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Mulemba: When you have mental health issues, they’ll say, “No, this person has demons, let’s take them to the church for prayers”. But, like, this is a disease, it’s almost like going for prayers to get malaria healed when you need to take drugs.
Lesedi (narration): Mulemba Mulando is a 23 year old lawyer with a side hustle. Born and bred in Kitwe, Zambia, she’s become quite the mental health advocate on radio, TV, and on social media. Law wasn’t a career she initially saw for herself, but her friends and family, well they said she was a natural fit.
Mulemba: Growing up, I’ve been that girl who is the mediator at home, because my dad is very strict. And so if you need to get anything from him, all my other siblings would send me. When it’s coming from me, you know, being the last born, you know how to talk to your parents, so he would always agree. And honestly, at the time, I didn’t feel like it because I said, all lawyers are liars. I’m happy I went that route, because I love, love, love law.
Lesedi (narration): Mulemba uses her mediation skills to get audiences to see different perspectives, challenging those who think mental health is not a Zambian thing. She asks hard hitting questions, and supports young people on her Facebook page and in a bunch of WhatsApp groups.
Mulemba: Sometime early this year, 2022, we went into the community as young people to ask our community members what they think about mental health, their opinions, whether or not they know what mental health is. And the responses that came out from the young people in the communities was that in our homes, you are not allowed to be sad, you are not allowed to cry. When you say it’s mental health, they just say, “Uh-uh uh-uh. In Africa, we don’t have mental health, that’s a white people thing. Here, we are strong, you don’t need to cry. You don’t need to be sad, you don’t need to be weak because when you cry, you’re weak. You need to be brave and strong. Africans are strong people.”
Clearly, they are not. When you look at the rates of the suicide cases and the increase, how rampant it is, you can see that these are black people. These are Africans that are killing themselves. How is it a white people thing?
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Lesedi (narration): Mulemba has no regrets about becoming a lawyer, but getting her degree took a considerable toll on her. She saw students in her class suffering much more. Some of her friends went on weekend drinking binges, saying that they did it to cope with the stress.
Mulemba: It’s a whole big concept in Zambia. Having to get through school and getting your paper is a lot of pressure. I don’t know why, school is, like, it’s just not easy. Everyone is just trying to struggle through school, fighting their way out of school, and the pressure and the struggle is real in university.
Lesedi (narration): Even though everyone was feeling the pressure to succeed, Mulemba felt that a lot of her peers kept to themselves and didn’t speak out or ask for help when they were struggling.
Mulemba: When I was in school doing my law degree, I stayed with my friend, her name is Mumbe.
Lesedi (narration): Mulemba and Mumbe rented an apartment together. Mulemba was one year ahead of Mumbe, but the two were close. Super close.
Mulemba: We spent literally every day together and everything that we did because our life revolved around going to school, coming back, studying. I woke her up that we should go to school, and she refused. She just said, “Ah Mulemba I don’t want to go to school today, I want to sleep.”
Lesedi (narration): This didn’t set off any alarm bells for Mulemba. They just celebrated Mumbe’s birthday a few days before. She figured that Mumbe was still tired from all the birthday partying. Besides, it wasn’t unusual for students to skip the occasional lecture.
So Mulemba left Mumbe at home and went to class. They texted back and forth until Mulemba put away her phone when her lecturer walked into the classroom. But just a little while later…
Mulemba: We heard screams from the class next door, so I went to check. Then they told me that Mumbe had drunk poison. At first, I thought they were joking, like you can’t tell me that because I am literally from talking to her. Then they said, you know like, I could read it from their faces that they’re not joking. No, this is not a prank, this is not April Fools. They were serious. So I said, what do you mean? How? Then they showed me the message. So she had exited their class group and she told them ‘I’ll miss you guys’.
Lesedi (narration): When Mumbe left her class WhatsApp group, her classmates began to worry. Some of them tried calling her, but Mumbe didn’t pick up.
Mulemba: So the nurses called me in. They asked me if I wanted to see her body. I said, yeah, because I need to be sure that what you’re saying is true. So I went to where she was being laid and she just looked like she was sleeping because I saw her sleep every day really. Except that her body was cold, literally cold. Everything else just looked normal. She was gone.
Lesedi: What happens when you leave the hospital and you’re now alone?
Mulemba: I just cried so much, I blamed myself. I felt like I was being a bad friend for not seeing that something had troubled her. Cause imagine for someone to take her life, it’s because she’s going through something so deep that she can’t do this anymore. Why was I blind to the realization that she might have been going through something so deep? I felt like a bad friend, I felt like I didn’t give her a shoulder to lean on and I had so many questions that no one could give answers to.
Lesedi (narration): Grief and guilt weighed heavily on Mulemba. Coming from a Christian background, her mother recommended going to church for counsel.
Mulemba: Honestly, at that point, I felt like I was blaming God for taking my friend’s life without me knowing. And so I didn’t feel like the prayers were helping, when I know they were, but I just didn’t feel like it at the time.
Lesedi (narration): A few friends helped Mulemba get the help of a professional therapist. She says, therapy isn’t really a Zambian thing.
Mulemba: I’ve literally never seen older people in my family cry. Well, except on funerals, that’s once in a while. And that should be a funeral of someone very close to their hearts. And so crying, because – or like prolonged crying, yes at the time when I lost my friend, it was allowed to cry. But afterwards like, “You’re still crying, you’re not moving on?” Then I’m like, “But do you guys really understand that this was so traumatizing?” And you know, like, no. Crying is not something allowed. [Laughs]
Lesedi (narration): About two months later, Mulemba felt ready to tell her story on social media. She soon realized how much her story could help others, and how she could get people talking about mental health.
Mulemba: It had over 1000 people sharing and over 1000 likes, and it got a lot of attention from the media. And so it was at that time that I got to realise that I needed to talk about this. Because when people don’t know what mental health is, when people don’t know the signs to look out for when their friend is going through depression, they won’t know what help to give. So I read a lot on these things, and I – when I sit back today, I’m able to pinpoint to say my friend wasn’t okay at all.
Her sleeping patterns had changed. She’s a person who never slept during the day because we would be studying. But for those two weeks, she was sleeping during the day. Her eating habits also changed, and she lost weight drastically. I really didn’t think it could be mental health issues. She was a very fat person, healthy, chubby, and all of that just shed off. For us at the time, it was like, “Yay, I’ve lost weight!” You know how girls have body goals, summer bodies on. So for us, it was something to applaud, not knowing that it was bad. And I couldn’t see it because I had zero idea of what mental health is. But today, when I look back, I honestly remember that if only I knew what I know now, I could’ve helped her in one way or another.
Lesedi: In your research, you also found out a lot about the suicide rates in Zambia and so on. I would really love to hear more about what you discovered in your research that you did with other young people.
Mulemba: In Zambia, specifically, there has been an increase in the suicide cases. Let me just say there’s been suicide, yes, but it has never been more pronounced than it has been last year and this year. This year, January, February and part of March, every other week, there was a suicide case. So much that when you see there’s a death notice, you’d even ask, “Is it suicide?” If not suicide, the only other reason was maybe an accident, like a road traffic accident. And so it became so normal.
Lesedi: Zambia is also a religious country. It’s a Christian country, basically, and I know that you are a Christian yourself. And so, you know, committing suicide and all those things are usually seen in quite a bad light. And I’m wondering how you bridge the two belief systems around the mental health work that you do and your Christianity and the beliefs around suicide there.
Mulemba: Being so religious, you’ll find that people say, they’ll say, “No, this person has demons. Let’s take, let’s take them to the church for prayers. No, the papa has to pray for them. The father at church has to pray for them, these are demons. Why is this person sad? This person doesn’t even want to eat?” And you find that others will even say, “No they’ve bewitched my child! This is not how my child was, my child has lost weight, my child is not eating, and so let’s just take this child for prayers.” So you find that people go for prayers when they are missing one component of the healing process.
If I knew what I know now, I could have helped her. I was going to ask her what is wrong, what is bothering her and how best I can help her. I could have given her a shoulder to lean on. I feel like growing up, I have been kind of very judgmental in how I handle issues. But after that, I learned not to be judgemental, to accept people as they are, to allow people to talk to me about issues affecting them without being judgemental.
So now my friends really do open up to me on things that are affecting them so much that a lot of them tell me, how they were abused and getting help, how they have mental health issues. And I tried to help them out, we talk about it, we have sessions. I link them to, like, people that can be of more help than me or people that can give them a sort of different help than I can render, but still being there for my friends.
Lesedi (narration): Before wrapping up the interview, Mulemba asked if she could offer one final thought…
Mulemba: Please be kind to people. You don’t know what people are going through. When you don’t have anything nice to say, it would be better if you just don’t say it. So please, every time you’re talking, talk with words of kindness because words can go far where by hurting people. So just – just be kind.
Lesedi: I love that. Just be kind.
Mulemba: Thank you for having me, Lesedi. I’m happy I could do this talk with you.
Lesedi: Absolutely a pleasure, and I’m so grateful to have spoken to you and have you be on the podcast.
Mulemba: Thank you.
Lesedi: Okay, thank you.
Lesedi: I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe, the editor of the Radio Workshop. This episode was produced by Jo Jackson, and Mike Rahfaldt.
A big thanks to Mulemba Mulando and the Agents of Change Foundation. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions.
This episode of the Radio Workshop, and the work of the Children’s Radio Foundation would not be possible without support from UNICEF and the Wellcome Trust, and their global research project on mental health.
Visit our website for more information and to support our work at: childrensradiofoundation.org