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Offering a virtual shoulder to lean on during turbulent times

Saturday June 12 2021
Happy pic

Happy Sanga gesticulates to stress a point during the interview. PHOTO | MICHAEL MATEMANGA

By Lilian Ndilwa

A rarely discussed topic, mental health, is fundamental to physical health and quality of life.

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.

Worldwide, more than 450 million people suffer from mental disorders. World Health Organisation (WHO) had projected that, by 2020, depression would constitute the second largest disease burden. Studies show that the global burden of mental health will be well beyond the treatment capacities of developed and developing countries.

It’s for this reason that Happy Sanga, a 23-year old University of Dar es Salaam student, decided to study Psychology, so as to make her contribution in promoting mental health. She has developed an App that will contribute in preventing and treating mental illness.

Happy came up with the App, namely My Rafiki because she understands there are people who experience mental health problems but don’t know where to go for help.

“We have witnessed people commit suicide because they were going through difficult times. This happens because they don’t share their problems with others. They don’t seek help.”

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Happy gives examples of a recent incident where a 22-year old university student in Iringa, was hanged dead by her boyfriend - and another case of a woman who killed her three children after her husband abandoned her. Such cases, she says, are caused by the lack of systems to help people going through difficulties.

“People have mental health issues but are afraid to share with other people, professional or not. In this digital era, one would rather use his or her phone to take their stress away than talk to people about their troubles. Applications like My Rafiki will help make people feel free and comfortable to open up.”

During her early education years, Happy, whose dream was to work in the medicine field had no idea she would one day come up with the invention. To achieve her medicine goal, she majored in science subjects in high school and performed well in her final exams, qualifying for a medicine course enrolment in university.

“I enrolled for a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery course. It was not difficult getting admission into that university (name withheld) because I had good grades. However, I started facing difficulties paying tuition fees, which was about Sh6.7 million per year, accommodation excluded,” Happy says.

Towards the end of her first year, Happy was forced to terminate her studies because according to the rules of that university, she needed to have paid her tuition fees in full so as to sit for the exams. She hadn’t.

“While at home, I spent about eight months pondering on the type of course to study once I resumed studies at another university. At the same time, I started involving myself in entrepreneurship, whereby I sold shoes and clothes to my fellow church members and people in my neighborhood,” Happy shares.

The period that Happy stayed at home was not only difficult for her but her mother too. Happy’s mother went through depression due to multiple family issues, including Happy’s termination of studies. Her mother suffered in silence as she did not want to share her problems with anyone.

With much effort, Happy managed to convince her mother to be open after she repeatedly showed her the importance of addressing problems when they happen instead of bottling them up. It is during this time that Happy decided she would study psychology at university, so she could help others going through the same.

In 2018, Happy applied for re-entry in university and chose to study at the University of Dar es Salaam.

“I started thinking how I could explore technical entrepreneurship, whereas I linked my education and experiences including the one with my mother and my entrepreneurship journey. I decided to develop two applications: Sava and My Rafiki.”

Sava means ‘The Sun’. With fellow developers, Happy named the App after the sun because their aim is to spread the Swahili language to the rest of the world, just like the sun shines across the world.

The Sava app, which is still under construction, will contain audio versions of Swahili books as well as translated books from English, which will be in the Swahili language.

On the other hand - My Rafiki which means ‘my friend’ in Swahinglish - was called that way because it is believed people can rely on their friends in times of need.

This app, which is also still in the making will involve psychologists and counselors, to serve as friends, with whom clients will be free to share their troubles and worries. They will in turn receive advice from their ‘friends’ (the counselors).

Happy came up with this application believing it will help people who find it hard to share their problems with just anyone.

My Rafiki application will act as an online therapist, where people with mental or psychological issues and people who need a place to vent and get reasonable advice on different issues can connect with experts in psychology and counseling through the application.

“We are raised in a society where speaking up feels like a weakness, and with applications like ‘My Rafiki App’, this narrative will change! People will be receiving advice on mental welfare from experts they have never met physically,” says Happy.

Proud of her innovations, Happy says that Sava application where books will be read and translated in Swahili, will help spread the language even more. On the other hand, she explains that My Rafiki application will redefine mental health in Tanzania because of the engagement and openness it will bring among users of the application.

She says Sava is in its final stages of construction. It is 90 percent complete and will be released before end of June.

“On Sava, the website is in the final touches as well as the application prototype whereas we have two versions, iOS and Android. We expect to register first time users of the application through the website because we are eager to see the feedback.”

My Rafiki is about 65 percent complete. The application developers are now working on establishment of the application website and prototype. The app is expected to be launched in September this year.

Happy says both the psychologists for My Rafiki App and authors of the books whose audio versions will be uploaded on Sava will be paid through the time-based subscriptions paid by the applications’ users.

Happy is excited about the journey in creating these applications. She believes that, through them, she will be able to practise entrepreneurship, technology and psychology at once.