Dorcas Gwata Zimbabwe’s Nightingale of Mental Heath

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She says in some ways, hospitals found her way before she realised her career path. She moved from Zimbabwe to Edinburgh in 1991 and worked as a hospital cleaner. She didn’t realise it then but she was working with people from diverse backgrounds and from low income households, the very population that would become key in her public health studies. All the while an HIV crisis was wreaking havoc in Sub-Saharan Africa with escalating death tolls in the 1990’s.

“I lost 3 brothers to HIV, I knew then that I wanted to shape my career in Global Health and give back to a country / continent that had given me so much”, she explains. Those dreams led to a long career in mental health nursing. She later worked as a Mental Health Advisor for AFRUCA Charity, a charity that looks into safeguarding issues affecting African children such as FGM, Witchcraft Branding, Human Trafficking and reasons why people from minority backgrounds are over represented in prison, care and mental health institutions.

This led into her current public health role which looks into mental health interventions for young people and families affected by gang culture. “We are using innovative methods of engagements to reach a vulnerable and excluded group of people who otherwise have poor health outcomes. Much of this innovation has been drawn from my research on the Friendship Bench program in Zimbabwe which is brilliantly led by Dr Dixon Chibanda.”

Dorcas holds a Nursing Diploma and Degree obtained at City University School of Nursing, London;  Medicine  Special interests in HIV, and a Master’s Degree in Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.




Her other qualifications include Researching Gender Violence obtained at London School of Hygiene and Tropical migration, gender violence and humanitarian health care Leadership in Mental Health (Goa, India)

What motivates her to wake up daily? “I love grassroots work, I love social sciences, I have a critical mind that questions world affairs, inequalities and social injustices, I want to be part of a movement of change that seeks to improve health outcomes.

“No parent should ever have to bury their child to knife crime, if we can save a teenager from knife crime or a young girl from being exploited in gangs.

“I am proud of the work we are doing to keep young people safe in London. It’s a great honour to contribute to the health sector in Zimbabwe, and East Africa. Despite challenges, our people are incredibly resilient with an amazing amount of cultural community spirit. I am in full praise of the work happening in low income countries which often goes unacknowledged or validated.”

A winner of the ZAA Community Achiever Award, where she was nominated for two awards, Community Champion and Professional of the Year, that she explained as “huge and incredibly heart warming to be recognized on a Zimbabwean platform. It meant too much to be validated for particularly for the community work that I am passionate about.” She believes that ultimately the winners of the award are the very vulnerable people she works with; it’s their effort and resilience that keeps her going.

In her comparisons to other high income countries, the UK is ahead in terms of recognizing the value that nurses and doctors from diverse backgrounds bring to their health care system. Most of them will have diverse bicultural skills which are relevant in UK’s changing demographics.

“We are able to think globally, bring innovation into the system whilst practicing locally, that’s a unique skill specific to health care professionals who have exposure to working in low income countries.

“My new studies focus on reducing inequalities in minorities in the London population, where I will be evaluating lessons learnt from the last Ebola crisis in Africa from a mental health perspective and drawing those lessons into my work in London and Zimbabwe, in doing so appraising the research and knowledge that we bring into the NHS.”

In the era of Brexit and changes in how high income countries engage with the foreign aid in Africa, she thinks Africans must now more than ever evaluate their own health care challenges and address these locally. “We must reduce brain drain from Africa, it is troubling that most of Africa’s health experts practise in high income countries. If we improved our health training programs and health systems we can foster much more development in the continent.

“There are many Zimbabwean health care professionals practicing in the UK, that body of expertise can play a critical role in developing health care services in Zimbabwe, ultimately we need to appraise and improve our Diaspora Engagement programs to increase impact on the ground. We must absolutely strengthen our regional dialogues to improve health care responses around Southern Africa, and I strongly believe Zimbabwe can lead on that given our strong institutions.”

In her view health security is important at individual and regional level as people often migrate because they have poor or no access to good health care. Affordable health care is important, for so many poor people in Africa the difference between life and death can often be affordability to treatment. A good health care system is determined by its governance arrangements, its ability to critically evaluate and how it lends itself open to scrutiny. Public health systems should be just as good at private health care systems.

Dorcas notes that although she is based in London, her heart is very much in Zimbabwe. She left Zimbabwe in 1991 where she attended Mukumba Primary School, Dombotombo Primary School, Digglefold Primary School and Marondera High School.

If she was to go back to Zimbabwe right now she has big plans for the country’s health institutions. Already she is a Trustee for Zimbabwe Health Training Support Diaspora Charity, a role in which she goes back to Zimbabwe often and is involved in scaling up mental health training across the country.

Another of her love is the arts, of which she says, “If I was to move back to Zimbabwe I would certainly engage more in supporting local artists. This year I sponsored the NAMA Awards, and recognized local talents in literature.

“I am interested in merging arts and mental health and am grateful to artists such as Hope Masike and Philani  Amadeus Nyoni who support our work in Zimbabwe.”

What would she like to see happen to the UK health industry? She responds that the NHS is a brilliant model of universal care, but it has its challenges too.

“We need to rise above the politics and look at strategies that can reduce inequalities in the UK, and improve early intervention programs particularly in children and adolescent health. The African Diaspora is well placed to lead on such health initiatives given their diverse skills and understanding of the core issues that compound inequalities. Health outcomes in the migrant population in the UK are still very concerning.”

On the general future of the health business in the world she believes globalization has brought enormous amount of development, where people of her profession are able to communicate and deliver health care and provide digital solutions to health care challenges, however viruses do not respect boarders as it has been observed with the HIV and Ebola virus.

“We need to harness the hunger and innovation that we are observing in the African youth, they should absolutely take the lead in exploring health solutions. It is after all their future we are planning. There is a growing middle class in Africa, which is consuming health care in a different fashion; people are no longer dying of HIV, but from non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, obesity and diabetes. These silent diseases are our new challenge.”




She elaborated that Africans’ are increasingly wanting to engage with the Global Health community, in response to the depth of inquiries she receives in her work in Global Health and Gangs and Mental Health, where it was set up a Global Health Cafe, a platform for Global Health enthusiasts who regularly meet to discuss global health issues with a view to promote innovation, health policy and practice.

The platform is brilliantly supported by Dalia Majongwe, a London School of Economics Health Policy advanced student and Dr Titilola Banjoko one of the leading figures in Global Health. She notes that the timing could not be more right with the new appointment of the Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, new WHO Director General, and the first African to hold to post.

“We Zimbabweans must leverage on these great developments,” she explains.

Dorcas Gwata is a twin. She and her brother were born in Madamombe Village, Chihota. Both her parents were teachers, she has fond memories of growing up in her village area, eating guavas, matamba, and learning to swim in a river, which her mother had forbidden.

“Our grandmother lived nearby, a symbolic woman who up to this date shapes my personality. She was never educated, she didn’t know her date of birth, but she was the sharpest woman I know. She raised 9 children almost single handed, I draw my strength and resilience from her. I absolutely love going back kumusha whenever I am back home in Zimbabwe.

She described her mother as the one who had the most charitable heart, taking everyone in, and thus the seeds of compassion and care were sown in “me long before my consciousness”. Her father is a writer, whom she took a leaf from his creative mind, always thinking outside the box.

 
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