By Uyapo Majahana

Makhosi Sibanda, a journalist and current PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town is exploring mental health issues among men through the Men’s Conference Podcast. He speaks with Jamlab about journalism work challenges and solutions, as well as experiences that ignited his podcasting journey.

Can you take us back to where it all began?

I cannot pinpoint one specific incident that led me to decide to start this mental health podcast. It has been a culmination of tumultuous experiences and events in my life both from my professional experiences as a journalist and personally as a man.

But very early in my career, Radio Dialogue, a community radio station that was my employer at the time, faced some challenges that necessitated it to close down. I lost a job that had provided a steady income for me. It was a stressful time for me, cushioned only by the fact that I began freelancing around that time and that I soon got an opportunity to further my studies.

Thankfully, in 2019, after I was done with my Masters degree, I got a job at an international NGO that supports grassroots media and works directly with local communities and organisations, aiding them with training, capacity-building and funding among other things. I felt like that was my background, especially coming from a community radio station. That turn of the leaf felt surreal as I embraced doing something that I loved. Financially it was also great and rewarding so I found value and purpose in whatever I was doing at the time, quieting the discomfort and the stresses associated with the unstable income times that were starting to gnaw on my sanity.

Then a few months into that position, just when I was telling myself that my career was moving on smoothly, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and it coincided with the time when I lost my uncle, someone who had been my pillar of strength throughout my career. My mental health was in tatters if you may.

Before we deep-dive into how losing someone so important impacted you, share with us some of your experiences and observations that pertain to freelancers and journalism newbies in relation to their mental health.

I will be honest, it is very hard being a stringer or being in the newsroom as there are so many challenges. For example, being a correspondent, you earn per story and there is no fixed salary date. Getting paid is a meandering process. Finally getting hold of your money is contingent on you submitting an invoice for the stories you have written for that month. And that is also subject to other processes. Say on the last day of every month when other staff members are rushing to withdraw their money from the bank, you are still sending your stories to the editor’s secretary, who will take them to the managing editor, who will send them through to the editor, who finally hands them over the finance department for final verification and approval. By the time you get paid, it’s already mid-month. Mind you, you also have obligations and responsibilities like rentals just like everyone else, and you still need to come to that work that is ultimately giving you that money. That is an emotional and psychological roller-coaster ride that many new colleagues have to endure, sliding through challenges, and barely finding a way to manoeuvre.

Still, on top of all of that stress, you are stressed by the work itself because journalism is a pressure job. You are always thinking of where your next story is going to come from, how best to angle your story, and whether or not it will be spiked, while also keeping track of deadlines. In light of that turmoil, sometimes you get to interview powerful people who have money and it becomes even more challenging to balance between maintaining your ethical standards as a professional journalist and succumbing to the lure of the brown envelope. It is particularly stressful because you also want all these other things in life like furthering your studies or bettering yourself and yet you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

And what themes or topics have you reported on that may have inflicted some kind of mental health/ strain/stress/anxiety/depression?

I mainly cover community stories, deep-rooted community voices about people’s problems and challenges, and try to talk about them to a point where we come up with shared resolutions. These range from youth unemployment and other, stories that I resonate with. I would see myself in those community dialogue meetings, where people are trying to resolve service delivery issues, the same issues that I grapple with myself. When you are a journalist, the tendency is to try to write about the stories that resonate with you and because of that I have always been in love with community discussions and perspectives.

So I have always been interested in community radio and other deliberative spaces that are freeing the community voices within the Zimbabwean context, including other deliberate spaces like WhatsApp groups, Facebook, and podcasts where people are now coming in to fill the gap missed by mainstream media platforms, to talk at length about their problems. Moreover, I am interested in those spaces not only as a journalist but also as a citizen of this country. Somehow, journalism and my experiences as a human being have grounded me in the belief in communal solutions. American problems, for example, are solved by the American people, and so likewise, men’s issues can and should be solved by men themselves, with dialogue being the starting point. We have to talk and explore the possible options within our spheres.

You can find out that someone might be in the know of a solution, but without the awareness that there is someone with a problem that needs that solution, that solution comes to waste. Inversely, someone might be facing a challenge, yet they would not know that there is someone in their vicinity with a solution to their particular problem. I am a firm believer in that communal aspect, although it might be challenging from a Zimbabwean standpoint owing to the nature of the problematic media terrain facing so many hindrances. It remains my hope that one day the community space will be vibrant enough for every community’s needs.

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Now back to your personal experience of losing a close uncle, how did it inspire the birth of the Men’s Health Conference Podcast?

I lost someone who was more than a father figure, more than a friend or a brother or an uncle, someone who was more than a pillar, and whose presence I felt daily. He was an all-rounder in all these different issues, someone who handheld me through the good and bad times in my life regarding my career and even personal life.

When he unexpectedly passed on late in 2019, just as we were heading towards the Covid-19 pandemic, I felt his absence immensely during that lonely lockdown episode and realised the significant role that my uncle played in my life.

Afterward, I had a conversation with myself and wondered how I would face all the problems life had been throwing at me alone, and who would I go to now if other problems cropped up. I found myself with no answer. but then it dawned on me that even though my uncle had died, our conversations still had to be resurrected. It was in that self-conversation that I realised that there are other people like me who do not have an uncle just like me, who need help in navigating through life. I realised a conversation platform was needed to vocalise those problems and also proffer community solutions. I am not saying I am an expert on mental health issues, but I can be the starting point to a conversation that will help countless other men.

For example, we have people who might be struggling with erectile dysfunction but are too ashamed to talk about it and do not even know who to approach in seeking medical or health advice. So I come in, unravel the idea and get the conversation around it ignited and then look for an expert who will dissect the topic exhaustively from a professional perspective.

Have you ever experienced any sort of harassment or violence, whether online or in person as a result of your work?

I have not encountered any form of harassment, but I know of colleagues who have ended up in hot water because of the stories they have written. The general tendency is to accept it as part of the game while frowning upon it because most of the time we would be exercising our watchdog role and sometimes in pursuit of the hidden truth and seeking to unearth hidden things by unscrupulous people in positions of power. As a journalist, you are bound to find yourself in trouble. These are some of the challenges that are often spoken of in hushed tones, or swept under the carpet, exacerbating mental health challenges that are already simmering beneath the masks of enviable bylines, breaking news and cover page stories.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought about many untold stresses across different industries worldwide, and journalism was not spared. Care to share how you were impacted?

The Covid-19 pandemic was tricky because people could not physically get into communal spaces. Even if one had something nagging them in their personal life, they could not meet up in person and share experiences and solutions. Even though financially I was not badly impacted by the pandemic and the lockdowns since my job allowed me to move around, seeing other people in my community and within my circle of friends unable to move around and in financial despair was heart-wrenching. To think that there is nothing you could do about it caused a lot of stress. It was one of those experiences that come along with the nature of the job as journalists, where we do not have the luxury to express our emotions in the course of our work, yet it hits hard afterward, and in most cases alone.

What are your comments on institutional psycho-social support (or lack thereof) on mental health issues especially in the media and arts sector?

Currently, I believe there is a huge crisis sweeping across the media landscape when it comes to psycho-social support. Journalists and other media practitioners suffer alone. Journalism is no longer a well-paying job, but people are still hard-pressed to put in nine-to-five work shifts in the newsroom, for example. It is even worse for those who have to work under difficult bosses who will demand that they report for duty for extended hours despite being aware that they are struggling to make ends meet, instead of allowing them an opportunity to supplement their incomes elsewhere.

Issues of alcoholism and drug abuse are now prevalent among media, creative and arts circles as people are stressed and are resorting to cheap alcohol which is unfortunately hazardous to health, just so they escape from their realities and inner chaos. Despite the bullying in many newsrooms, there is nowhere where the bullied can go. There is limited recourse. No voice represents all these guys in distress. We have a huge problem that needs all critical players to come together to redeem the situation and uproot the underlying factors behind alcoholism and drug abuse – and yes it begins with open dialogue.

If you were to paint the ideals and aspirations of the podcast in a nutshell, what would you say?

We wish to create a deliberate movement that empowers all aspects of men as long as you define or identify yourself as male. We understand there are many identities around being a man, but we say everyone who feels can be represented is part of our movement and they are very much welcome. We also want to pay attention to the boychild and we will curate some of our content around uplifting the often-forgotten boychild. In the future, we plan to have intergenerational community engagement meetings to engage men from all walks of life so that they can solve their problems in the community. We also believe that manhood as an idea is under threat so we want to rebuild the concept’s potency.

All this, we believe, is journalism in action. As such, a movement proffering solutions to other men is already under construction. We already have a network, a WhatsApp group where members share their problems for others to proffer solutions, more like crowdsourcing our ideas in one platform. With time and funds permitting, we are hoping this platform will grow into a robust physical discussion, just like bar talk.

Reporting supported by a micro-grant from Jamlab


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