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February 2010
A course for young psychiatrists in Africa: Abuja, Nigeria, 24-26 October 2009

Jibril Abdulmalik, Lola Kola
(Nigeria), for and on behalf of the participants

Abuja, the serene and beautiful capital city of Nigeria, hosted this course, which was designed by Professor Norman Sartorius, under the auspices of the Association for the Improvement of Mental Health (AIMH), a Geneva-based, not-for-profit organization. This course, co-sponsored by the World Psychiatric Association, took place towards the end of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) regional meeting in Abuja (22- 24 October, 2009) and it was the third of its kind. The first took place in 2006 at Addis Ababa, Ethopia during the annual meeting of the African Association of Psychiatrists and Allied Professions, (AAPAP) and the second was in 2007 during the World Psychiatric Association Regional meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.

Seventeen participants from the countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda were in attendance. Two intending participants from South Africa were unable to attend the meeting due to their inability to obtain entry visas into Nigeria. The Faculty members were Professors Oye Gureje (Nigeria), Soraya Seedat (South Africa), Graham Thornicroft (United Kingdom) and Professor Norman Sartorius (Switzerland) who also served as the director of the course. The course manager was Lola Kola (Nigeria), and she ensured that things went smoothly with minimal hitches.

It commenced in the evening of the 23 October 2009, with introductions and a Guest Lecture on “Child Mental Health in Africa” by Professor Brian Robertson (South Africa). Some participants came in late because of some miscommunication about the venue for the course and also because some participants were making their presentations at the main meeting. The excuse on the venue mix-up, served up the very first lesson of the course: BE PREPARED. During this lesson, it was pointed out to participants that the responsibility of acquainting yourself with venues for talks/conferences/courses ahead of time is solely an individual assignment. The apt analogy to drive home this point was that an international flight for example, will not wait for one passenger because he/she did not find the way to the airport on time.

The sessions lasted an average of 11 hours daily over the next three days, during which the participants were completely immersed in uncharted territories that would not ordinarily find space in routine textbooks of psychiatric practice. Topics included how to: “conduct appropriate introductions, make a presentation, prepare a curriculum vitae, select subjects for research and prepare a proposal for a project”. 

Others included how to: “read a paper, produce a good title, chair and write report of meetings, prepare posters, decide on priorities and prevent burn out”. These topics in themselves were practically very useful but they do not entirely convey the quality of learning that transpired. The Faculty utilized an interactive and hands-on approach to all the topics using practical tools like short exercises and practice sessions to drive the message home. This approach was highly effective as it enhanced participation and also improved our confidence in the newly acquired skills.

The distinguished members of the Faculty made a huge impression on the participants with their humility, approachable mien and their passion to share their knowledge and experience with minnows like us. The greatest benefit of our interactions during this course has been to inspire and motivate us, the young psychiatrists, to work hard and become responsible leaders for the improvement of mental health in our various countries. Crucial to the attainment of this future goal is the need for self development and the acquisition of expertise in various domains, including organizational and management skills. Another important lesson learnt here, was that valuable and beneficial research work does not always require huge financial resources, which is a particularly poignant realization for our resource-poor region.

The challenge to put all that we have learnt into immediate practice commenced during the concluding session where we were invited to participate in international, multi-centre research projects which would be starting shortly after the course.

 In conclusion, how do we measure the success of the course? Have we learnt more professional skills? Have we acquired leadership traits? Have we been motivated to work hard for the improvement of mental health in our region? Have we gained confidence and knowledge of how to bring about these improvements?  Are we willing and eager to share what we have learnt with other colleagues not present? I am happy to answer yes, to all the questions, on behalf of all the participants; thus affirming that it has been a resounding success. We are deeply grateful to Professor Norman Sartorius and the entire Faculty for their time and energies invested in us during this course, and we hope that this mentoring opportunity will be sustained for many more generations to benefit from it.

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