Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Why mental health? An insider’s insights eight years on


t the end of this week, I’ll be finishing up my time working with Tutapona- an organisation that provides mental health support for war affected people. I wanted to take a moment to reflect back on the last 8 years of service with them and share some of what I’ve learnt.  

I first heard about Tutapona’s work in 2010 when my wife, Helen and I were doing a short 5-month project in Uganda, working at Watoto’s Suubi High School.  Some of the students at the school had been abducted by the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) and escaped, and were receiving group therapy from Tutapona’s co-founder Carl Gaede and a couple of Ugandan staff.  Through my relationship with these kids, I got to hear about how critically important this support was for them and it had a profound impact on me.

A few years later I had the privilege of joining Tutapona’s staff. By then the focus had shifted to refugee response work. Helen and I lived in Mbarara in South West Uganda for a year and I spent most of my time in East Africa’s oldest refugee settlement, Nakivale, with Tutapona’s team of mental health workers. Most of the refugees living there had fled from the Eastern DRC or the Rwandan genocide and the depth of suffering that they’d experienced was horrific. Murder, rape and torture. Separated families. Children without parents.

I soon became more aware of the vast scale of the refugee crisis. Nakivale hosted about 100,000 refugees from nearby countries. But in early 2014, Tutapona also launched field offices in two other refugee settlements. One in Rwamwanja to support Congolese refugees and one in the far north in response to an emerging crisis. Civil war had broken out in the newly formed nation of South Sudan and huge numbers of people were fleeing. Over the next three years about a million South Sudanese people (10% of the entire population) crossed Uganda’s northern border. Tutapona opened a new office in the far-north district of Adjumani to support some of these people.

Trauma expert Bessel Van der Kolk states: “Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.... It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” The World Health Organization regards mental health support as one of the most critical development issues of our time. Particularly for displaced people. Yet available services are typically totally overwhelmed.

I believe the old axiom that successful organizations have a laser-like focus. This is certainly true of Tutapona. Mental health is the space in which Tutapona exclusively operates. Services include group and individual therapy, tailored to different age and linguistic groups. And the quality of support is world class. Program participants report an average reduction in trauma symptoms of over 55% and an increase in wellbeing of more than 52%.


I can remember many conversations with people who have attended Tutapona’s programs that bring the above stats to life. 

One lady had escaped from the war in South Sudan and was living in a refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. Her son got in a fight at school and was killed by a boy from another tribe. She said, “After my son died, all I wanted was for the one who killed him to remain in prison for ever and ever. My boy was gone, and I wanted the other family to lose someone too.  When my relatives heard the news, they set fire to the houses of the tribe who had killed him.  But I remembered what I learned from Tutapona – that revenge would only hurt more.  This type of fighting couldn’t go on – no more violence. I asked my parents to take action to call Madi and Lutogo tribes together for a meeting so that we could say “Let not that fighting continue, let them stop fighting”.

A Congolese man in Rwamwanja Refugee Settlement told me that before attending the GROW program, he had largely given up. Didn’t see a point in setting goals or striving for anything much. He was existing, but largely stalled. He said this came out of so much disappointment and struggle in his life. The program had challenged this cycle of thinking, and he’d subsequently made the decision to fix his leaking thatch roof and to plant out the land around his home in crops.

Most memorably, I can remember attending GROW (an adult group therapy program) in Northern Uganda. On the last day an older woman got up to speak. She said, without much emotion, that a few days earlier she had been making plans to hang herself. Her problems were ‘too much’. But she testified that participating in Tutapona’s program had given her a new perspective and her troubles no longer overwhelmed her. She also said that the message of forgiveness had an effect on her. After forgiving some people who had hurt her, she felt freedom for the first time in many years.

I’ve seen that good quality mental health support has the ability to awaken motivation. It can improve relationships, support better sleep, reduce alcohol abuse and dependency and curb violence. It can also bring hope to people with suicidal thoughts.

Each year Tutapona’s local, trained mental health workers support about 5,000 people across Uganda and Iraq. The total number of people supported has now ticked well past 50,000. A remarkable number none of us could ever have imagined all those years ago when we first began. It’s also been encouraging seeing Tutapona become the leading mental health actor in the Ugandan refugee response, with another significant footprint in Iraq. Active partnerships include Save the Children, Medical Teams International and War Child Holland with previous projects run in conjunction with Lutheran World Federation, Food for the Hungry, Alight and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


As I step out of this work, I plan to continue to advocate for the mental health needs of war affected people in general, and Tutapona’s work in particular. I look forward to seeing how God continues to use this incredible organization to bring healing and hope to many people who have experienced the horror of war.

On Monday, I start a new job with Tearfund and Compassion in New Zealand as their International Programmes Director. I look forward to getting stuck in to this new project! But as I finish up I want to say thank you to all of Tutapona’s supporters. I hope this serves as an encouragement to continue to support this important work. To Carl and Julie and Tutapona’s wonderful teams in the US, Canada, Iraq and Uganda thank you for your service to war affected people.

Afoyo matek! 
Tim Manson


Monday, January 31, 2022

Five reflections after 10 years at Tearfund/Compassion

This month marks a significant milestone for me. Therefore I want to take a brief moment to slow down and celebrate what God has done. It continues to be one of the greatest privileges of my life to serves as the Creative and Communications Lead at Tearfund/Compassion New Zealand and I stand in awe and amazement that I get to do this.  

Work wise, this has been the place where I’ve grown up… I moved into this “house” a decade ago when I was 27, explored my creative gifts here, was eventually given a voice at the management table and encouraged to step up and lead in new ways here. But first let’s take a brief moment to talk about Day 1 on the job because it really does deserve a mention.

My first day at Tearfund/Compassion was in Kolkuta, India visiting a small fraction of the 2 million children in our sponsorship projects. Later that afternoon I headed to a florist in the middle of the city. I was told on arrival to ask to use the florist’s phone and to call a certain number. Then, two men would escort me to a secret location down the street so that I could learn more about Tearfund’s partners work in the city to fight sex trafficking. Seemed legit. #bestmeetingever.

That night my boss had a family emergency and had to race back to New Zealand. Before she left she looked me up and down and asked if I would be willing to go into Bangladesh in the coming days to capture some stories and images for Tearfund’ s next campaign. The next day I found myself on a flight to Dakar where I landed into a country that was mid coup and swarming with UN peacekeeping troops before being driven 8 hours into the depths of the jungle. Health and Safety/ Security Measures were a wee bit lax at Tearfund in those days.  In Bangladesh I showered with a cup and a bucket, slept in a house with no door and was the only white person most of our 30,000 beneficiaries had ever seen.

Since then I’ve had almost every immunization on the planet for every possible tropical disease. I’ve travelled to countless countries photographing, interviewing and helping write up campaigns and appeals for the people that will benefit.

A few of my most memorable moments on the job:

  •         Hosting TV3 for the one-year anniversary of the Rohingya Crisis in Bangladesh. With over 1 million people living within 10 square kilometres, it was incredible to see them bring this story live to New Zealand TV screens and raise hundreds of thousands.
  •          Entering into Mosul on the border of Syria and Iraq with one of Tearfund’s partners and being told to stay within 200 metres of the vehicle at all times and carry a chemical gas weapons mask with me.
  •          Being tracked and chased out of Sri Lanka’s war torn North by the local FBI and having to send our photos and videos back – by post.
  •          Flying into Vanuatu three days after Cyclone Pam decimated the island for the Integral Alliance whilst 9 weeks pregnant.
  •         Spending 6 years of my time at Tearfund living and working out of Uganda.
  •          Watching in amazement the work of Compassion to stop child slaves working on Lake Volta in Ghana.
  •          Collaborating with New Zealand’s largest NGO’s on a national campaign called Live Below the Line that brought in just over a million dollars for our work to end modern slavery.
  •         Helping launch New Zealand’s first Ethical Fashion Guide
  •          And most recently, leading and working alongside the most incredible Creative team of passionate, crazy talented people on countless campaigns, appeals and disasters to bring desperately needed help to those that need it most.

Over the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve been genuinely scared for my life, cried buckets of tears with the people I’ve interviewed, and thanked God every time for the privilege.

There’s a quote that reads;
“Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, suffering, and injustice when He could do something about it. But, I’m afraid he’d ask me the same question.”
I think about this quote all the time.

What has kept me doing this kind of work is primarily my faith in a God that asks us to be his hands and feet on the earth. A God that cares deeply for this heaving mess of humanity.
I’ve never taken one photo, story or campaign for granted and I am prayerful as I try my hardest to preserve dignity whilst showing tremendous human need. It is one of the greatest joys of my life to offer my humble skills and watch him bring to living colour the things He holds close to his heart.

In a world full of plastic and throw away’s, in a world full of “If it doesn’t work for me, I’m out”, I find there’s something really beautiful about longevity. About sticking it out. Investing one’s life in a cause. Pouring out your life for something, for someone.

I feel like there’s a rocket on the inside of me and it burns fierce. I am deeply passionate about this work. Ann Voskamp says “Compassion isn’t merely a vague sense – but a feeling so strong it causes you to bend. It shapes your body, your whole life, into a response”. There’s nothing I would rather do. I am humbled beyond belief to be entrusted to do it.

This is what I know after ten years.

  1. Those of us that have a front row seat to the devastation will one day have a front row seat to the restoration. I believe that with all my heart.
  2. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you haven’t. The longer I’m in this work the more I realize just how difficult some people have it.  I stand in awe at what the poor have to carry.
  3. Just because I work for a charity doesn’t make me better than anyone else. Who do you think pays for charities to stay afloat and help people? It’s the bankers, the stockbrokers, the teachers, the doctors, the truck drivers and retail staff. Solving big global issues takes all of us.
  4. God sustains this work. Not me, not my team. God.
  5. I’ve never seen a situation where there was no hope. Truly, I tell you. In every country I’ve ever been to and with every story I’ve ever heard, there is always something to be hopeful for.

Under the Tearfund roof I’ve experienced things I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams. And even though I’ve been “grounded by a pandemic” these last two years, perhaps the thing I’m most proud of is the fact that during this season we’ve been building a strong foundational team from the ground up filled with young people that are going to shape this organisation moving forward. We’re growing, sharing the load and, Lord willing, soon we’ll be back out there telling the stories that need to be told.

I can’t promise I’ll work here forever. But I can tell you, no matter how long I’m here or there or everywhere, Tearfund/Compassion will always be home for me.

Onwards and upwards,