Making Time: An unusual thank you for WWII Spitfires
- 4 October 2013
- From the section Magazine
To say thank you to the African countries that donated Spitfires during World War II, a former development worker from the UK is setting up branches of the Samaritans across the continent.
"Suicide is still a taboo here because it's seen as something like a curse," says Merab Mulindi, one of the founding members of Samaritans Kenya.
Launched in 2003, it offers support to distressed citizens over the phone and in person from its office in Nairobi.
"People do not like to talk about it and the families face a lot of stigma, which only deepens the problem," she says.
The project was initiated by John Hurst, who spent more than two decades working in Africa for the British government and another 10 years volunteering for the Samaritans in the UK. He aims to found similar organisations in all the African nations that donated money to the RAF during WWII.
He highlights what he believes is a common pattern, in which poorer families struggle to send their eldest child to university.
"The hope of the family is that the child will take them out of poverty through their education," he says. "But the stresses of university, or worries over money, can trigger a suicide which decimates the whole family."
The problem is compounded by the perception of the wider community and is often reflected in the way the bodies are treated after death, particularly in East Africa. Traditional burial services for those who have killed themselves are rare, says Hurst.
"There are no reading of the Bible. In some instances the families have even been locked in their houses while the body is taken into the bush and abandoned."
It is difficult to know how many people take their lives in the country each year, says Mulindi, who is convinced that many cases go unreported. "The statistics are minimal because people do not talk about it."
Hurst thinks many of the lessons learned by the Samaritans - and similar organisations in the West - can be transferred to Africa. Problems securing employment and marital difficulties seem to be common factors across the globe.
"We know that the majority of people who commit suicide in the UK do so at night. That's the time of greatest stress and they usually want to speak to someone just before they do it."
By providing a helpline, he is confident the service can save lives. So far about 70 people have been trained as volunteers and 20 are on duty on a regular basis. The group has no shortage of committed volunteers, but funding its phone bills has proved more difficult.
"We do not have a toll-free line so people have to have enough credit to be able to call us. Sometimes they expect us to call them back, which is not always possible," says Mulindi.
The biggest problem has been getting people to engage with the issue. It took three years to gain approval as an official NGO. "Having the government finally register the charity was probably the greatest challenge," says Hurst.
Hence his innovative way to explain his motivation. "When you say suicide, people switch off. The moment you say the word Spitfire, or talk about Spitfires, it engages people," he says. By talking about the Samaritans project as a way to say thank you to the countries involved, he has been able to gain more attention for its efforts.
"Kenya donated six Spitfires at a cost of £5,000 each," he explains, adding that his next focus is Lesotho, which helped purchase more than 20 of the iconic fighter planes for the war effort.
In Kenya, awareness does seem to be building slowly, particularly after the finance minister's son took his own life last year. The issue received more media coverage on Kenya's annual suicide prevention day, held each September.
"In that sense there's some opening up of the possibility of people talking about it," says Mulindi.
Video produced by Thomas Amter and John Galliver. There are more volunteering stories in the BBC News series Making Time.