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Know Your Specialist

Kutlwelo Mariri ready to diffuse special needs children time-bomb

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Without sufficient funding and a more coherent approach, the future of children with special needs is bleak according to Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) and Audiologist and founder of Ambrose Academy, Kutlwelo Mariri.

She was one of the eighteen young leaders from Botswana who flew out to the US recently to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship programme of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Here she discusses her experience and what she has learnt through the programme.

Why did you apply for Mandela Washington Fellowship (MWF) Program 2018?
As a person you need professional and development growth so this was opportunity for me to go and appreciate how far I have contributed with the field of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology in my country, to learn about the business acumen of making services sustainable and to see what’s next. So since I heard how rich the Business and Entrepreneur track was I believed I should apply and I really got more than what I ever bargained for. It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

What does it takes to be Mandela Washington Fellow?
It takes a person who has the willingness to change the status quo as well as to care about improving the lives of people. In a nutshell you should be a visionary. I think for last year there was about 37 000 applications and total selection been 700 in Africa as a whole. We were only 18 from Botswana and I was privileged to be part of the Botswana MWF 2018.

What did it mean for you to be selected?
You know Rachel, God’s timing is always the best and we never understand it. I have been meaning to apply but our organisation was not ready for me to go away for 7 weeks so this time I applied and was selected this was perfect timing for me as well as our organisation. For example from the professional side of things we needed to re -evaluate our journey and reposition ourselves to continue being of value to the patients and to special needs children as well as introducing PREVENTION IS BETTER THAN CURE. One of our major concerns is that many children are delayed in speech and language, in fine and gross motor skills simply because of lack of stimulation if we do not attend to this, the number of special needs kids will continue to rise. So as Ambrose Academy we need to address this issue like yesterday otherwise we are sitting on a time bomb.

Where were you placed?
I was placed in a very intensive programme for 7 weeks in University of Austin, Texas under the programme of leadership headed by Professor John Dogget. From the very first day, he told us his intent was not to make us into himself, rather to make sure we graduate from the programme as people who will go and make a difference in our countries and make Africa what it needs to be. He has deep care for Africa and I feel like I owe it to him to make sure whatever I have learnt I better myself and my people. The course covered main areas of leadership, business, critical thinking, self care and this year’s Mandela Theme of Servant Leadership.

So how do the following areas apply in your profession;
Leadership-As you know the profession of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology is relatively a new profession in our country we still have a long way to go. However what came from the MWF 2018 was that do it in phases, appreciate where you are, where you need to go and keep pivoting until you get at your destiny. Be willing to get advice and be eager to learn so that you keep up with latest trends in your field and NEVER compromising QUALITY.

Also care about humanity and the people you serve as much as acknowledging that some will NEVER be happy with your services no matter how much you try but make peace with that. This really resonated with me very well I always see possibilities with my adult patients and special needs children however one thing that used to hurt me is seeing a parent with buying power not affording their child that opportunity and always complaining about this and that no matter how much I tried.

Business Acumen-Please allow me to generalise in Botswana , there is perception that Health should be FREE even in private sector while its OKAY to pay it in South Africa for example and that has robbed us from having research institutes because research is expensive. In most cases I struggled so much with my patients wanting discount of everything which then makes it impossible to pay monthly expenditure like the rentals and salaries of the personnel. So I heard in all the 7 weeks that passion alone won’t pay bills every day. Prof Doggett made sure we get that. He summarised it like government, private sector even Non Government Organaisations need funds to run. So it doesn’t matter what for, whether for rehabilitation to improve, we need funds to make it first class like in other countries. So sustainability comes in here; if one can’t pay for running cost then they simply face closure.

Self care-Everyone who is in business will attest that as a founder or pioneer of any project you work non-stop with absolutely no time to smell the coffee. This really puts one at risk for cardio vascular diseases and burn out as all they do is work, work and work. However I have learnt to appreciate that one needs to take care of oneself before taking care of other people. All I have been doing is work, work and work. I used to love baking and for the past 7 years I never did it so at least now I have started to learn again, hehehe maybe this festive season I will bake for my family …..
Servant Leadership-I believe as Africans we have the custom for servant leadership it comes natural to us to care about each other even those in the community however we have diluted this if not lost it.

That is why we have concept such as Kgomo ya Mafisa or every child is yours …… Every child is yours really hit me home when my team and I saw the need to establish a trust that can raise awareness about special needs children or teach the public about rehabilitation it was a way of giving back…..there is so much stigma but the question what do we do about it? Do we advocate for these kids or we turn a blind eye we concluded that we needed to advocate so that whether in government, private sector or NGOs our people can be helped. But our many challenges are that there is no volunteerism anymore, we only care once it hits home and by that time there is nothing much you can do because now when you advocate you fear people will say Oh you are only doing it now because you are going through it even though I personally believe it’s never too late to start.

You touched on the general expectation by most people for free medical/specialist services and you raised valid points. But, what of special needs children coming from underprivileged backgrounds? Are we saying they are doomed because their parents can’t afford specialist services at Ambrose Academy for example?

Oh my God Rachel, this is one area that hurts me the most, it’s just that my hands are tied. You know we are very far from assisting these children. I always say if we the literate ones, with buying power and with so much exposure; we don’t see the value of investing in our children ‘s rehabilitation services or prevention is better than cure programmes what is the possibility of having these services extended to those in deep rural areas? Because once we get it then we will extend it to them and fundraise for them? Until then I don’t know what will happen, we need brave people to stand up and help this situation especially policy makers.

Why can’t you at Ambrose Academy for example extend these services to these children especially that I always hear parents particularly those with autistic children talk about the great improvements they notice in the children once they start at school?

Well we have always asked to be subsidised and the answer we get is that it’s not in the government policy. However NORMAL developing children can be sponsored in private institutions and that’s OKAY BUT FOR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS WE would rather give them P300 MONTHLY. I mean if we don’t do anything now can we ever sponsor them in universities while they are not rehabilitated? No ways. I have asked government since it used to sponsor these children in South Africa, why can’t the sponsorship be extended to services like ours? All the international visitors are saying why government is not assisting your efforts? Who is government Rachel? It’s the people working in government. What they do is to find 100 reasons why they can’t sponsor children in our school even though they can see with their own eyes how we have improved the lives of these children.

The only thing to do I guess is to continue advocating for all these children until Policy Makers hear us, and realise that only talking about how we want to improve special needs children lives it will NEVER happen unless we make it possible for them through enabling policies and implementation not just talk.

Share some of outstanding moments of your time in the US
One of the aha!moments I had was during an assignment I had to write my obituary and read it to the audience. It was so intense and very emotional to a point where Prof John kept saying remember guys you are not dead but we couldn’t help crying because it included how you have empowered your family and how your people will remember you by the sacrifice you made for your country. Did you assist your patients and the children in Ambrose Academy simply because it’s the right thing to do or you sabotaged people you were serving? One thing I really wish for my country is for us to create opportunities for others, I normally say if you go to most organisations for assistance the norm in Botswana is that they will tell you 100 things why it can’t work instead of 100 ways to make it work. However in USA they are willing to solve problems for the benefit of others. Imagine if we had that attitude in Botswana.

The whole experience was eye opening and I will like to encourage all young people to apply for it so that they can go and learn from those who are ahead of us. We need to see the possibilities so that our dream for our country becomes even more brighter and we can indeed tell our African stories instead of others telling them for us.

Is there anything we can learn from the healthcare system of the US?
Health is expensive! I think this is the first step we need to appreciate in Botswana, running away from this breaks my heart. Investing in experts, resources and research is costly; do we have health research units? That’s the only way we can improve our health system. We do not need to re-invent the wheel it’s already invented by those who are ahead of us. All we need to do is work towards that. Nowadays when people are hospitalised I hear them saying I know I am going to die, hospitals should save lives not become places of NO HOPE. We need to change that.

What does the future hold for you personally and Ambrose Academy?

The future is exciting MWF2018 has increased my network where I can learn from others and continue to improve myself. I was kind of losing hope with all the efforts that I have tried but now I have been ignited. As Ambrose Academy we will continue to raise the bar and ensure we remain relevant to bring value to Ambrose Academy children, even all other children in this country. We will soldier on and leave no stone unturned until our voice is heard…… GIVE CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS AN OPPORTUNITY THEY ALSO DESERVE TO HAVE A BRIGHT FUTURE THEY ARE NOT DOOMED …..

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Know Your Specialist

Caroline Gartland speaks on Children and Mental Health

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Tell us about yourself and your background
I’m originally from the UK but have been in Botswana for eight years so this is now home! I have a Combined Honours degree in Psychology an MSc in Mental Health and have had a pretty varied career.
I started off working with offenders doing rehabilitation programmes; went on to support the victims of domestic violence then ended up working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for the National Health Service.
I’ve done a lot of work, mainly voluntary, in different fields since being in Botswana but my passion is now Early Childhood Mental Health.

What does your work entail?
Early childhood mental health is mainly working with parents, caregivers and teachers to help them understand how children develop and the best ways to support their mental health and brain development as they grow. It’s about providing training and opportunities for families to bond with their children and introducing new ways of playing and interacting.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
Quite simply, having my own children! My daughter was born five years ago and I was fascinated watching her develop and grow. It occurred to me that the younger you begin to consider mental health and provide tools for resilience against life’s adversities, the better outcomes you are likely to have.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and completed a diploma in Infant Mental Health. I’ve worked down the lifespan but I feel I’m now where I belong, working with babies and young children.

What mental health issues have you observed in children in Botswana?
Mental Health is still stigmatised around the world and Botswana is no exception. Most people immediately think of mental illness, but mental health is about so much more; we all have mental health and some days we are fine and able to deal with life’s challenges and some days we need more support and tools under our belt to help us cope.

Young children can experience mental health problems. Anxiety is a common one, but we are more likely to focus on the behaviour we see rather than how the child is feeling. An anxious child who refuses to go to school may be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’ but what they are expressing is a painful emotion that they need help dealing with.

Describe one thing you find fulfilling and challenging about working in this industry.
Working with children and families is a pleasure and a privilege. To make life a little bit easier for someone is all that matters, you don’t have to be out there saving the world to make a difference.
My major challenge is time. I would love to do more, I’d love to do an MSc in play therapy and a couple of other therapeutic techniques I’ve come across in Europe but that gets put on hold as I focus on my own family and business.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?
I think that education, understanding and connection are the three keys to giving a child the best start in life. Led by that, SensoBaby provides classes in the community for parents and caregivers to connect with their infants.

We offer workshops on parenting and play to foster understanding of child development and wellbeing and we are available to troubleshoot specific problems an individual or agency has with the young children in their care or the systems they have in place. When it comes to individual parents, mostly what they need is to feel heard, supported and guided in their parenting choices.
You can read all the baby books in the world but they won’t give you the answers you need for your child, through responsive parenting and connection, you’ll find you have the solutions you need.

What advice do you have for child-care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behaviour but don’t have access to a consultant?
Empathy is an important and undervalued skill – the ability to consider another’s viewpoint. What is that child feeling? Their behaviour might be challenging and hard to deal with but often the root cause is an unmet need. There’s a famous quote from an American Clinical Psychologist, “The children who need love the most, will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

Does a mother’s mental health affect her foetus? How important would you say is paying attention to women’s well being during pregnancy as with their physical well being?
100% yes. It is so important to support a woman’s wellbeing during pregnancy. As an example, if the mother experiences significant stress and rising levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during pregnancy, the foetus will be affected and in some cases will be more sensitive to stress in childhood or later in life.

Pregnant women and new families (Dads as well!) deserve nurturing care themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support. SensoBaby run FREE monthly coffee mornings to support pregnant and new mothers because we understand the importance of maternal wellbeing.

Do smart phones and television make our children mentally ill as is often purported?
I don’t think technology is always the villain it’s made out to be. The key is in the relationship with that technology. Moderate use of TV’s and smart phones are fine, as long as they aren’t a substitute for outdoor play, imaginative play and meaningful interactions. If a child is crying or upset and we hand them a device to keep them quiet then we have missed an important opportunity for connection, helping them process what is going on and supporting them to calm down and settle themselves.

Now, I know you are involved in an exciting programme that helps caregivers and children to bond and get the children off to the best start in life through play. Can you say a little bit about that work and just how you are seeing it play out?
SensoBaby is our baby; a project born from passion and a desire to support families in Botswana. We offer play-based classes for children and their caregivers that are underpinned by the principles of child wellness as well as early foundations for learning.

When you provide developmentally appropriate opportunities to play, you learn so much about your child. That understanding and observation builds strong connections, which will form the basis of that child’s future relationships and self esteem. Play is so much more than ‘a fun activity.’

We offer a number of trainings and workshops for parents, nannies and community stakeholders and hope to increase our offerings this year. Our community partnerships and voluntary programmes have been successful so far and we hope to see more impact in 2018.

We currently serve the Gaborone community but would like to expand throughout Botswana as opportunities arise. The response to SensoBaby has been fantastic so far and we can’t wait to see how far we can go with the concept!

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Know Your Specialist

Terence Mohammed explains intricacies of clinical trials

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What does a lab manager do?
As BHP laboratory manager, I am responsible for providing an oversight in the technical operations of the laboratory, including the clinical trials processing and testing labs. As part of the laboratory management, I also provide leadership in planning, implementing and completion of research activities and to ensure that laboratory operations and data generated is in accordance with Good Clinical Laboratory Practice. The lab manager is also expected to provide an oversight on the laboratory quality management system and laboratory expenditure.

Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now?
I joined BHP in 2007 as a laboratory research assistant. I worked for two years in various BHP clinical trials for diagnosing and monitoring of HIV/AIDS in clinical trials participants. In 2009, I got transitioned to the BHP research laboratory to work as a research fellow where I got assigned to work on various basic science projects. In 2014, I worked as a research laboratory coordinator where I was mainly involved in day to day routine management of the research laboratory activities including; conduct of research projects, preparation of education activities and mentoring of new research fellows, students and interns. In 2015, I got promoted to the position of deputy laboratory manager where I assisted the lab manager in overseeing the technical operations of the lab. In 2017, I got promoted to the position of lab manager.

What’s a typical day/week at the Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP) for you?
I participate in a lot of weekly meetings; laboratory management and departmental meetings. I am also expected to attend meetings for the various clinical trials which we provide laboratory services to. These include local site meetings and international conference calls with study principal investigators and sponsors. I also review and authorise laboratory orders ensuring continuous operation of laboratory work and within allocated budgets. In addition, I also allocate time to walk around the different laboratory departments on a regular basis in order to interact with staff and learn more about their challenges. This facilitates discussions on how to improve our laboratory operations and working environment.

What are the main health and safety issues for lab technologists?
Exposure to blood, bodily fluids and tissues, which may contain infectious agents and also exposure to ultra-cold materials such as liquid nitrogen and dry ice. However, all necessary laboratory safety trainings are mandatory and staff has access to personal protective equipment including lab coats and gloves which are a requirement for certain tasks.

What aspects of your role do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the daily interaction with researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS, both locally and internationally. It makes me proud to be part of a team that is working towards ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic in our region as it has decimated the population for over two decades now. With our work, I hope Batswana become increasingly cognisant of the task ahead of us and unify to bring an end to the pandemic.

What would you say the biggest challenge in your field is? Discuss one thing in particular?
Supply of laboratory reagents and consumables can be challenging as sometimes we experience supply stock-out and delays in delivery.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
A lab manager should be able to organise and run effective meetings. It is important to set up an effective meeting agenda and be able to assign key action items to staff
-To be able to communicate effectively and create a positive atmosphere in the working environment. It is also important for the lab manager to be able to motivate staff and also be approachable to staff whenever required.
-A lab manager is expected to have leadership skills in order to provide direction to team members and ensure that the institution goals are effectively met.
-To be able to manage budgets and always be alert to ensure that the laboratory current spend does not exceed target spend.

You have done some research on HIV-1c gp120 in recently and chronically infected individuals in Botswana. For starters what is HIV-1c gp120? A brief background on the research and what the findings were?
Gp 120 stands for glycoprotein 120. This is a protein found on the outer surface of HIV and it used by the virus to enter human cells thereby causing infection. Previous research has shown that gp120 characteristics and properties could be susceptible to change overtime during the progression of the disease. Therefore, we used two groups of study participants at various stages of disease progression (i.e. recently and chronically infected) to see if there are changes in structure and properties of gp120 during the course of the disease. This research highlighted the need to further investigate gp120 in order to get information that maybe useful in the development and designing of an effective vaccine

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a research fellow?
I would advise them to read a lot in their field of interest and also be aggressive enough to seek opportunities of attachment to a relevant institution. Furthermore, they should seek to interact with experts in the field in order to keep themselves in the loop should a research fellowship become available.

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