My Visit to a Counseling Center in Africa

A year ago I wrote a newsletter as I was winging home from Africa – and here I am again. So many reflections, so many experiences, sights, sounds, emotions.  Where do I begin? And do I share what meant most to me or what might be most relevant to you and your work? I'd like to tell you about Amani Counseling Center in Africa.

This year I went with Michelle Wangler (whom many of you know) and Rita Maynard, a very talented therapist from Portland, Oregon, who trained with us for many years. If you don’t know Michelle, she works at The Couples Institute as both a couples therapist and an assistant in my online training program.

Our mission was to return to Giwa Farms, the IDP (internally displaced persons) refugee camp and help finish a high school being built by World Teacher Aid.

But, first things first. We stopped on the way in Nairobi and visited Amani Counselling Center. I had volunteered to conduct some couples therapy training there.

The afternoon started with extra challenges: I'd flown for 26 hours, and my luggage was stuck in Istanbul and wouldn't arrive for another 24 hours. And of course I knew there would be enormous cultural differences.

John, the Kenyan therapist who had arranged my visit, arrived at our hotel wearing a freshly ironed suit and there I was in borrowed shoes barely generating a presentable outfit. The materials I was donating to their center and planning to use in the training were also still in Turkey. So the only sane thing to do in a situation like that is to call on my best available resources and wing it.

I started teaching and was soon challenged by one of their staff who explained that African men were much tougher than what I was demonstrating in my role play or than what many American therapists encounter.

So with some trepidation I asked him to role-play a really, really tough guy. He created a stubborn hard-working unemotional man in a bi-racial, multi cultural marriage with a wife who wanted him to become more open and modern. And he was tough!

Using the Initiator-Inquirer, I was able to playfully connect with him and let him express his frustration with his wife. I let him know I heard his pain and fear, while also supporting his wife’s desires. By the end of the role play, the couple had shared raw emotion.  The Amani staff seemed to be especially drawn to the idea that they could facilitate deep, heartfelt interaction by facilitating couples’ connecting directly and emotionally with each other. We worked on their strong, directive leadership skills. Orchestrating and facilitating direct interaction was new to many of them.   I was very touched by their hospitality, the tour of their Center and all the services they provide on limited resources.  But most of all I was touched by the connection and camaraderie we achieved in a short time. Happily we had crossed the cultural divide and shared meaningful time together. They had given to me and I to them.

I hope over time some of you will come to know some of them as we find ways for them to participate in my online training community.  As we parted, they gave me a book published by their center called Help at Hand…Amani, A Pioneering Counselling and Training Model for Kenya and the Region. The back of the book contains many vignettes of clients writing in for advice and their responses.

It artfully covers topics like pornography, domestic violence, stress, worry and cults. In a country full of poverty, political corruption, physical and sexual violence, hundreds of thousands of families forcibly thrown from their homes, and educational constraints at every level, I wondered how they would address the issue of pornography.

Here’s how they responded to one man writing in seeking help.  He had become addicted to pornography and was distressed about “his engine failing” when he tried to have sex with a woman. I’ll close by sharing with you some excerpts from their response to him.

Amani: “Your situation is a difficult one. It is in fact quite complicated, but it is possible to do something about it.

You are suffering from the consequences of the longtime reading and being in contact with pornography…. You have managed to get yourself regularly sexually excited through reading pornographic materials. This has trained you to respond in a particular way. You become aroused…. You seek relief through masturbation. This is a common experience for young men. When it continues for quite some time we gradually become addicted to the pleasure. Now we have to do something to change this pattern of compulsion, of obsession, and a preoccupation with our own selfish pleasure.

The sexual pleasure gives us instant gratification, we feel good for a short time,…and we often  fall asleep. It can be a short-term compensation for other issues we are facing in life: peer pressure, disappointment in our own achievements, failure to have good friends, blocking out shame. The strategy has its own difficulties.
When you encounter real girls, somehow panic settles in and you get scared and find your “engine fails” and you become unaroused. To deal with this problem actually requires you to do some talking about sex to come to understand some aspects of it and to become comfortable with yourself in sexual encounters. You would need to explore the purpose of sexual encounters and understand their place in a growing relationship.

It is not a problem that cannot be solved. This is something that is in you and it can be addressed by looking at the meaning of sex and the role it normally plays in a person’s life. You do not have to suffer this humiliation forever, you can do something about it.  Should you wish to make an appointment at Amani Centre, there are many counselors who could assist you in this process.”

Please share your reaction to their response. What does your reaction suggest to you?

Early the next morning we headed off to Giwa Farms. This is the IDP camp where Pete, Molly and I donated funds and labor to build a classroom a year ago.  Stay tuned and I’ll write to you soon about my experience with the remarkable people there.

I encourage you, too, to share your expertise wherever you are and whatever you are doing.

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Jean Johnson
Jean Johnson

Thanks for sharing. Our views, in Jamaica, West Indies could be fairly similar re. psycheducating the client. Viewing or reading pornography can actually stunt relationship building with another human being. Also, sexting which is new here could also hinder this human connection. I have met persons who have been addicted to pornography and feel overwhelmed with guilt when they watch this.


“Now we have to do something to change this pattern of compulsion, of obsession, and a preoccupation with our own selfish pleasure.” This may be true for cases of addiction, where the frequency of “porn use” is so high that it impacts real, flesh-and-blood relationships, and may be an appropriate thing to say. At the same time, it strikes me as judgmental. I was just reading this week’s Savage Love, and Dan comments that “all men look at porn” (well, not all men, he clarified, but most). The sex-positive approach may work better for some people – embrace the fact that we masturbate and look at porn, share it with our partners if they are interested, and look at its impact on our sex life without a judgmental lens. The counselor above *did* do that, admittedly, when he encouraged the client to consider the programming effects of porn, and I wonder if he believes that our lives have room in them for porn. Maybe I’m reading into it too much. 🙂


Jason-Thanks for your comments and for putting yourself out. In this case the client who wrote in was highly distressed because he could not maintain an erection with women-only with porn. There probably is a better use of words than selfish.
I did however like the way the Counselling Centre made help seem so accessible and possible-and not shameful to get.


Hi Ellyn,
I love your sharing your teaching experience in Africa. And how interesting it is that in spite of tremendous cultural differences, you were able to reach out to them in that role playing. Besides your wisdom and talent, I think, it also demonstrates the effectiveness of the I-I when used appropriately and skillfully.
It seems that deep down, we have the same core problems regardless of the cultural context. We all need to be loved, to be respected, to be in meaningful human relationships. The cultural differences enter the scene when it comes to managing our wants and wishes, and coping with our frustrations and vulnerabilities.
In response to the excerpt: What struck me out is its supportive tone. Amani normalizes the experience of the man by saying that it is common. To this end, they use the you and we pronouns interchangeably. They also provide some easy to understand information from a cognitive behavioristic perspective. If I were in the man’s shoes, I would be motivated to seek therapeutic help from there.
Thanks for sharing your experience. I also love the idea that whereever we are, we can contribute to the people around us by sharing our expertise.

Carrie Miles
Carrie Miles

I am the director of a ministry that works on marriage and family issues in Africa and Haiti but am based in California. How can I get a copy of “Help at Hand”? Our Bible-based material teaching gender “balance” (as the Africans would say) and relationships based on self-giving rather than self-interest is being increasingly used by groups combating gender-based violence. It would be good to connect with Amani, and you as well.


Carrie-Yes it would be good to connect and see your literature. You can connect with Amani at.


It was exciting for me to read your words. I have spent this summer as well counseling in Kenya! It was my third trip, however, I am specifically called to reach out to the struggling, abused Massai girl, who often has to fight and risk her life to avoid female circumcision and early marriage and stay in school. (You can read my thesis based on my 2007 trip by googling “Using Art Therapy to Empower Young Kenyan Girls”). She often finds herself with little hope or chance of escaping a life full of abuse and no personal rights, one that doesnt allow her to look a male in the eye or be in her house if her father is present; one that will end up living in a miniature mudhut married off by age of 10 by her father for the dowry to a 40 year old man with 10 other wives he also abuses. But I ran into similar conflicts you had also mentioned–political and spiritual oppression, poverty, physcial and sexual abuse, family members thrown from their homes, etc.
God has placed a burden on my heart to create my own rescue shelter/boarding school in Kitengala, Kenya, and offer endless counseling to the desperate children. If you know of anyone who could help me out in any way, can you please contact me?
Thanks so much!

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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