A Bench and a Grandmother’s Ear: Zimbabwe’s Novel Therapy Spreads Overseas

After her son was arrested last year, 57-year-old Tambudzai Tembo went into meltdown. In Zimbabwe, where clinical mental health services are scarce, her chances of getting professional help were next to zero. She even contemplated suicide. A wooden bench and an empathetic grandmother saved her. Older people are at the center of a homegrown form of mental health therapy in Zimbabwe that’s now being adopted in the United States. The approach involves setting up benches in quiet, discreet corners of parks, some in churches, and some at community centers. An older woman with basic training in problem-solving therapy patiently sits there, ready to listen and engage in a one-on-one conversation. There are no appointments and no fees paid; it's all done on a voluntary basis. The therapy stems from Zimbabwe tradition, where grandmothers were the go-to people for wisdom in tough times. It had been abandoned with the onset of urbanization, the breakdown of the family, and advancement of modern technology. Now, it’s proving useful again. The practice has been taken up in New York City under the name “Friendship Bench.” Orange benches are now available in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx. So far, 20 grandmothers have volunteered to listen and to make it okay for people to talk about their feelings. They have received training from Friendship Bench Zimbabwe on how to listen, empathize, and empower others to solve their problems. Cindy Cox-Roman, President and CEO of HelpAge USA says, “People are hurting, and a grandmother can always make you feel better.” Barbara Allen, an 81-year-old volunteer agrees, saying: “Sometimes age brings wisdom that you don’t learn until you get old.” Siridzayi Dzukwa (above, right), the grandmother who talked Tembo out of suicide, said: “People are no longer ashamed or afraid of openly stopping us on the street and asking us to talk. Mental health is no longer something to be ashamed of.”