SameSame (SiyaFanaFana): Creating a Virtual Lifeline for LGBTQI+ Youth in Africa

0
405
LGBTQI+ youth (18 to 24) suffer disproportionately from mental health challenges across Africa.

Credit – Anne Stopper/Mozilla Foundation.
WHAT IS SameSame (SiyaFanaFana): SameSame (SiyaFanaFana) is a Mozilla IRL Fund Awardee. We spoke with co-founder Jonathan McKay about using a chatbot to support LGBTQI+ youth across the African continent. LGBTQI+ youth (18 to 24) suffer disproportionately from mental health challenges across Africa. SameSame is building a virtual lifeline for LGBTQI+ youth in Africa in the form of a private, safe, and accessible Chatbot that provides a cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) program through WhatsApp. Founded in South Africa, the program is operating there and in Zimbabwe, with plans to expand to Kenya.

THE ISSUE: Overall, there are more anti-LGBTQI+ laws in Africa than in other parts of the world. Of the 69 countries that criminalize same-sex relations, 33 are in Africa, including four that impose the death penalty. SameSame, launched in South Africa – the only African country where same-sex marriage is legal – but it’s also operating in Zimbabwe and plans to expand to Kenya. In Kenya, same-sex conduct is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and in Zimbabwe it can carry a one-year prison sentence, a fine, or both. Jonathan McKay experienced firsthand the isolation and fear of growing up gay in South Africa in the 1990s, and while he found some support in secretly logging onto chat forums, almost no one he interacted with there was from his local area. McKay co-founded SameSame in 2021 with the goal of providing LGBTQI+ young people instant access to mental health resources tailored to their location. “We want to build what we wished we had when we were growing up,” McKay told National Public Radio-NPR in 2022.

THE APPROACH: Working through WhatsApp, SameSame’s chatbot is private, identity-affirming, and – crucially – locally relevant. People can find information on accessing SameSame through YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Google, and TikTok. The organization also works with youth ambassadors who go out into their communities to spread the word. When people log on to SameSame, they interact with a chatbot that guides them through an 8-session cognitive behavioral therapy course designed to support LGBTQI+ youth, including stress reduction techniques. There are only so many human counselors available; the chatbot allows people seeking help greater access to therapy, and security in anonymity. The engineers behind the program provide country-specific stories and information, and aim to reflect regional attitudes and language. In South Africa, over 1,000 users have started potentially life-changing conversations with SameSame, and 83 percent of users who’ve completed the therapy course have reported improvements in their mental health.
SameSame is one of 12 grantees in Mozilla’s inaugural IRL Fund, its first exploratory Mradi grantmaking mechanism and one that supports innovative projects at the intersection of tech and society. With Mozilla’s funding, SameSame hired its first-ever Product Manager and expanded its team to 4 full-time staff and 2 part-time staff. With the new Product Manager taking the lead on the chatbot development, SameSame’s co-founder is able to spend more time reaching out to other organizations working on digital technologies, LGBTQI+ rights, and mental health, including the team at Queer African Network, the only existing social and professional mobile application built by and for LGBT+ people of African heritage to safely form meaningful connections, access opportunities, fundraise, and find life-saving information. In addition to funding, Mozilla has helped SameSame connect to the LGBTQI+ ecosystem in Kenya (which SameSame couldn’t have done alone), including UHAI, Africa’s first indigenous activist-led and managed fund for and by sex workers and sexual and gender minorities.

WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE? “We will know our work is done when every young person in Africa has the support and guidance they need to reach their potential, no matter who they are, no matter where they are, no matter who they love,” says McKay.
INSPIRATION: “Simon Nkoli, the late LGBTQI+ activist and trailblazer. Simon founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) in 1988. Along with fellow activist (and another one of our heroes), Beverley Palesa Ditsie, he organized the first pride parade in South Africa held in 1990. Nkoli was one of the first gay activists to meet with President Nelson Mandela in 1994 and supported the campaign for the inclusion of protection from discrimination in South Africa’s groundbreaking constitution — the first in the world to protect citizens from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Simon died of AIDS in 1998 at the age of 41. He accomplished so much while he was alive and we are profoundly grateful to him and those who came before us and risked so much for future generations. What really motivates us, day-to-day, are our users.”

USER TESTIMONIALS : “I didn’t know there were toll free numbers that supported LGBTQI+ community. In the community we have many suicidal thoughts and cases; very grateful to know there are numerous numbers one can call for help. I’m grateful for FanaFana .” – King, age 31.
“A first of its kind… I don’t think there has ever been a platform like [this] presented to young people who are queer.. a platform where we can learn, a platform where we can express our feelings, and a platform where we can just come together and feel safe”.” – Siyolise, age 27.
ALSO READ (by Aaron Ainomugisha) – IN-DEPTH: KEY POPULATIONS SEEKING HIV CARE CHOKE ON UGANDA’S ANTI-HOMOSEXUALITY ACT 2023

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here