Kenya: Alarming Cases of Kenyan Students Dying Mysteriously Abroad

10 November 2019

They travel overseas to study but return not with degrees but in caskets.

Kenyan students going abroad for studies have been dying through suicide or under mysterious circumstances, which has left communities of Kenyans living in the US brainstorming on the need to hold the hands of learners who find themselves in the deep end outside their country.

SUICIDE

Last week, the medical examiner's office in Santa Clara, in the US state of California, confirmed that a top achiever in the 2013 national examinations lost her life through suicide.

Norah Borus Chelagat, the fourth best student nationally in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination and the best girl in Nairobi, was found dead in her room at Stanford University on June 14.

She was at that time a master's student at the university that she had joined in September 2014.

The Santa Clara medical examiner's office told The Stanford Daily on Monday that the suicide was probably caused by poisoning.

The Stanford Daily said Norah's was the fourth student death announced at the facility since February.

Then there is John Omari Hassan, a 26-year-old who in July drowned mysteriously in a pond in Baltimore, Maryland. That was four months after leaving Kenya for postgraduate studies in the US.

Baltimore County fire officials said people playing on a nearby basketball court heard someone yelling from the pond and ran over to help.

What shocked authorities was how the deceased ended up in the water as there were signs nearby warning against swimming in the pond. Hassan, who hailed from Nakuru, graduated from Kenyatta University in October 2016.

FOUND DEAD

In August 2018, a Kenyan family had to seek help from well-wishers to bring back the remains of their kin who was found dead in her room in the US.

Patricia Miswa left Kenya in 2017 to pursue a master's degree in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

Her mother tried calling her but there was no response. She later called the hostel management who together with the police discovered Miswa's lifeless body inside her room.

Before leaving for studies in the US, Miswa founded AfroElle magazine, which focused on uncelebrated women achievers.

Recently, students with Kenyan roots in the US have also lost lives in unclear circumstances.

One of them is Eric Kang'ethe, a Computer Engineering student at the University of Massachusetts who died in mysterious circumstances early this month.

Kang'ethe's body was found by police in a vehicle outside McGuirk Alumni Stadium on the evening of October 30. His death was described as "non-criminal in nature" by Mary Carey, communications director for the office of Northwestern District Attorney, which implied that the young man might have taken his life.

Massachusetts State Police said investigations surrounding his death are ongoing. According to local media, Kang'ethe was born in Nairobi and migrated with his family to the US.

PRE-MATURE DEATHS

There is also Gift Kamau, a 20-year-old student whose body was found floating in the Mississippi River on May 18.

Before the discovery, Kamau had been reported as missing by her parents.

Police at the time believed she had committed suicide after a note was found.

The deaths involving young Kenyans in the US have perturbed Dr DK Gitau, a Kenyan-born resident of Atlanta, Georgia. For almost a year now, Dr Gitau has been chronicling deaths involving Kenyans.

Under the theme 'Diaspora Shattered Dreams', Dr Gitau, a former architectural engineer-turned-community social philanthropist, not only announces the deaths but also helps in mobilising resources for funeral purposes using his vast networks in the US.

Dr Gitau called on the Kenyan community to find ways of preventing the rising cases of stress-related deaths among Kenyans living overseas.

"As a community that is increasing in numbers in America, we can't normalise nor become numb to these escalating pre-mature deaths among our people. The starting point is, of course, to openly talk about factors that are causing stress among our people. Burying our heads in the sand and pretending that all is well won't do it," he told the Sunday Nation.

According to Dr Sam Oginde, a psychology professor at Neumann University in Chester, Pennsylvania, it will be easy to find a solution.

MENTAL WARFARE

"Right now, three out of five reported deaths among Kenyans in the US are either out of domestic violence or are from stress-related suicides. The irony is, something can be done about this if only the community is ready and willing to open up and candidly discuss what is causing this," he said.

"Our community is not unique. Other immigrant communities have gone through this and were able to deal with the issue because they were willing to seek solutions."

In the psychologist's opinion, young adults have become casualties of "mental warfare".

"We are seeing a lot of this, especially among young college and career adults who have a family also living here in the US. Suicides and premature deaths are most rampant between the ages of 19 to 36," he says.

In 2017, a documentary about Kenyans in the US shed light on some untold challenges Kenyans face as immigrants while living there.

Written and produced by Kaba Mbugua, the film showed many Kenyans, just like other immigrants, struggle to make ends meet.

Challenges have at times led some, especially the youth, to fall into bad company, ending up in jail, in shelters for the homeless, being deported or even losing their lives.

Reports by Hilary Kimuyu, Chris Wamalwa and Elvis Ondieki

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