LIFE VALUED CITIZENS
Why good mental health is priceless
Carole Ngono slides a laminated sheet across her desk. ‘How do you FEEL today?’ it reads — the question posed above 56 cartoon faces expressing emotions in alphabetical order from Afraid to Withdrawn via Blissful and Rejected.
The chart is a tool she designed for Valued Citizens, the organisation she founded to instil the values of the Constitution in people to make them responsible, caring.
The organisation made the news in 2017 when former higher education deputy minister Mduduzi Manana was sentenced to serve 500 hours of community service with Valued Citizens.
He was found guilty on three counts of assault with intent to do grievous bodily harm after assaulting three women at a nightclub in Johannesburg.
Manana is now going to schools with Valued Citizens and telling children not to follow in his footsteps.
His sentence — of one year’s imprisonment or a R100,000 fine coupled with community service — stirred controversy last November, with many commentators fearing his promise to reform was just a tactic to avoid prison.
We only work with people who are keen to take responsibility for what has happened in their lives and who say ‘I have a challenge, I need to work on myself, would you help?’.
Ngono defends the magistrate’s decision. Prison for a case like this isn’t worth it because it wouldn’t change anything, she says.
"We need to look at changing behaviours, so it’s better to make people aware of themselves. It’s essential to take responsibility for what’s happened and be ready to work on yourself. That’s tough, but if you are ready for it you are already on the path to shift."
Valued Ctitizens’s main prison programme is called Diversion and aims to divert offenders away from crime and back into the community. Probation officers at courts in Randburg, Midrand, Alexandra and Johannesburg assess offenders and decide if they should go for sentencing or be given diversion training for a second chance. If they complete the programme successfully, the charges are withdrawn.
It is not easy, Ngono insists. Valued Citizens also assesses the offenders to ensure they are committed to the programme.
"When they are before the courts they are scared so they say whatever they think is right. When they come here they are already more cool and relaxed, so we make sure the person isn’t blaming the rest of the world for what has happened and not feeling at all responsible," she explains.
"We only work with people who are keen to take responsibility for what has happened in their lives and who say ‘I have a challenge, I need to work on myself, would you help?’."
The offices of Valued Citizens in Randburg are covered with Picasso-esque self-portraits drawn by the offenders. They paint with their eyes closed to discover their unconscious image of themselves. This isn’t easy, Ngono says. "Some have problems closing their eyes because they’re in a room with 12 people they don’t trust. Then they look around and begin to laugh, and we tell them to be less judgmental … the more judgmental you are of others the more you judge yourself."
They also draw a timeline of the choices they have made in life to help them understand themselves and explore what triggers their bad behaviour.
"How did you end up having an argument with the policeman or doing bodily harm?" asks Ngono. "Where did that anger come from, why do you punish yourself through that inner voice that tells you you’re not good enough?"
It seems to work. So far, 2,099 adults, youths and children have been diverted from the courts and only nine have reoffended.
Ngono, a French woman who married a South African, is an exuberant character full of entertaining stories and a vibrant laugh. She first came to SA in 1997, travelled the country alone and fell in love with it. She returned and took a job as a French interpreter, often working with government bodies. In 2001, the Gauteng department of education tapped into her background in philosophy and asked her to develop a citizenship programme for schools, funded by corporate donations.
The courses teach school children life skills, leadership, emotional intelligence, accountability and respect for one another. Educators and social workers visit 120 schools every year to train the management teams, teachers, parents and social workers.
Sometimes the teachers realise they’re not monsters, yet they spend their days shouting. They want to learn how to control their emotions. One teacher told Ngono he never had time to grieve when his mother died because he was expected to pull up his socks and carry on.
"We need to take care of our teachers because they are in high trauma," she says. When colleagues start paying attention to how you feel, morale picks up enormously. "You feel heard, cared for, listened to and supported. The big part of Valued Citizens is feeling valued," Ngono says.
The organisation’s seven social workers help people work through traumatic incidents of the past that still inhibit their future. "Understanding what has happened and taking ownership of your life story is important — as ugly and painful as it can be. We are committed to mending broken lives and giving meaning to what’s happened," Ngono says.
The chart of cartoon faces helps people to identify their feelings and begin to address them. In classrooms, a child might point to the confused face because their parents fought that morning, she says.
"From there we can move on to make sure the confused little one, the one in trauma or the one who feels sad can learn not to carry luggage that doesn’t belong to them."
Ngono says her car was hit by six bullets in an attempted hijacking outside a primary school. She later went to the school with some policemen and spoke at the assembly.
"I said ‘I teach you to stand against crime.… I understand you may be scared but if you know anything, please come forward’. Seventeen … [did] and five knew the criminals.
"One girl said her mother had told her to keep quiet but she said ‘Carole has taught us Valued Citizens and if we live our lives in fear of criminals then whatever she taught us means nothing’." Despite the attempted hijackers being named, nobody was arrested. "We need the police to also be working to the values of our Constitution," Ngono says.