Committed to helping the vulnerable and families realise justice and healing

Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal in the time of apartheid South Africa and experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of a family member, shaped Merrishia Singh-Naicker into who she is today: A family therapist assisting women who experience trauma and an advocate for justice in what continues to be an unequal society in South Africa.

Merrishia was born in Avoca in Durban, but her family was relocated to the township of Phoenix which was designated by the apartheid government to be an Indian community under the Group Areas Act. 

“We moved to Phoenix and it was the first time I lived in a home with electricity, running water and a toilet indoors” she says. “My grandparents told me how they  were afraid to touch the light switch, it was strange to  us because they were using lamps.” 

Day-to-day living in Phoenix was pleasant for Merrishia but from a young age she became aware of inequality and the segregated lifestyle in Durban.

“We would travel to town and pass the beach. My siblings and I always
wanted to go to the beach and play on the water slides but my parents
told us we were not allowed to, it was not for us,” she says. “We rode
in a separate bus for Indians only and when we visited my dad, who
worked as a clerk, we had to enter the building from the back, we could
not use the front entrance.”

The ongoing racial tensions between communities existed when she was a child and she remembers her family running to a nearby police station during a state of emergency in the 1980s and neighbours were screaming that Zulu men were coming to attack their community.

In addition to the disruptions caused by apartheid, she faced sexual abuse.

“I was a shy, quiet and reserved child who endured the abuse, but eventually I gained courage, broke the silence and spoke to my parents who helped me through a tough healing journey,” she says.

Love and healing

School had been the place where she found solace and it was there that she decided that she wanted a career helping others. In 1995 she worked with Seth Naicker teaching together at a holiday Bible club for children. Here their relationship grew and he proved to be a pillar of support during her most trying times.

“For some reason, even though he was a man, I found that I could confide in him and lean on him for support. I trusted him with my story” she adds.

They got married on 27 April 2001, which as Freedom Day in South Africa, commemorates the first post-apartheid democratic election in South Africa.

“We chose this day because it is very significant for us, it stands for what we believe in. We are both passionate about freedom and justice in our country,” she says.

Academic achievements

Merrishia’s academic brilliance and passion to care for others helped her gain a string of achievements including graduating with a degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Witwatersrand, an honours degree in psychology from the University of Johannesburg, and a master's degree in family therapy while living in the USA. She is also hoping to complete the master's degree in theology she started there as well.

It is in her work as a therapist that she has found storytelling to be a powerful tool to bring about healing, particularly for women and children who have endured traumatic experiences.

The highlight of her career was working as a Circle Keeper, trained in a Native American practice where a group of people sit in a circular formation and speak about their challenges and the Circle Keeper works to bring about healing and restoration. She likens this to the South African practice of lekgotla.

“One of the proudest moments in my career is assisting a single mother who was living with drug addiction and on the brink of losing her children to social services. I provided her with counseling and basic skills such as taking care of herself, her home and her children’s physical appearance. She pulled through and there was a drastic difference, she and her children started looking healthy and she pulled through to overcome her substance abuse and challenges. It was incredible to witness,” she says.

Heartlines journey

When Merrishia and Seth returned to South Africa in 2009 they were introduced to Heartlines through a skills development programme called Young and Able. Since then Seth has worked as an associate and Merrishia is currently a champion for Heartlines. They also established a church called Church Out of the Box and Indi Afrique: a social business working with communities, faith based organisations and corporates focusing on training and development in the areas of conflict, transformation, diversity, inclusion, justice, gender-based violence, healing and reconciliation.

“In my work, be it in church, schools or communities, I have found that having tools and resources is essential to helping people understand and tackle their challenges,” she says.

“I have enjoyed assisting Heartlines develop their grief and storytelling resource, particularly in the time of COVID-19. All of Heartlines’ resources enable people to connect again and they have something tangible to share. We are on a mission to help create a ‘beloved community’ where there is a sharing of needs and resources to help one another and I am particularly excited about the new Heartlines project to assist business owners who were affected by the recent looting that affected the lives of many,” she says.

“It has been very exciting working with Heartlines because the organisation addresses the daily challenges that South Africans face today, particularly in work that helps children and families by providing tools that help with facilitating healing and restoration.”