The Making of an African Psychologist

The field of psychology is probably one of the hardest to get into, qualify and practice in.
This is due to the calibre of academic and personal qualities that a psychologist must possess.
I fell in love with psychology about 10 years ago but only started studying in 2012 with the
University of Zululand, KwaZulu- Natal. I was 25 years old, married and mother of two, my
priorities were straight and willing to put in the work. In my first year there were about 500
of us in class, attending was a night mare, it was difficult for the lecturers as it was for us.
About half of us moved to second and third year while most modified modules to teaching
and tourism. The big shock came when we became aware that only 6 students from BA will
be accepted into the Honours programme. It was a privilege to get in and it called for me to
work even harder in order to make it into the Masters programme which is most sought after
as it takes you a step further in qualifying as a psychologist. I can honestly say that that was the most challenging year for me academically but opened my eyes. The work load was almost doubled and I struggled a lot with the research project that we had to do but it was a learning curve which we all needed.

The lecturers were more hands on, we could consult as much as possible and because the group was very small every seminar felt personal and learning became easier. We worked collectively as a group and helped each other with personal and academic difficulties. We all have our reasons for choosing psychology and our life experiences impact and direct who we become as professionals. My personal struggles, my family’s fight with abuse, alcoholism and Epilepsy sparked an interest in me to study psychology. I am also inspired by stories of resilience especially in children who have experienced abuse and recovered to become healthy and productive members of society. African women, their identity and sexuality is one of my areas of interest and would like to research. In neuropsychology I am fascinated by the ongoing research and technology in brain plasticity and possibility of one part of the braintaking over the function of a damaged part. Also the research in developing devices similar to the Vagus Nerve Stimulator (VNS) to treat epilepsy. There are many possibilities and I want to do all that I can to better the lives of the people I can reach.

Last year I started working as a volunteer counsellor in a care centre run by an NGO in a
rural area. The centre mainly work with patients on palliative care and those who have
defaulted on their treatment. This centre caters for patients suffering from a range of illnesses from cancer, mental illness and Aids. There is also a paediatric ward that houses children who have been removed from homes due to abuse and neglect and awaiting placements. The first hick up came when I struggled to understand the terms used by the doctors and nurses for the different illnesses patients had. On my first day I asked and from then I would copy everything from the patients admission form and just go on the internet later to learn about the ailments. The most challenging part of my work in the centre when I started working there was the lack of privacy, patients are bed ridden and I can only provide therapy in the wards by their bed.

A neighbour might be listening and some members of staff are always lingering around, that worried me because I wondered if the client has expressed all they wanted me to know. This was rather problematic when it came to cases of patients reporting abuse by staff. I also struggled a lot with the rate of patients dying, it still breaks my heart when I visit the wards and my patient has passed on, just the reality of having an appointment with someone only to get there to find an empty bed or someone else in their bed. After talking to a colleague about this a few times I can confidently say that I can stomach it now although it is still sad because of the relationship with the patient and the empathy for their families especially when young children are involved.
When a patient passes away the others in the ward also need additional therapy, I have to
reassure them that they will be fine. Another issue I struggled with was dealing with male patients who did not want therapy but manipulated and lied to me for attention, I was
frustrated by the amount of time I wasted.

I have also had patients who started off well and developed an attraction for me, when I
rejected their advances they became very aggressive in therapy and I was forced to terminate. However terminating the therapeutic alliance seems to hurt me more than it does the patient, it makes me question my ability as a therapist not to mention the feeling of guilt for having to give up on a person. I have also had female patients who make demands that are not in my scope of work such as demanding their pension cards from family members, giving them pills and getting them pension. I have had patients offer me gifts, food and some asking me to buy them things as gifts, some patients wanted to give me their cards and pin codes so I can buy them what they need all which I had to respectfully refuse. I also realize that most people especially in the rural parts of South Africa are not familiar with psychology and their expectations are unrealistic but it is our job to both educate about and to sell the profession.

It is our duty to practice psychology within the scope of our Ethics and to protect both the
profession and society. When I started working with the children I noticed that most of them were delayed developmentally, partly because of their illness and abuse/ neglect but also because they were kept in their cots day and night. The only time they were not in bed was when they were eating and bathing, the nursing stuff kept them in bed to make them “manageable”. I was upset and when I raised the issue of how this was affecting the children’s development it was not well received, I spoke to management and I was allowed to take them out. Our first sessions were fruitless, some of the children had been sexually abused and they struggled when alone with me. I was reading on outdoor/ adventure therapy at the time and decided to incorporate it in working with the children. They were delayed in many areas including speech and most of them did not know their real names but responded to the nicknames that the staff members used when addressing them. This discovery made me change my strategy, I wanted to incorporate teaching into play therapy, instead of a one-on-one we have a group session.

I teach the children basic language and mathematics, they get praised for doing well and
discipline. During our sessions I observe the children’s behavior as they interact and take
note of what we need to address. My plan is to help the children become ready for preschool
by the end of the year when I leave the centre. I realise that it is not my job to teach ABC’s
but I felt in my heart that I should do what I can to help these children, I am the only
psychology student volunteering at the centre. I am happy with the progress I have seen in the children and it is worth my time, most of my adult patients have been discharged and a few have passed away. My aim is to impact their lives for the better, that I leave them better than I found them which is my definition of a therapist.
I have so much faith in therapeutic intervention and believe that people need it to survive the puzzle of everyday reality especially in a country such as South Africa. I consider myself as an integrative therapist, I do not believe in one specific psychological theory. I take from
different views to accommodate the different types of clients I come across, I realize that I
am new in the field but I am willing to learn with experience until I am confident .We are
surrounded by hypervigillence, anger, violence, poverty of thought and all sorts of negativity
that can be easily studied and understood by psychologists. I know my story is not something new or unique.

Millions of people in South Africa and the world both young and old go
through the same kind of challenges, some even worse than mine. I can relate and empathize with their pain because I have been there. I have overcome anger, hurt, low self- esteem, fear and so much more negativity with the help of some genuinely caring people I have met, there is so much to learn still. I know for sure that I want to understand human behavior, thought, emotion and thinking beyond the surface.

Ivan Pavlov once said “Don’t be a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of
their origin”

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