“It’s not who you are, it’s what you have” is the powerful motto of The Siwe Project that today marks its global No Shame Day. The aim of this day is to push an understanding that mental illness should not define the identity of those who have it. It’s an important campaign that I’m proud to support. This campaign has chosen storytelling and community building as powerful weapons against stigma.
I’m pleased to play a small role in promoting the work of The Siwe Project as its photographer in Southern Africa. In the Johannesburg network, I support The Siwe Project’s Mimi Selemela who first introduced me to Bassey. I would love to share with you my story of how I came to be involved with The Siwe Project (TSP) . It goes back to the day I met one Bassey Ikpi when she travelled from the US to Johannesburg for a poetry performance.
It’s not everyday that you meet someone and they go from total stranger to someone you care for in one instant. In my line of work I meet so many people but very few of them stand out. 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 booming confidently and elegantly from one clearly used to commanding the stage. It was no surprise then 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 from wanton violence.
When she performed Diallo, her poem about the young man Amadou Diallo pumped with 41 bullets by New York cops, you could hear a pin drop. ‘Where do our screams go’ Bassey asks with palpable pain as the lyrics reach a crescendo of anguish ‘We march to mourn another murder in silence’ Listening to Bassey both on and off the stage, it is clear that she’s 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 suffers from Bipolar II disorder. She gave so much of herself, was generous on stage, smiled broadly for the camera and derived what seemed a palpable joy from life. This reinforces the relevance of the motto of The Siwe Project, and the rallying vision behind No Shame Day, that ”It’s not who you are, it’s what you have” #noshame
This is why it is so important to support No Shame Day objective of encouraging more people to seek treatment without shame. Instead of worrying about stigma, they will realize that mental illness is a disease like any other and that it can be treated. Bassey named the project for Siwe Monsanto, whose suicide on June 29, 2011 jolted Bassey to found this not for profit mental advocacy movement. Bassey is not only a gifted writer, but one of her gifts is her frank and transparent reflections on living with Bipolar II Disorder.
I think those of us that 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 the illness as well as treatment and the forging of 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 founding, and the philosophy of caring transparency that underpins it. 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 today No Shame Day. I salute Bassey’s courage and her effort to reach beyond her own circumstances to create this potent global force against stigma. and also 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.
There is no doubt that in going from poet to create of The Siwe Project, Bassey has simply connected the dots between the activist and the poet with a powerful narrative rooted in social justice and fairness.
In finishing this reflective piece, it’s worth repeating the laudable motto of TSP.
‘It’s not who you are, it’s what you have’