Opinionista Victor Dlamini 19 July 2012

Stamping out shame: The Siwe Project

‘It’s not who you are, it’s what you have’ is the powerful motto of The Siwe Project which, on 2 July, marked its global No Shame Day. The purpose of this day was to spread awareness that mental illness should not define the identities of its sufferers, using storytelling and community building as weapons against stigma. It is, to say the least, an important campaign that I’m proud to support. 

I’m pleased to play a small role in promoting the work of The Siwe Project as its photographer in Southern Africa, and would love to share the story of how I became involved. It all goes back to the day I met one Bassey Ikpi when she travelled from the US to Johannesburg for a poetry performance.

I met Bassey through Mimi Selemela, who I support in The Siwe Project’s Johannesburg network. It’s not every day that you meet someone who goes – in an instant – from being a stranger to someone you care for deeply. In my industry, especially, I meet so many people that few of them stand out in the end. But it was different with Bassey.  

I was immediately struck by her zest for life, her energy and her powerful presence. She was quick to laughter; the laugh warm, hearty. When she spoke, it was in a rapid-fire kind of way. The words boomed confidently and elegantly from one clearly used to commanding the stage. It was no surprise to discover that she was a performance artist, and that she had toured as a Def Jam poet.

At her performance at Bassline in Downtown Joburg, she delivered lines of poetry that ranged from the personal to the social, and even the political. Underpinning each of her poems was a quest for justice, for fairness. The poet in her seemed to be teasing the words to make sense of a world in which those charged to protect frequently unleashed the most incredible violence on those they should shield.

When she performed ‘Diallo’, her poem about a young man named Amadou Diallo, who was pumped with 41 bullets by New York cops, you could hear a pin drop. “Where do our screams go?” she asked, with palpable pain. “We march to mourn another murder in silence…” Listening to Bassey both on and off the stage, it became clear that she was a woman with a very clear sense of purpose.

In those first meetings with Bassey, I couldn’t have guessed that this outstanding performer, this activist for social justice, suffered from Bipolar II disorder. She gave so much of herself, was generous on stage, smiled broadly for the camera and derived what seemed an almost tangible joy from life. 

Bassey, I felt, was a living example of the motto of The Siwe Project: it’s not who you are, it is what you have. (#noshame)

This is why it is so important to encourage more people to seek treatment without shame. Instead of worrying about stigma, they will realise that mental illness is a disease like any other and that it can be treated. 

Bassey herself named the project for Siwe Monsanto, whose suicide on June 29, 2011 inspired her to establish this not-for-profit mental advocacy movement. And since then, she has not stopped in her quest to increase understanding and tolerance for mental illness; something she has done with some success, being not only a gifted writer, but one who is able to provide frank and transparent reflections on living with Bipolar II Disorder.

Those of us who may not have stopped to look closely at mental illness, or even know how to deal with it in our own lives or those of loved ones, can tap into The Siwe Project. Bassey and her team have gifted us this global non-profit aimed at creating awareness of mental health throughout the international black community.

On this, the first annual No Shame Day, I’ve been encouraged to see how Bassey’s goal of making this an international campaign is already reflected in the conversations taking place on the various networks. People have shared their stories, both of illness and treatment, forging a strong sense of community.

This project is bigger than Bassey, but I think she provides a very clear sense of the generosity of spirit behind its establishment, and the philosophy of caring transparency that underpins it. I salute her courage and her effort to reach beyond her own circumstances to create this potent global force against stigma, and to dispel many of the misconceptions about it. That this network already stretches from Washington DC, London, Johannesburg and Lagos, speaks to Bassey’s tenacity and ability to reach across barriers.

So let’s all support this worthy cause as it seeks to improve awareness and understanding of the problems faced by those suffering from mental illness. Let’s make every day No Shame Day. 

As Bassey tweeted, “ #NoShame is trending worldwide. Thanks to you and your willingness to face fear and share your truths. Thank you.” 

There is no doubt that in going from poet to creator of The Siwe Project, Bassey has connected the dots between the activist and the poet, living a powerful narrative rooted in social justice and fairness. She has shown in her life, more powerfully than any words could, that it’s not who you are – it’s what you have. DM

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