East Africa’s Oprah Opens Up About Depression — and Gets Others to Do the Same

Why you should care

Because mental health knows no borders.

When Tanzanian media owner and talk show host Doreen Peter Noni first encountered depression in late 2017, she had no name for it. She just knew that she was angry at the world. She would snap at any small thing and often lock herself away in her room. Her father, a prominent bank manager, had just been arrested for tax fraud and put in jail. He was never convicted of any wrongdoing, but with the head of the family missing, Noni’s world crumbled.

For months, Noni kept her despair to herself. But as a guest speaker at the international think tank Horasis’ annual meeting in Portugal, she stood up and shared the story of her father.

Young people need to know that depression is like flu or malaria — it is curable.

Doreen Peter Noni

“At that point I realized that I can turn this bad into something good,” she says, her eyes lighting up as she recalls the applause that followed her speech. Her golden hoop earrings and red lipstick make her stand out from the afternoon crowd in this Dar es Salaam cafe. Noni doesn’t seem to mind as she orders extra soy milk and passionately continues her story.

Since the trip to Portugal last year, the 30-year-old entrepreneur has come up with a plan to unlock the conversation about mental health in East Africa. Her upcoming TV show, Peter’s Daughter, features young Africans who have battled depression or anxiety while attempting to realize their business idea. Visiting the young entrepreneurs, Noni engages them to share both their visions and their breakdowns, while a medical expert identifies symptoms and provides a solution.

“I want to show how young people are combating their issues. Young people need to know that depression is like flu or malaria — it is curable,” Noni says.

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The last Saturday of every month, Lake FM — a community radio station founded by Noni — organizes public cleanups in Tanzania’s second-largest city, Mwanza, to raise awareness about the importance of hygiene and sanitation.

The conversation is largely absent in many African countries due to the stigma attached to those living with mental illness, local beliefs that mental disorders cannot be treated and the myth that depression is a Western phenomenon. Still, the World Health Organization estimated that 29 million Africans were living with depression in 2015, and as the continent’s population grows so does the pressure on young people who are struggling to earn a living. The increased competition for jobs will likely lead to psychological problems among those young people who fall short of realizing their ambitions, African scholars argue in The Lancet.

Noni’s own research shows that poverty is a main cause of depression and that social media can trigger anxiety. While Peter’s Daughter does not aim to tackle severe depression or psychosis, Noni hopes to reduce the stigma around common mental health issues like milder depression and anxiety. “I will break the stigma by getting prominent Africans to open up,” she says about her show, which is scheduled to start shooting next month and will target millions of East Africans via local cable TV. 

Indeed, there is “so much to do” to tackle the crisis of mild to moderate mental disorders in the region, says clinical psychologist Ruth Verhey. She works with the Zimbabwean initiative Friendship Bench, which trains laypeople — often grandmothers — to provide problem-solving therapy to members of their community in lieu of a professional therapist. To prevent mental illness, a closer human connection is key, she argues, while awareness through the media could motivate people to seek treatment. “People need to be empowered to be more self-caring,” she says.

Hosting the TV show Tena Na Tena, Noni has already prompted influential East Africans to share their hardships. The show, which has aired for two months, is watched by more than 350,000 people, making it an up-and-coming show in Tanzania (the most popular show on her network reaches 1.1 million). Tena Na Tena takes place in Noni’s car as she drives through neighborhoods of East African cities, conversing with a well-known artist, entrepreneur or politician. Although inspired by James Corden’s hit concept “Carpool Karaoke,” the show’s serious tone makes it unique and relevant to East Africans, Noni argues.

Tena Na Tena, meaning “Again and Again,” refers to young entrepreneurs’ endless attempts at breaking through. The same tireless attitude also holds true for Noni, who went into fashion design before setting her mind on the media and founding the radio station Lake FM in 2016. Acting as a voice for the communities by Lake Victoria, the station invites experts to advise listeners on everyday topics like sanitation or résumé writing; it also organizes public cleanups and conducts free concerts.

“Whatever she is doing, she spends sleepless nights working on it,” her father, Peter Noni, says. “She is very self-driven.”

He describes her aspirations as rooted in her upbringing in a family of entrepreneurs as well as her elite education. Born in the Tanzanian commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, as the youngest daughter of two entrepreneurs, Doreen Noni grew up with a close family bond and without hardship. She went on to study multimedia at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K., and — inspired by a meeting with the pioneer behind the U.K.’s first radio station for the Black community, Neil Kenlock — she decided to use media to empower young Africans.

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Lake FM regularly hosts free events like this WASH awareness concert in Mwanza.

But when her father was imprisoned, Noni put her dreams aside. Instead of managing her newly opened radio station, she went to visit her father in jail every day. “The situation I was in also took a toll on her,” says her father, who was recently released.

When Noni began to share her feelings with other young entrepreneurs, she realized they were signs of depression. By speaking to her sister-in-law and joining a prayer group, Noni slowly regained her balance and went back to work. Although she still struggles to get out of bed on some days, her goal is crystal-clear.

“My future is as a media mogul and philanthropist,” she says, and smiles. “I call myself the Oprah of Africa.”

OZY’s 5 Questions With Doreen Peter Noni

  • What is your favorite book? Who Moved My Cheese?, by Spencer Johnson.
  • What is your favorite TV show? My own show, Tena Na Tena.
  • Who are your heroes? My parents.
  • What is one thing you can’t live without? I can’t live without laughter.
  • What is one item on your bucket list? To own a state-of-the-art TV and film production studio in Africa.

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