Dying alone in the diaspora: Bodies of Zimbabweans lie in foreign morgues

Story Highlights
  • Zimbabweans are topping the list of those dying alone.

By Dr Masimba Mavaza

The house was a semi detached accommodation in the corner of a normally busy street. But in the bush way of life nobody knows about somebody. People just see each other but rarely talk to one another. Life goes on in silence but in a noisy area. Each one cares for himself. People leave for themselves.

Tatenda Bhebhe was around fifty nine years old. She lived in that semi detached house all alone. No one has sees Tatenda for the past month but as usual no one really cares. The world has turned people to be loners.

The noise of the street was disturbed by the wailing sirens. Within some few seconds the usually quieter house was covered in blue flashing lights. The mirage of the summer heat as it was a sunny summer Sunday could be seen from the other end of the street. Within Some minutes the police started to break the door. They filed inside the house.

Then we saw six officers carrying a body bag which looked filled with someone’s body. Yes it was Tatenda. She had died and nobody knew when. She lived alone and never made friends. She did not go to church her life was the life of working. Her decomposing body was removed to the morgue. What had happened.

The post man from Royal Mail was welcomed by a heavy smell from the house. He then alerted the police and the gruesome finding was made. Many Zimbabweans who stay alone have died alone.

This has nothing to do with COVID. The pains of staying alone are only seen and felt when this happens. AS more people live on their own here, a growing number of Zimbabweans are dying alone, with neither friends nor family surrounding them in their last moments.

Maria, (last name withheld), of Peterborough died all alone, leaving behind a few possessions.

The police found in her bedroom a pot of Vaseline, a hot water bottle, a stuffed koala, a roll of tissue and a child’s snow globe.
It wasn’t much to show for 44 years of existence.

And these few scattered items were the only clues to her identity.

Her body had lain undiscovered for months until the gas company forced open the door to her upstairs flat in Manchester.

Her body was so decomposed that an inquest could not determine the cause of death. No relatives could be traced in the UK. However, the Zimbabwean community came together, traced her family in Zimbabwe while church members and the community at large assisted in repatriating the badly decomposed body to Zimbabwe.

Sadly, there are a growing number of people like Maria who die with no friends or family to notice. Some have mental health problems and find themselves detached from the world.
Others are elderly and have outlived their families.

Early this year, a Zimbabwean woman died on the train; it emerged that she had been working with barely any rest. In her house was a stash of more than 30 000 pounds in cash and 10 000 pounds in unclaimed pay sheets.

With no relative in the country, fellow church members took the money, traced the relatives in Zimbabwe and used some of the cash to send the body home.

Many Zimbabweans are dying alone here, leaving behind a lot of unclaimed money in the banks. Most of the Diasporans do not make Wills and without a Will, it becomes difficult to claim the funds left in the banks.

Currently, in the UK, around 600 funerals a month are unattended, a figure set to rise as it is estimated that, by 2022 16 million people in this country would be living on their own. With most people having succumbed to COVID 19 many people already traumatised by COVID-19 deaths are thrown in the dip end of burning fiery life.

Where no relatives can be traced, the local authority pays for a basic cremation. Often, the deceased’s ashes are disposed of in unmarked graves.

Their stories remain untold.

One wonders how many Zimbabweans are in those graves, how many Zimbabweans are reduced to ashes because their relatives can not be traced.

Unfortunately, many Zimbabweans came to the UK on Malawian, South African and Botswana passports, so repatriating them without proper documentation has become a nightmare.

Some Zimbabweans changed names and dates of births in order to gain entry in the UK.
These pose a great problem when they die.
Nobody knows exactly where they came from.
As a result, most of them are given paupers’ burials.

Maria’s story was told in a Channel 4 documentary that sought to piece together the fragile archaeology of these lost lives.

Watch Me Disappear, directed by 27-year-old Lucy Cohen, also looks at the death of Akinyemi Akinpelu, a Nigerian student.

One wonders what is happening with our people.

Are we so disconnected from our past and relatives. In these days of social media, why and how does one become so disconnected that he/she dies alone without anyone alerting someone.

Is it because we have cultivated an illusion that we work so hard here that at times we go for days or weeks without touching base with our loved ones back home?

Many people here have cut themselves off from people back home. However, the consequences of doing that can be dire.

The English community may be overcrowded but still in that crowd, one dies alone, unnoticed and rots in the house. The relatives back home rarely make follow-ups because they are now used to the long periods of ‘silence’ without any form of communication.

“Dying alone is a modern phenomenon because there is a lack of extended family,” said Lonsdale, a reporter for Channel 4.

And many Zimbabweans are topping the list of those dying alone. Keeping alone in a foreign land is the worst thing to do. It has become necessary to belong in the various groups of Zimbabweans so that at least there are people who will inquire after your health and will notice your absence rather than be discovered rotting.

Malvern was a mental health nurse. He has been in the UK for over twenty years. In those twenty years he had never gone back to Zimbabwe. The way people at home demand money from him made him to totally disconnect with them. There was nothing to link him with people in Zimbabwe. As he drove from work going back to his house in Luton got involved in a fatal car crash. Nobody knew his relatives not even his girl friend.

His licence led the police to his address but there was no one there to assist. His work place did not have any further details about his family.

Malvern lies in the morgue as an uncollected statistics. Commenting on the issue Mr S Masina urged Zimbabweans to form associations so that we can identify our relatives when we need them.

Being alone and lonely as a loner it’s really lonely.


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