaini has a beautiful garden and outdoor seating area.

For many years, there was a great deal of stigma about mental health, especially as it applied to missionaries. Psychology and clinical counselling was viewed with suspicion, and many did not think anyone would come to the new counselling centre. Roger remembers that an AIM leader told him not to be surprised if no one came to see him, a psychiatrist, for the first four years. “Because it was so frowned upon, AIM really took a risk on us,” Shirley says. “Some were ok with us coming. Some were very sceptical.”

Amid this scepticism, however, Roger and Shirley received encouragement from some retired AIM missionary leaders they met in the U.S. They said, “I wish you were on the field when we were raising our family. We could have used your help.” Many retired missionaries expressed a need for training in how to deal with people with psychiatric disorders and how to deal with children’s emotional problems, but, on the field, there were no resources to help work through these problems. This solidified their passion to help start Tumaini.

In 1990, as Roger and Shirley prepared to move to Kenya, their second daughter was born with a congenital heart problem. What should have been a time of joy was instead a time of terrible fear. The doctors said her condition would likely be fatal without immediate treatment. At just three days old, the doctors performed the first of four heart surgeries to save her life. Roger and Shirley delayed their departure to Nairobi to take care of their daughter. “We’d both prepared all these years. We’d been planning on being missionaries since we were in middle school,” Shirley says.

Roger says, “We had no idea what our future held. We were just in limbo.” Roger and Shirley knew this was spiritual warfare. “This [starting of Tumaini] was such a dramatic movement. There’s nothing like this in the world, with multiple mission agencies coming together locally for the missions community.”

But God provided a way.

After their daughter was stable and the doctors gave the go-ahead, Roger, Shirley, and their two daughters left for Nairobi in 1991. However, upon arriving, they learned that Roger’s U.S. medical license was not valid in Kenya, meaning he needed to take an exam that covered all of medicine in order to get a Kenyan medical license. A field he had not practiced or studied for eight years.

Roger failed the exams, like many other doctors coming to Kenya. At the same time, Shirley’s appendix ruptured, and she almost died in the hospital. She left weighing only 88 pounds. But through that time, God helped Roger get his medical license, and he finally could practice psychiatry and counselling in Kenya.

Tumaini Counselling Centre officially opened on 2 January 1991 in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. The first office was bare-bones, operating without electricity, running water, or phone service. Appointments had to be made by written letter or by calling and leaving a message at DayStar University, where David taught and had his counselling office. Despite this very humble beginning, the ministry grew, and Roger’s schedule quickly filled.
From 1992 – 2001, the office relocated to a space close to AIM’s Mayfield Guesthouse. The new location offered many improvements, including room to expand to five offices. Roger says, “The ministry was taking off. People were very much wanting to get services.”

While in that office, the Tumaini staff dreamed of building an actual counselling centre, some place that would allow them to expand the ministry and provide a peaceful retreat for missionaries.

Roger's office has a shelf of toys for when he works with children.
After seven years of hard work, the dream of Tumaini Counselling Centre became a reality.


A New Home for Tumaini

In 1995, AIM gave Roger and Shirley their blessing to begin raising funds for the new centre, with an estimated cost of $500,000. Without a fundraising team in place, it was up to them to raise the money. The fundraising process took five years to complete. AIM provided a $100,000 matching grant for the project as well. “It was very key,” Roger says, “that statement from AIM that, ‘We are behind this.’”

While raising funds for the project, Roger and Shirley travelled the U.S. to meet donors and collect items people donated for the centre. They filled a 40-foot shipping container with everything they would need to finish the building, including fourteen toilets, all the flooring, and the wallpaper.

Even against such a huge task, Roger and Shirley pressed forward and by 2002, Tumaini Counselling Centre had land and a building in the peaceful Karen neighbourhood of Nairobi. Shirley laughingly says, “I was in labour for seven years to give birth to a 7,500 sq. foot baby.” The building itself went through over 100 possible designs. They carefully considered every detail, particularly to provide a safe, private environment for their clients. The counselling rooms are set up to minimize the chances of overhearing from one room to another. There are two parking lots, one for visitors and another for counselees.

In terms of clients, Tumaini has served missionaries from more than 25 sending countries and over 200 different mission organizations. The need for Tumaini is very real. Clinical staff estimate that at least 90% of the cases seen at Tumaini could not have been handled by peer-to-peer counselling.

“We’re here to help missionaries stay on the field, functioning well,” Roger says, “so they can do the work God’s called them to do.” And for times when missionaries need to leave the field, Tumaini is equipped to help them make that transition well. All missionaries go through seasons of high stress, and Tumaini exists to support them through those times. “We are brothers and sisters in Christ,” Roger says.

Tumaini sees people for all manner of needs, including depression, burnout, anxiety, marriage and interpersonal conflicts, or concerns for their children and teens. In Kiswahili, Tumaini means “hope,” and thanks to Tumaini’s ministry, many hundreds of missionaries have remained on the field, doing God’s work. The effect of Tumaini can be seen in missions across the African continent.

“Here, our therapists can practice their profession the way it was designed to be practiced.” Shirley says. “There’s not an insurance company telling you what you can and can’t do. You’re really getting to invest in the child or the adult.” Counsellors often pray for clients in their off-hours and see their work as so much more than a job. They want to strengthen missionaries for the work God calls them to do. “I think people get some of the best care in the world here because we can give time, we can give energy, we can give prayer.” Shirley says.

Clinical staff come from many sending organizations as well. Over the years, therapists have come from all over the world to serve at Tumaini. Today, Tumaini is in need of new counsellors to help meet the ongoing needs of the missions community.

After all these years, Roger and Shirley are heading back to the U.S. Not to retire, but to relocate and serve AIM in a different role. They are leaving behind a growing and sustainable counselling centre, one that’s planted a satellite office in Kampala, Uganda, where counsellors can better serve missionaries in central Africa. Tumaini is recognized around the world as a standard for missionary member-care, a testimony to God’s faithfulness in establishing this ministry from the beginning. Shirley says, “It’s been a good life. It’s been a good place to raise our children. It is an incredible privilege to rub shoulders with people who are serving the Lord like this.”

Want to learn more about Tumaini Counselling Centre? Check out their website.