Mateso's Personal Story: HIV/AIDS
Every day in his home town in Tanzania, Mateso Moova sees people infected with HIV and dying of AIDS all around him. He may be infected himself. He doesn’t know because he hasn’t had an HIV test. There’s not much point – if he’s diagnosed HIV+ he won’t receive any anti retrovirals. But he’ll be stigmatised and ostracised by his local community so it’s probably best not to know. Here, Mateso talks about the increasing number of AIDS patients committing suicide in Tanzania. Isolated, lonely, desperate and without any medical treatment, they are driven to take their own lives. Local churches refuse them a proper religious burial on the grounds that their cardinal sin of suicide has damned them to eternal hell.
“An increasing number of deaths from suicide due to HIV/AIDS are being reported in the press here recently. But the factors leading to suicide are not specifically mentioned as HIV/AIDS. One newspaper wrote: “Julius was found hanging from the ceiling of his house by a sisal rope. He was suffering from HIV/AIDS”.
One has to read between the lines to conclude that the leading factor was HIV/AIDS. The papers usually say that he or she was sick for a long time or that “he had fevers on and of for a long time” or “he had tuberculosis”. In these cases we assume the patient must have had HIV/AIDS.
Suicide deaths usually occur at home but of late there has been an increase in the number of suicides in hotels and guest houses. The AIDS patient who is neglected at home or who has suffered alone mentally, leaves his house and lodges in a hotel or a guest house – it’s a place to contemplate what has befallen him or her and it’s a more conducive environment for committing suicide. He or she can go to the several pharmacies that have mushroomed in Tanzania and buy several doses of medication and in the quietness of his or her hotel room swallow an overdose of the medicine. It is general knowledge that taking medicine with alcohol is lethal so many people who commit suicide here wash the medicine down with a couple of beers, usually the strong and well advertised local Safari Beer.
The mode of committing suicide for AIDS patients varies. Some, like Julius mentioned above, hang themselves. A wealthy man who had been “ill for a long time” according to the papers, doused his car with petrol, locked himself inside and struck a match. The inferno that ensued burnt him and his expensive car beyond recognition. In the west we hear stories of wealthy people who want to be buried in their Royce Royce cars. Here in Africa, HIV/AIDS has driven wealthy people to burning themselves inside their expensive cars.
Many of the deaths from suicide due to HIV/AIDS go unreported in the press. Some of them are reported but without mention of the fact that the leading factor was HIV/AIDS.
One man here discovered that he had the disease and it was in the days before counselling services were available. At that time nobody knew how to deal with the disease. The man feared most what his family friends and the public would think of him. After suffering both physically and mentally for a long time he came to a point where he could not go on any longer. In the middle of the night he crept out of the bed that he was still sharing with his wife and went to the sitting room. In less than a minute his wife was woken up by the noise of the gun shot that was also heard by the neighbors (and those far from the neighborhood as the victim lived on the second floor in an apartment building). His wife rushed to the sitting room to find her husband slumped on a couch and bleeding from the single gun shot wound to his temple that had killed him, instantly relieving him from the pain, suffering and the stigma of the disease HIV/AIDS.
It is difficult to write about suicide without touching on the subject of religion in relation to suicide. Tanzanians who belong to any religion (that is leaving aside those who belong to the traditional African religions) are either Christians or Moslems. The two religions are against suicide. The person who commits suicide is not buried with religious rites in the Moslem or Christian religion. The clergy (or is it the Holy Koran and the Bible?) make the judgment that by committing suicide a person has taken away a life created by God and it is only God who can take away this life. He has therefore committed a terrible sin and he has committed this sin immediately before or during his death and therefore he has died in sin. There is no need to pray for him. There is no need to waste precious time and resources like oils and incense to bury him for he has already gone to hell (God forbid).
In some western countries such a person is buried in the boundary of the cemetery away from the other faithful and they do not place a cross on his/her grave.
Our clergy think the same about those who commit suicide. They still think that they have sinned by committing suicide. They think that they do not need a religious burial. I heard this preached in church the other day by a young Tanzanian priest who defended the church’s handling of the suicide victims: “The person has taken away the life that God gave to him and has therefore died in unforgivable sin. He does not deserve a religious burial.”
The irony of the whole thing is that in the same Church a few weeks later I heard an older priest, not a Tanzanian this time but one from Europe who has lived in the country for four decades. I am sure when he was young he was preaching the same story as his young Tanzanian counterpart. This time he preached a different story. He said: “Last Wednesday we gave a church burial to an old man by the name of Severine who committed suicide. Why did we bury him and why did I officiate at his burial? I did so because I believed that Severine died because of neglect. He died because when he was in his old age, when he most needed friends, help and company none of this was provided to him. He died because you and I did not come to his assistance. That is why he committed suicide and that is why I gave him all the necessary Christian burial rites, asking God to forgive him his sins, receive him into everlasting life and forgive us for neglecting him.”
Reflecting on the ceremony, I realised that what he said applies very well to HIV/AIDS victims who commit suicide. They do it because of stigma, because of isolation, because of neglect and suffering alone. They die because friends, families and society have neglected them. They die because they are afraid to come out in the open. They think that they have been neglected and are being looked at with “a bad eye”. They lack any counselling that might convince them of the contrary. They therefore have no option but to “call it quits.”
If you were a priest or a Moslem holy man, would you give an AIDS patient who commits suicide a religious burial? Since we are seeing more deaths from suicide in HIV/AIDS and many of them are Christians or Moslems this is a very relevant question.
Will you rather pre-judge the victim and say: “He/she has already gone to hell, so why waste even a single prayer on him?”
Mateso Moova, Tanzania – March 2005
If you’d like to discuss any of these issues with Mateso, you can contact him via:firstname.lastname@example.org