The proportion of people with mental illness who access mental health care is very low in sub-Saharan Africa. A major contributing factor is stigma and discrimination towards people with these conditions. Difu Simo is a mental health awareness campaign which is being conducted in Kilifi County along the Kenyan Coast. The campaign is funded by the Wellcome Trust as a collaboration between the Kenya Medical Research Institute|Wellcome Trust Programme, the Documentary Institute of Eastern Africa and the Malindi District Cultural Association.

The campaign slogan “Difu Simo”, is a Kigiryama phrase which means “Breaking free”.  The project involves use of participatory approaches, film and art in the form of music, dance and poems to sensitize the public about mental illness. Difu Simo aims to improve knowledge about mental illnesses, reduce stigma towards people with mental illnesses to encourage them to seek health care and bring the worlds of biomedical treatment and traditional healing in dialogue about a holistic approach to treat and re-integrate people with mental health problems back into the community and live healthy lives.

The awareness activities of the Difu Simo project are conducted in a specified area in Kilifi County called the Kilifi Health and demographic Surveillance System (KHDSS). This area was demarcated by researchers from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) in the year 2000 and it comprises about 280,000 residents of Kilifi County. The area was selected to capture majority of patients admitted to Kilifi County Hospital. More details of the KHDSS Review Unit can be found here.

The project activities are evaluated through measurement  change in key measures of stigma including knowledge, attitude, and behaviour. Research members from the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust also evaluate the changes in proportion of people seeking care at hospitals within and outside the KHDSS. Ethical approval to conduct the research activities was sought from the Scientific Ethical and Review Unit of the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

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Mary Bitta

Project Principal Investigator

Mary is a trained nurse and a mental health researcher currently pursuing her doctorate studies at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry. Her research work is based at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi. It involves developing and evaluating interventions to improve access to quality mental health care in rural areas of Kenya.

Charles Newton

Project co-investigator

Charles is a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, with over 30 years of research experience in mental and neurological conditions in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa. He is also a practising paediatric neurologist and splits his time between the Kilifi County Hospital in Kenya and Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Judy Baariu

Research officer

Judy is a trained nurse working as a research officer for the project. She coordinates the day to day activities of the project and leads the participatory videos activities in the project.

Simone Grassi


Simone is a documentarist filmmaker and founder of the Documentary Institute of Eastern Africa, a non-profit organization possessing a consolidated experience in documentary production and research on cultural and development topics in the East African region.

James Kahindi

Field assistant

James has a background training in media and communications. He coordinates field activities including participant identification and recruitments and liaison with Kilifi County administrative officials.

Onyango Otieno

Mental health advocate

Onyango is a mental health advocate, poet, writer and storyteller. He practises storytelling to help individuals, communities and healing circles to tell their stories as a way to tackle mental health stigma.

Joseph Karisa Mwarandu

Mijikenda rights activist

Joseph is a Giriama lawyer and the Secretary General of the Malindi District Cultural Association (MADCA). As a representative of the Mijikenda Kaya Elders, he has been promoting traditional culture initiatives and advocating for human rights issues during the last two decades.

Emanuel Chengo Munyaya

Mijikenda rights activist

Emanuel is the Chairman of the Malindi District Cultural Association (MADCA). He is also a representative of the indigenous faith (ATR) in Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics representing the Mijikenda and other indigenous faith in the region. He has been leading traditional peace walk campaigns on the Kenyan coast for the past ten years.