A Friend in Need...
I arrived at Zangezi High School late today, and had to check in at the office. It was so embarrassing! I was coming to visit a meeting of the Girl Child Network. Over thirty girls sat in a circle, discussing ways to counsel each other in difficult times.
It seems the problems and pressures of teenage life in Zimbabwe are not that different from the things I dealt with in high school, and likely the things that many of you will go through as well. The issues they mentioned were family problems, relationship problems, trouble in school, and issues about sexuality.
19-year-old Memory explained to me that in traditional Shona culture, when a young girl needed advice or help, she was expected to go to either her father's sister, known as her tete, or her grandmother, called her ambuya. Even marriage was arranged through these relatives, rather than by their parents or by the brides and grooms themselves. Nowadays, though, many families live far away from their relatives. People often must move to cities in search of work, and the traditional family structures have been eroded.
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The GCN had some guest speakers today: two professional counselors, women who train people to help each other, had come to talk to the girls. They asked the group, "What are some of the advantages of this traditional system?"
The girls came up with some good answers:
"Your tete and ambuya know you very well. They can see you right through."
"Sometimes it is hard to open up to a stranger."
"They know your family well, so they can give better advice."
"The advice is free and available to everyone."
"They are part of your support system."
"And what are some of the disadvantages?" the counselors asked.
"Because they are your family, they may have other priorities, so they may mislead you."
"The tete and ambuya are restricted to age. If you have a problem about sex, for example, they will not tell you about it until you are eighteen, even if you are faced with it when you're sixteen."
"They are not trained in counseling."
Everyone in the room admitted that they often talk to their friends before, or instead of, approaching family members about serious problems. I know I did in high school, and still do! Because of that, the rest of the afternoon was devoted to teaching good counseling skills, so everyone would be better able to counsel a friend in need. Although this doesn't mean that any of us are qualified to be professional counselors, it is good advice that everyone should know.
It was pointed out to me that, in their traditional culture, women tend to be timid and complacent. "In our culture, sometimes our children are not allowed to talk about family things," one girl pointed out. A strongly emphasized aspect of counseling is really listening to what your friend is saying. "A problem shared is half-solved," we were taught. "Really listen to the girl child. If your little sister comes to you with a problem, don't brush her off, ask her what is wrong and listen to what she has to say. This will build confidence in the girl child. She will feel open to say things."
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The Girl Child Network is planning to send several of its members to a 2-week training session on peer counseling. I know that many high schools in the United States also have peer-counseling programs. It is a great way to really help your friends in times of need. All the girls left feeling empowered, resolved to really listen and care for their friends. Does your school have peer counseling? If not, maybe YOU can help start it!
THE SEVEN STEPS TO BEING A GOOD FRIEND IN TIMES OF TROUBLE:
1: STOP: If a friend comes to you with a problem, stop whatever you're doing so that you can be fully present with her. If you cannot stop at that time, make a definite date and time in the near future when you can listen.
2: LISTEN: Really listening to someone is empowering. It lets her know that what she's saying is valid and important, and she can be assertive. Remember to listen to body language as well as the words. If your friend angrily shouts, "there's nothing wrong!" then you know that there probably is something wrong.
3. CLARIFY: Ask questions and be certain you understand what your friend is saying. Show an interest, and don't assume anything. Remember, you are supporting your friend, not giving her advice from some superior place.
4: COMMENT: on the things you notice about her process. Reflect the feelings you see that are not being said or consciously recognized. "You seem sad about this," or "You keep mentioning your ex-boyfriend."
5: EMPATHIZE: Don't sympathize. Really try to understand how your friend is feeling.
6: DON'T JUDGE: If you find yourself judging your friend, it's time for you to look inside yourself and ask "Why does that bother me? Why am I judging her?"
7: CONFIRM: the things that your friend is doing well. Reaffirm her worth.
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