Angela Coker’s time conducting research in Botswana has not only taught her about counseling practices in the country, it has also reinforced the importance of increasing cultural competence among American counselors.
Coker, a licensed professional counselor and associate professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is currently in the midst of an eight-month trip to Gaborone, Botswana to collect data for her research study, entitled “Counseling Across Cultures.” The study focuses on how culture impacts the practice of counseling in southern Africa. In addition, she had the opportunity to serve as a sabbaticant/visiting scholar at the University of Botswana (UB).
In July 2011, Coker, a member of the American Counseling Association, was selected as one of 15 scholars to travel across Brazil through the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program.
While in Gaborone this year, she co-taught two counseling courses at UB, conducted a program evaluation of the Counselling and Human Services program at UB and attended the U.S. Exploratory Mission to Botswana.
“I also presented at professional conferences, conducted professional development training for UNICEF workers in Gaborone, interacted with community organizers committed to ending gender-based violence, visited rural primary and secondary schools, attended conferences and workshops, and networked with a host of international scholars who were either working or conducting research in Botswana,” Coker says. “I also learned how to cook some traditional foods, became fairly well versed in [the] Setswana language and learned how to do African quilting from a talented Motswana woman. I took every opportunity to be a student of the culture.”
Coker says she has always had an interest in Africa. “Its people, culture and history. I was interested in travelling to Botswana because it is a nation of a population of just over 2 million people with rich cultural traditions.”
Botswana is also a country that has made great strides in developing its counseling services, according to Coker.
“Currently, the University of Botswana offers a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. in counseling,” she says. “I thought travelling to Botswana would be a great opportunity for me to learn more about its culture, counseling needs and services, in addition to its overall higher education structure.”
There are three levels of practicing counselors in Botswana. The first level entails “paraprofessionals” or “guidance teachers,” who hold a bachelor’s degree or a diploma in counseling and serve as teachers, while also acting as guidance counselors. The next level of counseling professionals are those who hold a master’s degree and work in private practice, teach counseling courses or work in administrative positions in the Ministry of Education and Skills Development or at the university level. The last level consists of counselors who hold a Ph.D. in counseling, who primarily teach in higher education. Currently, there are no licensure requirements for counselors in Botswana.
At first, Coker says she had some difficulty getting locals to participate in her study.
“I have found that it is important to build relationships with individuals before they agree to answer any research questions,” she says. “This was especially true for me, since I was an American coming into the country. Most folks looked circumspect at me, wondering why was I there and what did I really want to do with their responses to my interview questions.”
However, Coker was able to get a number of diverse Botswana counselors to participate.
“I believe it is important for counselors to be respectful and understanding of the cultural nuances that may surround their data collection process and methodology,” Coker says. “Building rapport, respecting cultural concerns and honoring some degree of participant resistance is part of our work as cross-cultural researchers.”
Through her research, Coker says she “found that counseling in Botswana is a growing area, full of progress and opportunities.”
In terms of counseling, Coker discovered that, traditionally, “Batswana,” or the citizens of Botswana, may initially consult with traditional healers as a means of addressing their mental health and emotional needs before they ever venture into a counselor’s office.
“They have also accessed the wisdom [of the] elders in their families and communities whenever they have a life challenge that must be addressed,” Coker continues. “Formalized counseling is still a relatively new phenomenon in Botswana. Most people find it as a bit strange to talk to a total stranger about intimate private or family issues. They tend to consult with spiritual leaders in their churches, they also partake in community activities as a way of reinforcing their collective existence and connection to each other.”
She cites a tradition called a “letsema,” which means harvesting, as an example.
“A ‘letsema’ usually happens early in the morning before the sun gets too hot,” Coker explains. “It is a time when a farmer elicits the help of his or her extended family and community to come and assist with the harvesting of their crops. This activity would be a whole day, if not an entire weekend, depending on the size of the farm. While harvesting the crops, neighbors and family come together, as they are working they sing, share the events of their week and consult with each other. After the work is done, they share food and have a big feast. Such activities reduce an individual’s sense of isolation, increases their support network and adds to their overall mental and psychological wellness. It also serves as a venue for informal counseling.”
But Coker says she has seen areas where formalized counseling has gained acceptance.
“Primarily, we [are seeing] an increased need for counseling in the schools where young people are facing issues such as academic stress, peer pressure, orphan-hood, sexual abuse and parental neglect,” Coker says. “Counselors who work in private practice report seeing issues of relationship issues, anxiety disorders, grief and loss concerns and marital conflict. Most of the clients who frequent private practice counselors are professionals who are highly educated, have traveled abroad, have the economic means to pay for counseling or who have employers that have implemented the equivalent of what we might call an Employee Assistance Program, designed to assist their employees with any counseling needs.”
She has also noted an increase in college counseling in Botswana, “where issues such as career development, academic difficulties, relationship issues and grief and loss have been the focus. Also, another big area is in HIV/AIDS counseling and health education.”
Coker believes that most American counselors are striving to be culturally competent in some way.
“After all,” she says, “it is a journey that requires us to unpack our previous ways of thinking and develop new levels of consciousness. It is fundamental to who we are as counselors, regardless of our specialization.”
She believes counselors can enhance their cultural competence through their daily lives.
“We must be intentional about seeking out new experiences that stretch our existing thinking about human diversity,” Coker says. “Too often we allow human differences [such as] race, gender, age [and] ethnicity to be barriers to us getting to know each other. Other ways of enhancing our cultural competency is through our own research/scholarship production, organizational involvement, community outreach, clinical work and supervision.”
She believes multiculturalism is an important focus for counselors because it “acknowledges and makes way for a better contextual understanding of our clients, which encompasses both their cultural history and contemporary daily living. It takes into account, race, gender, social class, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, immigration status, language, physical abilities, etc. Cultural competence is one of many useful tools to help us in the assessment of our client’s lives. Also, because of the emergence of social justice as a action-oriented framework, multicultural counseling allows us to also address institutional barriers that are harmful to our clients.”
Coker’s experiences in Botswana have added to her own cultural understanding of the world.
“It makes me feel more connected to a global community,” she says. “I believe it has increased my global consciousness and identity as a counselor educator. It has definitely enhanced my research and reaffirmed my interest in the internationalization of counseling and trying to understand how we as Western counselors can learn from our colleagues and clients across the globe. Further, being in Botswana for the last six months has also made me understand more clearly my privilege as an American and what benefits come along with that, [for example], access to good education, health care and overall general options in life.”
In terms of her racial identity, Coker says she “felt very comfortable in Botswana. As an African American woman, I was validated in terms of having the privilege of seeing so many people who look like me! The women were of different body sizes, but mostly they were full-figured women who didn’t have hang-ups about the size of their hips, thighs, etc. I really appreciated this — as it was very reaffirming to my personhood. “
Coker has also found that, through her experiences, she is more sensitive to issues relating to acculturation.
“I now know what it is like to be new in a country without family and have to learn how to manage on your own,” Coker explains. “I also learned that in order to really benefit from any cultural immersion experience, you cannot be shy or be an introvert! You must be willing to take advantage of every new opportunity or experience that comes your way. If you don’t, you may miss out on something important. I guess this is part of being intentional in terms of developing a new conceptual lens and understanding new cultures. I definitely recommend that every counselor take advantage of international opportunities as a means of enhancing their research, teaching, supervisory skills, and multicultural awareness and competency development.”
Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com