LONDON – On a drizzly morning on February 26 last month, a Zimbabwean family gathered at a cemetery in Welling, about 16 km from London, to bury 31-year-old Thungamele Nxumalo, whose death 19 days earlier followed an all-too-familiar pattern.
Nxumalo went to bed on February 6, entered his bedroom and shut the door to life. He was found hanged in his room the next morning.
His family is still struggling to come to terms. In the absence of a suicide note, they are left to ponder one question: Why?
It is a question that haunts a growing number of Zimbabwean families in the United Kingdom.
Since 2009, New Zimbabwe.com has reported on over a dozen suicides by Zimbabwean immigrants — and most involve hangings.
In August 2009, 22-year-old Mzuzile Ncube hanged himself in a quiet Oxford beauty spot. His body was discovered by a fisherman.
In the same year, Godfrey Moyo, 25, hanged himself in prison after being arrested over the alleged knife killing of a Nigerian love rival outside a London nightclub.
In March 2011, Lameck Nyatsanza, a 35-year-old businessman who owned a nursing agency was found by his brother with a ligature from his dressing gown tied to his neck at his home in Norwich.
In September of the same year, Efias Rusukira hanged himself after murdering his wife, Grace, at their Huddersfield home.
Last year in February, Jasper Taruvinga was found hanged in a tree in Higham, Kent, hours after being named as the chief suspect in the murder of student Rudo Pretty Mawere in Dublin, Ireland.
Barely a month later, in March, Bigboy Moyo, 45, was found hanging from a tree in Rotherham, England, following a row with his girlfriend.
In November last year, a 21-year-old Zimbabwean student was found hanged in the woods in Leeds.
At a hospital in Uxbridge, London, a woman admitted with mental problems hanged herself after giving staff the slip by pretending to be seeing her family out following a visit.
Many cases simply go unreported, and the figures are believed to be a lot higher.
Joyline Gozho is a Zimbabwean psychodynamic psychotherapist and mental health expert with many years’ experience of working in Britain’s National Health Service.
She finds the suicides in the Zimbabwean community — estimated at 122 000 by the Office for National Statistics in 2010 — alarming, and warns that the pattern will continue until ways are found to identify those at risk and extend help to them, mainly in the form of counselling.
She told New Zimbabwe.com: “In almost every suicide, there is a very angry, aggressive and hopeless person who finds no hope in whatever situation or crisis they are in and therefore suicide becomes the easiest way out. There is also a lot of shame, hence why suicide acts are always done secretively and most of the times, planned and schemed.
“As we all know, the Diaspora is not the gold pot that people in Africa perceive it to be and most people go through very traumatic events before they settle and some never really settle.
It is true that external changes caused by emigrating from the “homeland” where there is familiar language, culture, food, climate, lifestyle, causes a huge sense of emotional displacement and actually triggers a sense of loss.
“You find that a lot of our Zimbabweans end up living in poverty, doing the most degrading, low paid jobs where they are subjected to huge amounts of stress, and working weird shifts.
“The weather on its own upsets the system and all these changes turn people into maladaptive coping mechanisms such as excessive alcohol use, prostitution, drug use and other criminal behaviours.
Unfortunately, these coping strategies are simply a bum over a wound — people end up with serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and psychosis.
“In many cases, they are concerned about the prejudice they face from people within our own community. People are stressed, isolated, frustrated, and not taking time to look after themselves.”
David Rudd, Dean and professor of psychology at the University of Utah’s College of Social and Behavioural Science, once suggested that growing suicides in the United States military were the result of a contagion effect.
News of suicides, like these reports of suicides in the armed forces, could actually prompt people who are already emotionally vulnerable and mentally ill to consider suicide themselves, he said.
“It tends to facilitate feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. It also facilitates the false idea that suicide is a solution to life’s problems,” he suggested.
But Gozho says it is difficult to reach that conclusion with the Zimbabwean victims who come from disparate communities.
She compares suicide to homicide, adding: “They both have similar unconscious processes, the only difference is that suicide is aggression against the self and homicide is aggression against another individual.
“The suicide act involves a lot of aggression and detachment from reality. This psychological process makes us understand why most people choose to kill themselves so violently by hanging which is undoubtedly painful and unpleasant.”
Roseline Skye Chirape, who has experience as a newspaper agony aunt, says it is not helpful to read too much into the trend of suicide by hanging.
“Hanging oneself I’m sure is a painful experience which in a way does highlight the desperation of an individual in deciding to take that route. When one becomes convinced that they have to end their pain, life or problems, it becomes secondary as to how they end it,” she say.
“It becomes about the different options that are accessible to you. In countries where guns are easily accessible, people may choose to end their life that way.”
It is particularly hard to explain the psychological processes involved in hanging oneself without going too deep into theories, says Gozho.
She adds: “The act is fuelled by a need to commit a violent crime on the self. The act stems from the interplay between the body and the self, when someone can’t find an outlet of whatever issues they have, and then suicide becomes the only way out.
“It’s almost as if the body and the soul are loathing each other and the body is violently attacked. You often see that the suicide notes are in many instances self-berating and apologetic, because there is definitely a sense of mental violence on the people left behind.”
The father of the 21-year-old Leeds student who hanged himself says he saw no warning signs.
“I didn’t know what was happening. He was at university and I can only suspect it came from there, something snapped,” he said.
“I blame the environment, the culture change.”
Chirape, who has experience working with prisoners, says “alienation and isolation when in a foreign country may lead to all sorts of mental and social problems”.
“Many immigrants come to the UK with hopes for a better future, and when those hopes are lost it may feel like a tragedy,” she says.
“Some people are undocumented and feel ashamed to go back home and be perceived as failures. Some people have a difficult time integrating into the individualist society in western countries, compared to the collectivist culture found in many African countries.”
Experts suggest when we pay attention to our friends and families, we all can pick up signs of desperation which can lead on to suicide if not addressed.
Gozho said: “People underestimate the value of “talking”, even telling someone who is unable to change a situation or give you whatever you are lacking is just as important.
“Through talking to somebody, one is externalising their mental stress. Keeping it to oneself is what causes the aggression, anger and stress to be turned inwardly, leading to self-destructive acts of suicide.
“Zimbabwean people need to be more tolerant of each other’s circumstances and situations and even if you cannot give a helping hand, listening to someone is as beneficial. People work long hours and forget about friends and the social life is non-existent.
“Empathy is a very primitive feeling that is at the core of humanity. Without it, we are just empty shells. Being understood and sharing one’s problems is central in minimising suicides. Unfortunately, we all seem to be minding our own business.” — Newzimbabwe.com