Her friend held a bleach-concentrated concoction with suicidal intentions, so Thelma Anih did the only thing she could do and swatted the cup out of the teenage girl’s hand in a moment that now sticks with her.
It was one of two encounters Anih has had with the issue of suicide, though they happened worlds apart.
That first instance was when she was a 17-year-old in her home country, Nigeria. The second was when she was an Idaho State University student and learned that a seemingly outgoing African-American male acquaintance died from suicide while attending the Pocatello school.
Afterward, Anih was determined to educate herself about the matter. She also thought about ways she could help and will present a suicide awareness platform in the sixth annual Miss Africa Idaho scholarship pageant at 6 p.m. Saturday at Borah High School in Boise.
Anih, 2019 Miss Nigeria Idaho, is one of two ISU students participating in the event, as the university is also represented by 2019 Miss Rwanda Idaho, Anna Mugongo.
For Anih’s cause, she is working in conjunction with Community Suicide Prevention, an Idaho nonprofit organization that she reached out to.
“They were willing to partner with me and help me sponsor my platform,” said Anih, who hopes to start a Pocatello support group to help college students affected by suicide, whether they attempted suicide or know someone who has. “The support group is for comfort, for inclusion and for awareness.”
The 20-year-old ISU junior said suicide is a taboo subject in her home country, so it did not completely register after the dramatic event involving her aforementioned teenage friend in Nigeria.
“I was definitely shocked about it, but then I did not think too much about it after that,” Anih said. “It’s not really talked about. People shy away from it.”
After knocking the cup out of her friend’s hand, Anih eventually had to help carry her to the boarding school’s infirmary because the girl passed out.
“It was hard for her because she was getting homesick and so when she told us she was going to have to repeat the year, she definitely got depressed,” Anih said. “There was only so much I could do. And then when she tried to attempt suicide, I was able to save her from it.”
Anih said the friend was treated at a hospital at the time and is “doing so much better” now.
But after Anih traveled halfway around the world for college, she arrived in a state that had the fifth-highest suicide mortality rate in the United States, as of 2017. Idaho’s suicide rate was at 23.2 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During her research, Anih was surprised to find that suicide is one of the top five causes of deaths among young people in the U.S. She also learned some about Nigeria’s response to the issue, such as having no counseling center at one of the major universities.
All in all, she has chosen “love yourself” as the message for her cause.
“Even if they get depressed, they can still get out of it because they love themselves enough to fight it,” Anih said.
Anna Mugongo fled her native Rwanda when she was just 2 years old. Her family worried the genocide of Tutsis at the hands of rival Hutus in the early 1990s had made the east-central African nation too dangerous.
Her family, who were Tutsis, moved to Tanzania as refugees.
As a contestant in Miss Africa Idaho, Mugongo, 19, intends to share what she says is a largely untold story about Rwanda’s dramatic progress since the genocide of the early 1990s. Her platform is to motivate young African refuge students who have come to the U.S. to adapt to the American culture.
Nowadays, Mugongo said people in her native country no longer view themselves first as Hutus or Tutsi. Rather, they see themselves primarily as fellow citizens of Rwanda.
“I want people to know that even though Rwanda went through a tragic time from 1990 to 1994, we have turned it around and people really need to visit and see what’s out there,” Mugongo said. “We should take time to appreciate how the Rwandan people worked so hard to turn their country around.”
Mugongo believes the spirit of unity fostered by the United Nations and Rwanda President Paul Kagame has led Rwanda to become one of the fastest developing nations in Africa. She’s proud that Rwanda’s capital and largest city, Kigali, is one of the continent’s cleanest cities.
During the upcoming competition, Mugongo will be showcasing traditional outfits from Rwanda, featuring the country’s officials colors.
Mugongo believes Miss Africa Idaho will help “show people even though we are from different parts of Africa, we are all similar in different ways, and our differences shouldn’t make us fight each other. Our differences are what make us unique.”
Mugongo spoke no English when she arrived in Denver in 2010. Within two years of living in the U.S., she was able to hold a conversation in English. She’s now fluent in five languages. She’s enrolled at ISU as a sophomore in political science, with aspirations of becoming an attorney.
“As a lawyer, I want to fight for people’s justice,” Mugongo said. “With me, when I want to learn, I go for it and I’m unstoppable, and that’s why I’m going for Miss Africa Idaho.”
Idaho State Journal staff member John O’Connell contributed to this report.