In the first of a three part series, renowned Kenyan psychologist, Dr Gladys Mwiti, discusses the importance of Holistic Balanced Living from an African perspective. 

Woman meditating on the beach at sunset.In recent years, Africans have become busier and busier, multitasking, trying to balance work and relationships and especially family and wondering how to stop and catch a breath! However, there is often no time to stop and life goes on and on in a series of “must-dos” that easily leaves one feeling dizzy. Critical things that really matter in life are sacrificed for transient more demanding and showy achievements. Eventually, for some people, imbalance gives way to stress affecting wholeness and threatening the very goals that one set off to accomplish. How we live in a fast world and yet rejuvenate energy and maintain a steady sense of direction where dreams are fulfilled and visions achieved? The secret is holistic balanced living.

Holistic balanced living calls for wisdom because an imbalanced lifestyle points to foolishness. There are many learned unwise people, complete with university degrees obtained from much intake of knowledge. Africans believe that: Knowledge without wisdom is like water in the sand (Guinean Proverb) that runs off as if it never existed.

Life is made up of interlocked systems – all forming one organism called a “human being.” A human being is not all body or just physical, not all mind or intellect, and not all soul or spirit. To keep fit and perform optimally, life needs balance between all its sub-systems. Investing concern and energy to consistently maintain this balance is what we call holistic living.

How do we achieve balance? It comes in keeping the following key elements aligned:

The Body

The body houses our organs that give us the ability to touch, see, hear, smell, taste, breathe, eat and exercise. What an amazing organ the human body is!

Keeping fit physically calls for the care of the body. This involves maintaining a balanced diet, keeping it clear of toxins often ingested in what we eat, smoke or drink. It involves the practice of moderation so that we do not overeat or ingest too many substances that compromise health. Exercise tones the muscles, enhances breathing and oxygen supply, and ensures healthy blood circulation.

We are what we eat. Each African community has its own traditional foods – most of it organic, herbal and wholesome.

Once, an American doctor who trains the USA Olympic team passed through Nairobi and was interviewed in a local radio station on health matters. He dissuaded Kenyans from adopting a sedentary lifestyle, encouraged exercise and walking instead of riding in vehicles for short distances. Later on, he was asked to comment on diet. “What advice would you give Kenyans on healthy eating? What should we eat? His answer: “Eat Kenyan food.” He went on to say that Kenyan traditional diet is low in sugar, high fibre, mainly organic and balanced.

No wonder obesity is creeping into families that adopt fast and processed food, forgetting that even five-star hotels serve arrowroots, sweet potatoes, irio, sukuma wiki or kale. A recent blog stated: “Australia is fast running out of trendy superfood kale. Hipsters and health food fanatics have led the vegetable’s surge in popularity, eating more than growers can produce.” This is to say that Kenya’s staple, sukuma wiki meaning “push the week,” the poor man’s vegetable, has gotten world attention.

Another July 2014 article states: “Loved by actress-turned-health-guru Gwyneth Paltrow, and becoming more commonly used by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, this member of the cabbage family has become the ingredient du jour.” In UK, last year alone, sales are up by 40% and supermarket giants like Woolworths in Australia compete to stock the vegetable.

So, what’s so great about Kale? Research indicates that Sukuma Wiki (Kale) is full of vitamins and minerals, low in sugars, high in magnesium that is good for blood circulation, high in lutein that makes for healthy muscles, has high levels of calcium plus Vitamins A for vision and skim, C that enhances immunity and K that builds healthy bones. The vegetable is also an antioxidant and packed with iron per gram than a cut of steak. So, Kenyan men complaining of gout after gorging kilos of roast meat and ugali should have enjoyed bowls of kale to go with their ugali!

The point is – for balanced physical health, Africans could check what’s cooking in Grandma’s pot, and our health will flourish. And, by the way, currently in Nairobi, and due to poor rains this year, food prices have doubled. A bunch of Kale is selling at an all-time high of 0.24 dollars or KSh. 20. How much is Kale in Sydney? Woolworths is selling it at an affordable price of $ 3.50 (the equivalent of Sh. 280 in Nairobi!). I am aware that in Nairobi, a kilogram of meat sells for Sh. 500 – 25 times more than a bunch of Kale. I am sure that we have made the argument – eat traditional, exercise, walk as much as you can, ensure that you have annual medical check ups and purchase medical insurance if it exists in your country. Kenya now has NHIF or national insurance affordable to most of the population. It saves a lot if you need hospitalisation at any point.

The Mind

The mind comprises of the will, intellect, thinking, creativity, giftedness and emotions. The mind houses a sense of hope and patience when we pass through challenging seasons of life. The basic foundation of keeping fit mentally and maintaining a healthy mind is based on the values we uphold in life. For example, there is need to cultivate hope, to deal wisely with failure, to exercise discernment, to persist in personal development and live a focused life where we maximize our giftedness.

Africans urge people not to despair. Difficult times are sure to come but they will eventually pass on: Water does not stay in the sky forever (Kalenjin proverb), The remedy against bad times is to have patience with them (Egyptian proverb), Daylight follows a dark night  (Masai proverb) and However long the night may last, there will be morning (Moroccan proverb).

In these days of demand for instant results, the pressure to succeed is ever present and failure can be devastating. However, to fail is normal. How do we deal with it? Wisdom teaches us: Do not look where you fell, but where you slipped  (Liberia proverb). On persistence and never giving up if you know the path you walk is the right one: Courage is the father of success (Nigerian proverb).

On exercising discernment and caution: No one tests the depth of a river with both feet (Ghanaian proverb). On focused living: Work on your reputation until it is established; when it is established it will work for you  (Tunisian proverb). Giftedness is a combination of learned skills and natural gifts. We know that each individual is uniquely gifted and no one can take away your talents: No man’s path lies in another’s  (Akan proverb). This points to the need for each of us to know our gifts and not to waste years persisting in an area where we are not skilled or gifted: Leave alone a dance you are unable to perform (Lega – DRC proverb). How do we discover talents? Natural giftedness shows itself even with little encouragement: Even without drumbeats, banana leaves dance (African proverb). Special gifts can be quiet and unassuming, and even the ability to watch others and encourage them in these days of stressful competition is a gift in itself: If everyone is going to dance, who, then, would watch? (Cameroonian proverb).

The Spirit

Africans are religious. They believe that whatever exists owes its life to the Supreme Deity and so creation is the most widely acknowledged work of God throughout Africa. Various proverbs on God and creation remind Africans to live in humility and awe of God who can see and who responds to human actions in ways of justice and mercy. This knowledge calls for balanced living in recognizing and living out matters of faith and worship of the Almighty. Wisdom demands recognition of God as the one from who all life and creation emanate, and pride that does not recognize this sovereignty is termed as foolishness: If you are filled with pride, then you will have no room for wisdom (African proverb).

Keeping fit spiritually is based in the health of the soul or spirit. This system houses life’s sense of meaning and significance often called existentialism – knowing and living out our life’s purpose that is linked to God’s reason for our individual existence. The human being is just a tiny dot in God’s universe. Apart from planets, how many stars do we have in the universe? Astronomers estimate that that there are “at least 70 thousand million million million (70 sextillion or 7 × 1022) stars in the Universe. The Universe probably contains more than 100 thousand million (100 billion or 1011) galaxies,” (Fact Files, Royal Museums, Greenwich). One such galaxy is the Milky Way of which our sun is part. What is the size of a galaxy like the Milky Way? The best estimates suggest that the Milky Way contains about 500 thousand million stars and a total mass equivalent to 1.9 million million Suns.

Then who am I within such enormous expanse of matter? Do I count? Yes, I do! Africans believe that the very God who created the heavens also took pleasure creating human beings in his own likeness and placing them in a habitable planet called Earth. This God personally takes interest in each individual giving them worth and identity. Linked to the Creator and loved by him, a weak insignificant being gains significance and receives power to soar to the best of the purpose for which they are placed in the world for the short time called life. After each life is done, one departs and its eternity forever with the Creator and others who have gone before. This knowledge gives meaning to each individual’s existence and makes for balanced spirituality and balanced holistic living.

Africa is reputed to be a continent that is reputed to be still in touch with these spiritual realities and may “yet prove to be the spiritual conservatory of the world. Then the civilised nations in consequence of their wonderful material development, shall have had their spiritual susceptibilities blunted through the agency of a captivating and absorbing materialism, it may be that they have to resort to Africa to recover some of the simple elements of faith,” (Edward Wilmot Blyden, Liberian statesman and educator, 1869).



For more insights from Dr Mwiti on holistic wellbeing, please read the entire series:

Part 2 – Holistic Living Series: Relationships and Family

Part 3 – Holistic Living Series: Community and Creation


drgmwitiAbout Dr Mwiti

Gladys K. Mwiti, PhD. is a consulting Clinical Psychologist and Trauma Specialist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is the founder of and CEO of Oasis Africa – a Centre for Transformational Psychology and Trauma. She is the Chair of the Kenya Psychological Association (KPsyA) and a member of the Board of Directors, International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). She has worked in trauma assessment and management throughout Africa and is often called upon to offer psychological assessment and therapy in major crisis such as the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1998 Nairobi US embassy bombings and recently, the 2013, the Westgate  Shopping  Centre  shootings in Kenya.



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