On June 20th this year at exactly 10:29am, Gerald Mwangi a Kenyan actor, penned what would be his penultimate Facebook post before his death. It read: “Keep pushing until something happens. Don’t die heart.” Ten hours later, he posted a suicide note and switched off his phone. It was barely a month after he had celebrated his 29th birthday. While some of his friends perceived the note as a joke others took him seriously. Among them was Monique Mallens an actress who had known and worked with Gerald for years. Initially, she was too distraught to talk about her close friend. With time however, she opened up to me and recounted her life moments with Gerald. “I don’t think any man will ever treat me the way he did,” she said. “He never expected anything in return.” While Ms. Mallens knew Gerald as jovial and full of life it appears he was depressed. It is still unclear whether he told anyone about his condition prior to taking his own life.
Cases of suicide in Kenya have been on the rise according to a recent report by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. In 2017 alone, 421 cases were reported out of which 330 involved men. In the previous year, 224 men killed themselves compared to 78 women. Dinah Kituyi, a counselling psychologist, attributes this to the social structure. “While women are socialized to talk about their challenges, men are expected to be strong and keep it in no matter how difficult things are for them,” she told me during an interview at a Nairobi hotel where she was training journalists.
I can relate to her statement. Several months before I joined college, the relationship I had with my mum suddenly changed. I cannot tell to date what exactly happened. We would always quarrel over almost everything. Over time, I became miserable and rebellious. There was no one I could talk to. The only people I could speak to – my dad and elder sister – were working far away from my rural home most of the time. I still recall one Sunday evening when suicidal thoughts crept into my mind.
I had just returned from charging a car battery, which I used to power my music system. As usual, it had taken four days to fully charge the battery at a nearby town located 20 kilometers from home. We did not have electricity at the time. It was a few minutes to my favorite local “One Love” reggae show on Kenya’s Capital FM. Just before the show began, I dashed to the washroom to relieve myself so I could listen to it uninterrupted. On coming back, I realized something was amiss but didn’t immediately figure out what it was. I must have been overexcited about the radio show.
As I carefully examined the room, my mind slowly began to register the changes. Then it hit me. The battery was missing while the music system had been disconnected! I could hardly believe it. Unknown to me, my mum had been watching my movements. No sooner had I stepped out of the room than she came and confiscated the battery! It was a punishment for not milking the cows on time as she had earlier instructed me. In retrospect, I think I deserved it.
I did not sleep that night. For hours, I lay on the bed and thought about my life. Many questions crossed my mind. Is there any reason for me to continue living? Do I have a future? The more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that life had lost meaning. The situation seemed hopeless and understandably so. There was no immediate prospect that things would get better. Interestingly, Bob Marley’s song “Three Little Birds” kept playing in my mind as if to reassure me that “everything is going to be alright” and therefore I “shouldn’t worry about a thing”. But what I needed at that moment was my battery and not assurances. My night had been ruined. I can’t go on living like this, I told myself. I started plotting what to to do. I was 18.
Three options lay before me: To persevere the mental torment for a few more months until I join college, to run away from home, or to take my life. As much as the options were all viable, the first one seemed the most difficult while the third was the easiest. It did not matter whether I was thinking straight or not. I had to find a solution for my situation before dawn. Eventually however, I settled on option two. I left in the morning and went to a friend’s place where I stayed for two weeks. It took the intervention of my late grandmother to convince me to return home. Although things did improve, I still strained at the leash to leave home but this time for college.
The day I would report to college to study journalism finally came. I was ecstatic. I wanted to be as far away from home as I could and for as long as possible. What I didn’t know, however, was that the impact of my home experience would manifest in college. I would be sad most of the time but couldn’t tell why. I became withdrawn and hardly socialized with other students. I found comfort in my own company. Those were signs of depression, something I was unaware of. The only things I enjoyed were reading, writing, jogging and listening to reggae music. It was therapeutic. I would wake up at 3am and listen to selected new songs then classify them according to their respective themes.
I had established, after listening to the World Reggae Show and thousands of songs over the years, that reggae music covered at least 66 themes. I therefore created 66 folders in my computer and would drop each new song in its rightful folder after listening to it. Over time, I built a formidable library of reggae songs classified according to the message. I would play them on the reggae show that I hosted on the college’s radio station. If the topic of discussion in a particular day was corruption for instance, all the songs I played would be about the dishonest vice. My unique style of presentation made the show very popular among the students, lecturers and the surrounding community.
This thrust me into the limelight and caused motley groups of people to want to be associated with me. Although this did not immediately ease my depression, it reduced the bouts of sadness and anxiety. Up until that point, no one knew I was depressed, including myself. It took me several months of research to get to understand my condition and its cause. That marked the beginning of a new chapter in my life and kick started the healing process. Had I known earlier what I was suffering from, perhaps I would have sought help sooner.
It is a situation many people find themselves in, notes Dinah. According to her, Kenya lacks proper structures that would facilitate timely diagnosis of mental health problems. She blames it on insufficient funding for mental health care. “Take for instance Mathari Mental Hospital, the only national referral institution for psychiatry. It is mostly run down,” she stated. “The government ought to establish more facilities and encourage more practitioners to venture into mental health.”
The lack of sufficient numbers of mental health practitioners and the high demand for their services has pushed treatment out of reach for many Kenyans. At present, a single counseling session costs between KES 3000 ($30) and KES 5000 (($50) per hour. Multiple sessions either on a weekly or monthly basis maybe necessary. This does not include the cost of drugs. “Again, there is little awareness about mental health problems which only fosters stigma against those affected,” says Dinah. “In some situations, all that a person may be in need of is social support and skills to overcome the prevailing challenges.”
Dinah’s statement resonates with Onyango Otieno, a 30-year old poet who has battled depression in the past. In January 2017, his friends came to his aid after he wrote about his condition on Facebook. “They would clean my house and just stay with me. They did not know what else to do,” he said in an episode of Africa Uncensored’s mental health series, “I am not Okay.” He traced the depression back to a traumatic childhood that was characterized by incessant fights between his parents. At 16, he ran away from home and would have ended his life had not his high school friends taken him in. Regular appointments with a therapist have vastly improved his condition in the past one year. He is now a zealous advocate for mental health awareness.
Whereas I eventually overcame depression and reconciled with my mum, I still wonder what would have happened had I resolved to take my life that night. How would my mum and family members have received the news of my death? Would my death have been a mere statistic in the growing number of suicides in Kenya? What lessons, if any, would my friends have learned from my demise? Would they have liked and commented on my Facebook profile the way they did Gerald Mwangi’s? I can’t give definite answers to these questions but I can predict the possible scenarios based on what I have witnessed over the years.