Where suicide isn’t a common reality

A colleague sent me a picture of the panoramic view from atop a high-rise in downtown Nairobi. Unlike the tall, cage-like rail atop the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building, the unassuming rail at the top of Kenya’s International Convention Centre sits just above hip-level, with three horizontal rungs below.

Parallel to a main Nairobi freeway, mounds of dirt make up sidewalks that peak at a good 30 feet above the road, with no rail or guard preventing someone from a fatal fall.

These two scenarios, probably unnoticed by the regular Joe, does nothing but make me think of the fluke possibility of a fatal fall or that these two locations create prime opportunities for someone to take their life. 

A friend of mine took their life during my first week in Africa. Naturally, it is shocking and tragic, painful and perspective-shifting. After finding out, I shared the news with those in my vicinity, which consisted of a Kenyan and an Ethiopian. The two were absolutely devastated; and the anguish ensued when they found out that suicide is a frequent and ever-increasing thing in North America. To the latter, I was initially confused.

It is not like these two confidants are young and naïve with rose-coloured glasses. They are well into their fifties, educated and have spent many years working with adolescents across Africa. I thought, why are they so moved by such a common reality?

I was reminded of a conversation I had with a Syrian refugee in 2017. The topic of suicide came up. I asked her how prevalent this was where she came from (assuming that it had an extent of prevalence to begin with). To which she readily replied, “As in people choosing to die?! Oh no, that is not a thing where I come from, that is not an option!”

She went on to say that people spend most of their lives fighting to stay alive—no one would even think of taking it away. “Sure, maybe one or two people do” she said. However, it is “culturally unacceptable” and not a normal occurrence whatsoever.

She was appalled. She said “life is sacred to us. [Life] is precious.”

I believe that people are often flippant with life; however these two scenarios, these three reactions, exposed that a) epidemic suicide is unique to the West and b) I have grown accustomed to it, perhaps accepting it as an extremely unfortunate cultural norm.

Now I think, “why are they so moved by such a common reality?” is a disturbing question.

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