Justine Odwongo, one of the Somo Sisters, is the pioneering founder of the mental health charity; Mind Body & Soul for BAME, based in Merseyside UK. In this article, we introduce you to Justine and her story.
Justine Odwongo, who participated in our Somo Sisters Oral Histories Project, is the pioneering founder of Mind Body & Soul, a charity based in Merseyside serving BAME mental health and wellbeing in the UK. She is also a current director of WOmen and Digital Inclusion CIC. In this blog post, we are honoured to introduce you to her, her culture, and her lived experiences via her contribution to the Somo Sisters Oral History Record.
The Somo Sisters Oral Histories Project was made possible by the support of The National Lottery Heritage Fund which you can learn more about here. We at WODIN are so thankful to have been enabled to deliver this project.
Last year, Justine chose to sign up to be a Somo Sister too, which was no easy undertaking, considering the personal challenges she has faced since that decision was made. We at WODIN are so thankful that she had the resilience to carry on.
The Somo Sisters, who are all Black migrant women, were recorded recounting their life stories and the cultural observations they made when journeying from their home country to settle in Liverpool. By agreeing to be Somo Sisters, these women were designating themselves legacy builders and leaders of the next generation. As their stories would be catalogued in the UK records office and archived in audio form in the Liverpool Central Library, for their children, their grandchildren, and so on, to learn from.
Those stories were also expanded in the Somo Sisters Tapestry book. Justine’s work looking out for the mental health of our community has more than earned her the standing of a leader.
Who is Justine Odwongo?
Justine Odwongo is a Muganda from Uganda. Her journey to the UK in 2000 was as sudden as can be.
One day she was a student at Nakawa Business School of Accounts, the next her mother had rushed her to the British Embassy where she announced that she had arranged a nursing interview for Justine in London, and she was to leave that very same evening.
To add extra stress to the situation, she arrived at Gatwick airport in the dead of winter. With no idea how to get to the train, she was lost, alone, and freezing cold, crying on an airport bench.
Things might have gone very differently if it weren’t for the kind Ugandan woman who walked by and gave Justine a helping hand, accompanying her to the train and right up to one stop away from her destination.
Justine’s life in the UK began with a generous act of kindness, and over 20 years later, she pays that kindness forward to her community every day.
For the majority of Justine’s life in the UK, she has worked in the NHS, an experience that is as stressful as it is rewarding. When she was interviewed for the Somo Sisters Oral Histories Record, she spoke at length about the institutionalised racism she has faced in her professional life. In her words:
“The system just needs a black person or a person of colour to work 5 times more than our white colleagues. In every way!”
In many ways, her own experience with racism in the UK led her to the community work she has undertaken over the years, culminating with the founding of Mind Body & Soul for BAME. Justine has done a lot of work with young Black children and youths, who have been labeled as “troublesome” by schools. She looks beyond that label to see how these children are being misunderstood or even bullied, often as a result of their racial difference, and she helps them to emotionally process their experiences.
Today, Mind Body & Soul is going from strength to strength, continuing to work against the stigma of mental illness, learning disabilities, and autism in people of colour. They were even nominated for the Liverpool Community Impact Award in 2023! On top of all this, Justine has just embarked on a Ph.D. in science.
Hear more from Justine Odwongo…
Justine Odwongo’s full story is now archived in audio form in the Liverpool Central Library. We encourage you to visit and listen to all the fascinating things she has to say about her life journey.
Alternatively, you can read her story in her own words in the Somo Sisters Tapestry book, which is available on Amazon right here.
Listen to clips from Justine Odwongo’s story
Arriving in the UK
East to west, home is best
Know when to speak and when not to speak