Transforming toughness

Ben and Dahlia, Shamiri Fellows, share the experiences as they work with male adolescents to address mental health challenges.
Ben and Dahlia share the experiences of Shamiri Fellows as they work with male adolescents to address mental health challenges. They highlight the cultural stigma surrounding male vulnerability, the effectiveness of Shamiri’s near-peer model, and the Institute’s shift towards increasing its focus on boys’ schools. Despite traditional expectations of stoicism, Shamiri’s programs are helping boys open about their emotions and mental health, demonstrating the model’s impact on over fifty thousand boys in Kenya.

John Jenga*  started feeling the weight of the world when he was only 13 years old. John grew up in a bustling slum in Nairobi, Kenya. His days were filled with school, chores, and the unspoken expectation that he had to be tough. It wasn’t until his third year of high school that he realized that this pressure to suppress his emotions was taking a toll on his mental health and wellbeing. His answer: stoicism. Enduring what life threw at him without a display of feelings or complaint. After all, wasn’t he becoming a man?

Ben and Dahlia share the experiences of Shamiri Fellows as they work with male adolescents to address mental health challenges.

“I went through the exact same thing,” Ben Kazi, a Shamiri Fellow says with a touch of sadness in his voice. Ben has been with Shamiri Institute for two years now. His journey has seen him deliver the Shamiri program in all kinds of schools: boys’, girls’, and mixed-day high schools. He feels a strong connection, especially when he works in the boys’ schools, as it reminds him of his own high school days.  

“As a guy,” Ben says, “I was brought up in a society where I was expected to ‘man up’. Everything around me, including the content that I consumed, was telling me that I had to be tough.  Obviously, that shaped how I saw myself.” Ben recalls going through a mental breakdown alone in high school, not because he lacked support, but because he felt he had to handle it by himself. “That’s what a man should do.”  He also knew that talking to his peers about his struggles would lead to teasing. “You can’t tell your friends about your struggles,” he says, “they will laugh at you.”

Vulnerability is often seen as weakness by men across many cultures around the world and in Sub Saharan Africa where we work. This reluctance to open up contributes to declining mental health, a reality mirrored in Ben’s experience and many others transitioning to adulthood. The pressure to succeed, coupled with societal expectations, creates a silent crisis that affects young men’s mental health and wellbeing.

This year, we at Shamiri Institute have expanded our work with boys with the aim of more intentionally supporting adolescent boys' mental health through a near-peer tiered caregiving approach.

Historically, Shamiri has primarily worked in all-girls secondary schools. Before 2024, nearly 60% of the youths that we served were girls.  This year, we sought to intentionally increase the number of boys that we work with. In Term 1 of 2024 (January through April), we doubled the number of boys-only schools to 30% of the schools that we worked with, nearly doubling from 15% in 2023. Some 55% of the near 30,000 youths we served in 2024 Term 1 were adolescent boys.

According to Veronica Ngatia, Shamiri’s Director of Service Delivery, Shamiri’s historic success working with girls and girls’ school was due to existing evidence that Shamiri’s interventions (which teach concepts like growth mindset and gratitude) work better for girls than boys. Dahlia Kati, a two-time Shamiri Fellow and now a practicing psychologist, agrees. She notes that Shamiri’s protocols might be more “tailored to emotional responses, which girls excel at naturally.”

In Shamiri’s protocol, growth mindset teaches the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that our brain is malleable, and practice makes perfect.

Reflecting on her experiences as a Fellow, Dahlia sees differences in how boys and girls take part in Shamiri programming.  “With boys,” she says, “it seems that quantity trumps quality.” Boys prefer attending in large numbers, possibly to avoid stigmatization, while for girls, attending sessions is beneficial regardless of the number of peers present. “My best sessions in the girls’ schools were the Growth Mindset ones—session I and II—because they require reflections, and girls are able to reflect really well.” Dahlia says.  

However, boys exhibit a kind of stoicism, they seem to struggle with sharing. “They can’t help it. It seems to be who they have been socialized to be, just like girls are socialized to be more in touch with their emotions,” Dahlia adds with a hint of frustration. “You just have to find a way around it if you want to help them.”

In Shamiri’s protocol, growth mindset is taught in two sessions. The first session covers the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that our brain is malleable, and practice makes perfect. The second teaches students how to apply growth mindset as a problem-solving strategy.

In trying to get through to the male students in her groups, Dahlia found a method that worked. “Each Shamiri Fellow has to find what works for them,” she says. For her it was getting boys to talk about their future. During the section of the Shamiri protocol where they talked about values and making value-aligned decisions, Dahlia found that prompting boys to think about future-oriented action led the boys to start sharing; genuine responses emerged, revealing the pressures of growing up and taking on responsibilities.

Ben, whom we met earlier, has his own approach. “Personally, I usually try to be related and teach the Intervention at their level,” he says about working with male students, “they open up from the start.” He agrees that while male students are not as emotionally responsive, he doesn’t find this challenging.  Perhaps it helps that he is male. “As a guy,” he says, “I find it easier to identify which non-verbal signs to look for, how to read their body language and the group interactions to spot challenges that they may be going through and to open up the conversation.” He pauses. “It also helps that I’ve struggled with my mental health,” he adds, his voice shaky, “because it makes it easier for me to identify signs.” The power of lived experience.

As a male Fellow, Ben reflects on the pressure that leading groups exerts. Ben must be vulnerable; he must share his personal experiences to build trust. “The key is realizing that young boys are going through what we also went through at their age,” he says.  “Being a Shamiri Fellow allows me an opportunity to role model for the young boys what being a man can also look like. This has also helped improved my own mental health.” Ben says that he practices elements of the Shamiri intervention in his daily life and recommends it as a valuable resource. His favorite sections are problem solving and practicing gratitude. “The Shamiri Fellowship has exposed me to so many experiences. Coupled with my desire to improve my mental health, it has helped me shift my mentality to help others.”

As we continue our work in Term 2 of 2024, we are thrilled about the many ways the Shamiri model is helping male adolescents connect with their emotions and mental health. We are eager to explore the possibility of developing more targeted interventions for boys in the future. In the meantime, we are proud of the impact our model has had on over fifty thousand boys in Kenya.


*Names changed for privacy

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