Since 2016, writer and mental health professional (pre-reg) Estar Gathu has been changing attitudes with Britain’s British-African communities towards mental health, gender, sexuality and other important social issues through her website, www.thingsihear.co.uk.
In this exclusive interview, Estar tells us more about her website, her mission, and about how storytelling can support victims and strike up discussions that effect positive, lasting change.
Q. Tell us about how your website, www.thingsihear.co.uk, came into being?
A. In late 2015 I was at a charity event with some friends. The food was served very late and when it was served, it was in miniscule portions. We were disappointed because we were so hungry. Anyway, I said to my friend, “This food is like glucose: it disappears in the mouth!”. She laughed out loud and later told me, “You always come up with such funny anecdotes. You should write them down for everyone to read.” An idea formed in my mind on how I can use satirical humour to convey a message that has since evolved into transformative information. In early 2016, Things I Hear was born though in the beginning it was meant to be a blog where I would write satirical stories I may have heard (in real life, or fictional) to amuse and entertain.
Q. What is the main purpose of the website?
A. The purpose of the site as it now stands is to be the go-to point for educational, inspirational, empowering, transformative stories and practical tips. Alongside provocative articles intended to generate conversation and self-reflection at group (cultural) and individual levels, I share fictionalised versions of real-life stories and fictional stories with a message that question African traditions and cultural practices that may not be best suited to evolving lifestyles, e.g. Britain and today’s generation of UK-born British Africans. The purpose of the stories is to break taboos and myths surrounding important social subjects such as homophobia, sexism, and mental health with the aim of inspiring debate and social change, improved attitudes and behaviour, and self-development. Many of the stories are told in my voice to protect the identity of people who’ve shared their experiences with me and would like to raise awareness but are not ready to ‘come out’. Stories about mental health issues and sexuality are still taboo and few people are willing to talk openly about them.
Q. What has been your proudest achievement with the website so far?
A. I’ve had a few proud moments because I never thought the website would grow in the way it has and I am grateful. But probably the proudest moment was when a young man from South Africa read an article that would primarily attract women readers, and said it touched him and taught him something. I was very proud to hear that and to know TiH is fulfilling its purpose far and beyond. Every time I receive such messages, I know I am serving humanity and for that I am proud.
Q. Your website features fictionalised real-life stories that deal with social and mental wellbeing issues within the British-African communities. What would you say are the biggest social issues within these communities?
A. Probably the biggest issues are attitudes towards mental health: mental health illness and disorders. There are still pockets of resistance, where mental health issues are still viewed as shameful family secrets that only prayer can make go away, or the issues are attributed to witchcraft or curses that only ritualistic ceremonies can wipe clean. Most of these rituals become abusive because the ritual performer believes the person is not healing because they are resisting. These are the same attitudes towards homosexuality. I heard one woman say she prays daily that none of her children grow up to be homosexuals. She is perpetually watching for signs so she can ‘nip it in the bud’. I asked her what she’d do if any of her children were homosexuals. “That day I will leave this country for good,” she had said.
There are also many traditions that hinder progress and intensify gender inequality. This kind of attitude stigmatises people, which leads to isolation which leads to depression, anxiety, and stress and, worse, could lead to suicide.
Q. Your website offers advice about mental wellbeing. What key guidance would you give to somebody who may be experiencing a mental health issue/problem?
A. The most important thing is to seek professional help. We live in a country where help is readily available, and the first point of call would be your GP. They should be able to give advice about treatment and referrals. There are also numerous online portals such as Samaritans.
And for those hesitant to seek professional help there are numerous self-help books and of course www.thingsihear.co.uk
Q. What are your long-term ambitions, both with the website and as a writer?
A. For the website: to be the-go-to-hub for inspiration and practical tips to optimise mental wellbeing and raise awareness on areas that impact our mental health.
As a writer: I’m in the process of writing a book and perhaps another and another. Look out for these in bookshops soon.
As a mental health professional: To be the very best professional I can be and make a positive difference in someone’s life. I’ve been involved in a few talk shows about mental health and hope to continue until the message is loud and clear, and we can normalise the ‘talk’.
Q. What to you are the key ways of sharing a sensitive story with readers?
A. Privacy and anonymity are important to me. For someone to share a story with me or anyone, given they typically cover horrendous experiences of abuse and discrimination, is a very personal thing to do and takes tremendous courage. I am bound by law and my own professional ethics to protect the identity of the storyteller unless, of course, they don’t mind sharing their identity. However, most of the stories are a few years before such conversations are normalised so people are still fearful of others’ perceptions.
The second thing is to tell the story in a way that brings out the issues, without judgement, and offers solutions and a constructive way forward. Sometimes my readers comment on the stories and tell similar stories or offer solutions, generating much-needed discussions.
Q. What impact has Covid had on mental wellbeing, and how can people protect their mental wellbeing during the crisis?
A. As with any pandemic, Covid-19 has brought on anxieties because of the uncertain nature of the disease and its implications. The Covid restrictions have invaded people’s way of living through social distancing and living in isolation. These are not societal norms and as human beings, we need that connectedness to one another, and especially to the family unit. It is especially hard when members of the family fall sick and they have to be isolated from their loved ones, sometimes even dying alone. This leaves a very deep hurt and sorrow to the ones left behind, and can sometimes develop into depression and anxiety among the family.
Q. You are originally from Kenya. What common misconceptions about the British-Kenyan community have you encountered, and how would you respond?
A. Yes, I am from Kenya though I never understand why people say ‘originally’! Now I like to refer to myself as a ‘KenBrit’ and when in Kenya I am a foreign native because things over there change so fast, from the language to the way money is exchanged.
Kenya is a very diverse country with over 42 tribes, so many misconceptions are subjective. It all depends on where you come from and who you associate yourself with. If you associate with the well-off, they think we are all on benefits and living beyond our means, financed by credit cards. If you associate yourself with people who are financially dependent on others then they think you pluck money off trees.
Some misconceptions are actually hilarious, such as:
1. Money grows on trees. Some people imagine we should have money all the time since we live in Britain. That’s especially the case for those expecting you to support them financially.
2. We all work in care homes.
3. We don’t have proper immigration papers.
4. We don’t socialise.
5. We are not able to go back home because we are ashamed.
6. We live in shoe-box size apartments/flats but drive range rovers
For more information, visit www.thingsihear.co.uk. Follow Estar Gathu on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at @thingsihear2016.