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The Community Healing Programme

By charles - Posted on 02 May 2010

Sophiatown West

After the acute phase of trauma has been dealt with through individual counselling, individuals are referred, where necessary, to the group intervention most appropriate for their particular circumstances. Each group intervention contains activities that go beyond the regular group interventions, such as camps, retreats, healing services and family days. Individuals may move from one group to another once a particular issue is dealt with, and another needs to be addressed.  This is particularly common with individuals who deal with both HIV and bereavement. People also increasingly require several interventions to treat a complexity of presenting problems, e.g. a child with learning difficulties, behavioural problems, HIV infection and problematic home circumstances. Group interventions allow us to effectively reach far more people than traditional one-on-one psycho-therapeutic intervention allows and is important in the African culture which tends to recognise the collective over the individual.

Group-based counselling programmes revolve around the three main themes of HIV/AIDS; bereavement; and teenagers.



Leseding is an open counselling group for adults living with HIV/AIDS. Unlike many of the support groups which now populate the HIV/landscape, it does not offer any form of material support (such as food parcels, beading, money) but engages with people who are willing to explore and process the emotional issues impacting on their HIV status, and where possible to effect personal change. One of the main problems confronting the group is the expectation which newcomers into the group have of some form of material gain. Some stay because they become committed to their own growth, while others drop out very soon when they realize that their expectations will not be met. The result is that there is a strong core of committed group members, struggling very openly and honestly with the psychological and social effects of personal experiences, including early childhood abuse, gender violence, substance abuse, stigmatization, and poverty.



The Thandanani group for grandmothers and other caregivers of orphaned children has become a powerful source of support to older women who previously felt abandoned and isolated. The HIV/AIDS sector tends to define support in terms of material relief only, and neglects the profound social and emotional issues facing grandmothers who often nurse their own children to the point of death, while also caring and taking responsibility of grandchildren.

The 2011 Thandanani group started late in the year as it has become increasingly difficult to convince people of the benefits of emotional support, especially when they have had previous negative experiences with “support groups”. Eventually members of the previous group did the marketing for us- and very successfully so. Twenty two grannies took part in the bereavement retreat at the end of November. Again there was an intense process of grieving, contained through simple rituals and songs, and followed by a personal and collective process of re-connecting with memories, people and spiritual beliefs that engender some sense of hope for the future.



Twenty two children attended the Sivuyile group for children who have lost their primary caregivers, usually due to HIV/AIDS, and were taking through a carefully guided and supported grieving process, which then created the space for the children also to share the many other challenges associated with losing a parent- adjustment to new and less familiar caregivers, the loss of income in the family, the projection of blame on children, stigmatization in the community, and the like. A follow up session with children who had intended past Sivuyile programmes confirmed that the intervention has a lasting effect on the children and their families.


Holiday Programmes for Bereaved Teenagers

Two five day holiday programmes for teenagers who had lost primary caregivers to death, separation or abandonment were held- one in Noordgesig and one in Mzimhlophe. These programmes gave the youngsters a safe express intense feelings and also, through various narrative techniques, to explore sources of hope, courage and support in their lives.


Girls Lekgotla

The Noordgesig Girls Lekgotla developed out of the July 2011 holiday programme which targeted teenagers in the Noordgesig communities who were struggling with issues around loss and abandonment. Fourteen girls attend this group on weekly basis and find in it a new source of hope and courage in the face of an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Topics discussed include abortion and racism.


Boys Lekgotla

The Vukuzenzele Group of 16 teenage boys drawn from the Pennyville community also attend weekly group sessions which they structure themselves based on issues and experiences which arise in their families, schools and communities. The idea of the lekgotla is to create the space for boys to create their own themes for conversations (such as peer pressure, child pornography, relationships) with little or no active interference from the facilitator who does, however, hold the emotional space for the participants and offers support and containment where necessary. For all of the boys who attend this group this has been the first time they have been given the opportunity to define and speak about the issues that affect their lives.


Sophiatown East

The following group interventions were run in Bertrams during 2011.

The Umoja 1 Group

The Umoja 1 group consists of refugee women who have recently arrived in the country, often highly traumatized, and are struggling to adjust to a very different economic, linguistic, cultural and social environment. Grief and loss, mostly associated with severe war trauma, are dominant themes, as are separation from loved ones, abandonment by partners, unresolved childhood experiences and extreme social isolation. The group soon becomes a substitute for the family that has been lost and through it the women gradually begin to build up new social networks. Measures of depression and anxiety showed a slight but significant decrease for those women who attended sessions throughout the year.


The Umoja 2 Group

In 2010 the women who attended the Umoja group for more than a year declared that they were ready to “unite” with South African women, thereby indicating that they had worked through their trauma and adjustment issues sufficiently to abandon the psychological identity of “refugee” and explore and share in the common experience on womanhood. Umoja 2 is an on-going group consisting of South African and foreign women who are willing to enter each other’s realities and forge new solidarities.


The Suitcase Group

The Suitcase Project has its origins in a research study commissioned to explore the lives of migrant and refugee children in the inner city of Johannesburg. In 2003, the researcher, Glynis Clacherty, found that the children she interviewed had come into the country as unaccompanied minors, had suffered severe trauma in their countries of origin, as well as on their journeys to South Africa, and continued to be exposed to deprivation and discrimination in the host country. On completion of the research study Glynis continued meeting with the children and using art as a medium of expression was able to create a safe environment within which the children could explore feelings, process traumatic experiences and share coping strategies. An old suitcase was given to each child and they were encouraged to decorate it as a symbol and reflection of their journeys to South Africa.

This first group came to an end in 2006 with the publication of The Suitcase Stories which was chosen as a finalist for the 2007 Alan Paton Awards. Sophiatown CPS took over this project in 2007 and has subsequently been providing ongoing therapeutic support to a groups of refugee children. 

In 2011 the Suitcase Group. Generally there seemed to a decrease in new arrivals in the first half of the year and it took some time to stabilize the children sufficiently to get a proper group process going. All the children were eventually placed in school and although the group is continuing into 2012, there has already been remarkable emotional growth.


The MADE Group

The MADE (Make-A-Difference-Entourage) Group is a new group for teenagers, some coming from the Suitcase group and other identified through work with individuals and families. It attracted 21 youngsters, 12 of whom became the core group of very regular attenders.  The participants worked on many of the issues affecting their lives from intergenerational conflict to peer pressure to sexuality and sexual identity. From the evaluation at the end of the year it is evident that the group has had a profound impact on the way the children feel, behave and interact both within the group and in their families, schools and neighbourhoods.


School Council Group

The Observatory Girls School Council Group was started at the request of the school principal and consists of girls chosen as student leaders in the school. Working with these children was initially very difficult. At home and at school they were burdened with responsibilities and had thoroughly internalized the desired image of the “good girl”, making it very hard for them to get in touch or share their vulnerabilities. Gradually some trust did develop and some emotional engagement was possible, but much more could have been achieved if the system had been more supportive and encouraging as a whole.


Bereavement Holiday Programme

Two bereavement holiday programmes were held in the year. The first was attended by 12 teenagers, the second by seven youngsters. Levels of distress were very high and nine of the twelve participants indicated that they had seriously considered or attempted suicide. Again the participants were guided through a deep grieving process which then paved the way for the exploration and sharing of coping strategies, external and internal resources, and a new sense of future.


Vukuzenzele Mamas - The Garden Group

A group of five women has joined heads, hands, and energies to start a permaculture garden at the back of our House of Dreams in Observaotry. Trained in the basics of permaculture by Siyakhana and supervised by the community worker who did an additional training course, the small garden is producing spinach, carrots, cabbage, and other vegetables with which the women are now feeding their families. More importantly the garden has given the women a new sense of purpose and although working together on a common project can give rise to all kind of conflicts, these are worked through together with the help of the social worker, so that the whole project is beginning to contribute not only to the physical but also to the social and emotional well-being of the participants.


Studdy Buddyz

Every Saturday morning a group of five to seven children meets at the House with volunteers from Habonim, the Jewish youth movement, to get help with their school work. These are children who are struggling academically because of the many disruptions in their lives and the volunteers are making a huge contribution to their school environment and its demands. All the children who attended the Study Buddyz project were promoted to the next grade at the end of 2011.

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