Last month, a Zanzibari teenage girl jumped from the second floor of her school building to her death. It happened on a Thursday in the Hurumzi neighbourhood of Stone Town, Zanzibar. Some say she was the victim of mashetani — spirits – who had descended upon the school building, sparking mass hysteria on Tuesday and Wednesday, a school of fits and shouts, and ultimately claiming a single life on Thursday afternoon.
Amejirusha. She herself jumped, literally.
I didn’t want to write about suicide, not from Zanzibar, not from anywhere. Who wants to talk about suicide? I’d be accused of being morbid or depressing, indulging the dark side, writing about something personal that was none of my business. After all, I’m on an island. I could easily fixate on the shimmering beaches.
But there it was, this startling event staring straight into the collective eye, and it wasn’t a quiet death behind closed doors, it was very much public, this girl having fallen to her death in mid-daylight, for all who were in close proximity to hear – and see.
Rumors flew about the cause(s) of this girl’s death. Some couldn’t even call it a suicide. A suicide is the ultimate sin against God. It’s not a suicide if you don’t decide. Rather, she was possessed.
How did they know? People say an older woman had entered the school building on Tuesday morning and mysteriously never came out or was seen from again. Guards had closed all possible exits but could not track her. The school became convinced that she was a spirit who had entered the bathroom and was now causing uncontrollable disturbances in classrooms. Students were afraid to use that bathroom and on Thursday, when the teenager in question had gone to the bathroom, she reportedly ran screaming and immediately jumped to her death, splitting her head open on the ground.
Most people I spoke with, including her neighbors and friends, believed wholeheartedly spirits had caused the teenager’s death. The spirit world in Zanzibar is pressed up against the living in all aspects of life. Spirits, both within the Islamic cosmos and those who fall outside Islamic realm, play a major role in daily life – as an explanation for strangeness, crisis, illness, depression, bad luck, and pain.
Spirit possession can be an expression of grief, as well. At a Swahili funeral, it’s not uncommon to witness women’s fits of sorrow where, one by one, each starts wailing, reaching arched-back into states of rage, tears, and undulation — grief embodied. Mass hysteria in schools is also not such a rare phenomenon. When trying to make sense of all of this, a friend and avid journalist reminded me of giggling fits of hysteria that had taken over one Tanzanian school in the 1960’s.
But this was a girl who had also threatened suicide in the past. A year ago she’d allegedly taken pills after heartbreak led to suicidal tendencies. The parents had consulted with the school, the teachers had consulted with her parents, but no one knew quite how to approach this young girl’s increasing wasiwasi (anxiety).
Her name was Camerina, an unusual for a Swahili girl. She’s remembered as a kind fifteen-year-old who often called out from her rooftop in the Hurumzi neighborhood, down to the streets below. Her death announcement, written in chalk on the community black board, invited all in the neighborhood to attend her funeral and show support for her grief-stricken family. Two nights after she died, several ladies on the baraza with whom I spoke about the tragedy said emphatically: tumeshapoa — we’ve already recovered.
But I hadn’t. The girl’s death pinched a nerve with me – not because I am unwilling to believe in mashetani as the reason for her death, but because there was no question about it. It occurred on school grounds, in broad daylight, with public adults in her midst. She had expressed the desire to kill herself once before. What was she thinking in the seconds before she jumped? Could her death have been prevented?
Her death also disturbed me because suicide seems to be all over the news lately. From Morocco to China, Lebanon to Ethiopia, Greece to Ireland, people seem to be killing themselves. It reminds me of Wordsworth’s haunting turn-of-the-century caution: the world is too much with us.
Here’s what I’m talking about:
1. In the same month as Camerina’s death by jumping in Zanzibar, CNN released a story about Alem Dechasa, an Ethiopian domestic worker in Beirut, Lebanon who’d been repeatedly abused by her employer. She was ultimately beaten in the streets and shoved into a car after she reportedly “acted out.” This attack was captured on film and broadcast online, which sparked outcries of dismay and protest. Soon after this horrific attack, the 33-year-old mother of two was taken to a nearby hospital for treatment and later hung herself at dawn using hospital bed sheets.
Urged by the U.N. to investigate Dechasa’s suicide, Lebanese and international news sources both confirmed that currently at least one suicide occurs PER WEEK in Lebanon, committed mostly by female domestic workers from Ethiopia as well as other countries. As a result, Ethiopia has recently put a ban on all travel to Lebanon until they can adequately address this injustice. http://ethiopiansuicides.blogspot.com/
2. Around that same time, another suicide story hit the news — this time, Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her rapist so that he could escape punishment. According to Moroccan law, Article 475 of the penal code protects the rapist from criminal charges if marries his victim. In this case, family pressure to defend the girl’s honor led to a humiliating marriage. Amina simply could not stand her fate and willfully ate rat poison. I can’t accept that she was possessed by spirits or that her fate had been written by God. The world — her world — was too much with her. In fact, it was closing in on her. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/world_now/2012/03/moroccan-girl-suicide-marry-rapist.html
3. In January of 2012, reports on the Foxconn Apple factory suicides in China surfaced. Under extreme duress, factory workers were reportedly jumping from factory rooftops. Factories began asking their employees to sign “suicide pledges,” promising not to kill themselves on work premises. After eighteen attempted suicides, nets were installed in some factories to prevent workers from jumping to their deaths. Still, workers planned a mass suicide to protest unbearable working conditions. Unbearable conditions had forced them to lay waste their powers. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/china/9006988/Mass-suicide-protest-at-Apple-manufacturer-Foxconn-factory.html
There are those who will say that suicide is a social fact, not news. Desperate people take desperate measures to relieve themselves of the insane pain of the material world. Farmers living with drought. The impoverished living with debt. Widows living without husbands. But, how many individual reports of suicides does it take to sound off the alarm of a growing global trend?
Consider the revival of a different kind of suicide – death by economic crisis.
4. A Greek pharmacist recently shot himself in central Athens near the Greek Parliament, having written a note stating that austerity measures had ripped away his pension and left him rummaging through trash, making him a burden to his children. Greece now has the most rapidly increasing rates of suicide in Europe, currently at 40% higher than the year before. The Greeks are self-immolating and shooting themselves out of desperation with a life that feels impossible. Death is the only way out, or so it feels.
In Ireland, citizens can now sign up for church seminars like, “Suicide in Recessionary Times,” hopefully offering tips on how not to take one’s life. The opposite would be too much like a futuristic horror film, a Doris Lessing novel turned into reality. http://www.alternet.org/economy/155012/crisis_to_suicide:_how_many_have_to_die_before_we_kill_the_false_religion_of_austerity
Where else, then, are people so desperate that they are taking their own lives? Where else is life so unbearable that it cannot go on? How do we explain a suicide if not by mashetani?
If we consider other reasons for wanting to end one’s life, it would mean facing the debilitating failure of our days. It would require us to confront a collective responsibility to feel, think, and respond in a way that stimulates our brain waves to produce hope, perceive love.
It would mean major conversations on systemic accountability. Legitimate proposals for social change. The radical belief that each person has the power to shift the direction of a horrible day and it can be written so. It would mean a massive re-distribution of sustenance. It would mean we respond to the desperate if sometimes dramatic signs of teenage despair. It would mean the extreme halt of intolerable working conditions. A listening revolution.
It would mean lighting fires in the great darkness that is our (fallible) conscience.
Here in Zanzibar, it’s spirit possession. There, it’s austerity. Chemical imbalance. Forced marriage. Impossible laws. Patriarchy. Drought. No way out. It’s the feeling of meaning slipping out of your being like breath itself. Either way a life is lost. Sometimes mourned. Sometimes featured on major news programs. Most times, not.
Suicide makes for awful dinner conversation, to say the least. It’s not a charming topic. I’m not writing this for likes or shares. Actually, I’ve been trying hard over the last few weeks to write about this in a way that wouldn’t offend anyone. Categorically, suicide is like a slithering snake. It’s a gender issue. Blame it on patriarchy. It’s a poverty thing. A class thing. A labor issue. Blame is on capitalism. It’s a spirit thing. Blame it on possession. It’s a loss of faith. Blame it on God.
I guess I’m haunted by the fact that everyone who takes their own life has those many alive-days leading up to their deaths – which are rarely lived in isolation. We come home to each other. We greet each other on the streets, at work, in the classroom, in the factory. In this way, we’re all implicated – interrelated – involved.
I grew up believing that life is sacred, that it should be defended and respected no matter what. It’s eerie though, how people can create the unbearable social and emotional conditions that lead to suicide, and then find ways to make excuses for it, mourn, and move on. Honestly, existentialism is sometimes the only comfort.
Tumeshepoa. We’ve already recovered. Okay, then. So, how does recovery lead to discovery?
A single suicide story is a local tragedy. A quiet grief. But five separate mentions of suicide around the world in the last three months make this an outcry too loud to shrug off as coincidence.
Is the world really too much with us? It was already too much.
A moment of silence, please.