UK based Zim businessman battled suicide, lost everything twice but is now back on his feet
At first glance, Devonshire Green does not look like a place you would find a story, let alone one with a strong if not immortal Zimbabwean connection. The park, a hundred odd meters away from Sheffield’s Council City Hall, in South Yorkshire has everything British but precious little to do with Africa.
It has a skate park, something quite alien to the Southern African country, and not in a bad way either. In the world of track, Zimbabwe is probably more BMX than skateboard, much like some countries are more Ice Hockey than Cricket!
Yet, the park carries an inspirational story of ‘rock bottom to top’ that mimics a pendulum in reverse. The story, incredibly, involves a motivated Zimbabwean migrant who landed in England when Princess Diana was still alive, and has been knocked down twice, both times to the brink of death, yet somehow, found his way back.
Gambinga Gambinga, 43, does not immediately strike you, or anybody for that matter, as a man with a story. Somewhere north of 6ft tall, the Rastafarian has bright white eyes, long braided locks, and charcoal like skin.
But, Gambinga Gambinga and Devonshire Green have a colourful, yet simultaneously worrying history. Gambinga, a creative designer and businessman landed in England in 1997, but immediately fell into some problems. A first generation migrant, and also a first born, he battled black tax, guilt, and eventually mental illness.
Explaining how his European dream went up in smoke, Gambinga, from Sheffield, said: “I have been here since 1997, I am the first born, my mum is still there. But I go a year sometimes without talking to them because I am embarrassed. And each time I would call, they would be something they are struggling with, but I wouldn’t have any money to send them, and I didn’t have money. Because I felt bad, I would not call to avoid that, but because I didn’t call, I would feel guilty, and the cycle started.”
In the late 90s, Gambinga‘s battle with loneliness, sadness, and the weight of expectations from his family back home drove him to alcohol, which provided temporary relief, but set him on a collision course too. Whilst the bottle gave him reprieve, it created a vicious problem of dependency ( previously known as alcoholism).
Detailing how he began descending down a destructive path, Gambinga Gambinga said: “My problem for example was never that I drank everyday. My problem was binge drinking. So I could go months without drinking. But when I started, I could go for seven days.
“The problem with that, as you can probably imagine (at the end of seven days) I have lost whatever job I was doing at the time. Most likely if I was working, and I have been paid, I would have drank through the rent money. Or if I was on benefits because I was not working I would have drank through the benefits money. So I would go three days or whatever, finish all my pay, finish all my benefits, and I have got like 15 days or sometimes 20 days before I get paid.”
Gambinga says he never saw his first mental health crisis coming. In Zimbabwean circles, drinking, especially binging, was not traditionally believed let alone seen to be an issue. In some ways, that culture remains today. However, the acceptance that men can drink, in excess, did not shake off an inherent sense of guilt and self doubt in Gambinga who in turn took drastic steps.
Explaining how it unfolded, Mr Gambinga said: “And what I would do then is hide away, because I don’t want anybody to see me that way or have to explain myself. But on the day I get my benefits or I get paid, I would dress myself up, go out, meet everybody, pretend like everything is fine. So I put a lot of work into hiding.
“And that is what a lot of us will do. So when people disappear for a bit and what not and we wonder where they were, a lot of times because they struggling and struggle on their own when they feel better that’s when they come out and the cycle continues but it eventually gets worse, because like for me, the hiding wasn’t working, because then, that’s when my suicide ideations were coming.”
Gambinga says at one point, during his first meltdown, he sank so low that he trawled clubs in Sheffield, borderline broke, and nicked beers of patrons. He said: “I started to be like one of those guys that go out, either without money at all or maybe with a fiver, buy the first drink, and then spend the rest of the night trying to steal beer from other people’s tables. And sometimes I would steal beer that has been roofied and that’s why I would end up passed out here sometimes.”
Gambinga, who was bouncing in between homelessness and starvation, says he would equally trawl refuse bins of popular supermarket chains and pubs, scavenging for food. Gambinga said: “A lot of people would eat, but because they are drunk, they would eat half a piece of chicken and throw the rest out.
“So if you wait until around 2am the whole bin would be full (of half eaten food). On a typical night, I would steal people’s beers, and then make my way, find a plastic bag or something, and put as much food as I can and carry it home, put it in the fridge, and that would be my food for however long I could make it last.”
But, Gambinga, a dreamer from Mashonaland says he dusted himself up, worked hard, and made it. He got a job, got off benefits, saved up, and started a lucrative business venture which eventually saw him open an exotic nightclub in Sheffield. He quit alcohol, and at one point employed several different people.
However, in 2020 Covid 19 hit the UK. A nationwide lockdown was put in place, and Gambinga was forced to close his venture, just as it was flourishing. The creative designer was not ready to let his dream die, so he gave up his house, and chose to save his business, investing all he had in keeping his premise alive and working to save his business.
As the UK began opening up, Gambinga believed he had made the right call. But, in December 2020, the UK announced stricter lockdown rules. This time, Gambinga‘s fate was sealed. He was forced to close his business, and having lost his house, he found himself back where he had been, all those years ago.
Detailing his experience, Gambinga said: “After we got shut down at the bar, I owed a tonne of money to suppliers, to friends I had borrowed to keep the thing going. And what I had done during the lockdown was when I couldn’t pay rent for the bar and the house I gave up the house because I was thinking once we open I can just make the money and find another place to rent. But then we got locked down before I could do that, and that is how I ended up homeless.
“It was wild, because there were very many weird things. Homeless in the middle of a pandemic. I was never actually homeless like sleeping on the street. They found me a hostel, which wasn’t really a hostel. I ended up in a mental hospital. I was an inpatient.
“This is a nice story, but I can tell you, it’s not very unusual. It’s just that the people that have the same story, they don’t say. We don’t talk, that is the problem.”
That was 2020, into 2021. Gambinga fell to his old vices, but he quickly found his way, in fact, much quicker. Fast forward to 2020, Gambinga is not an inpatient anymore, nor is he homeless, and he concedes his battle with mental illness is an ongoing one, but he is on a new mission, to prevent young people going through what he went through, and to help those that are facing problems with mental health avoid what he describes as the cycle of mental institutions and homelessness.
Gambinga says, from his own experiences, his reluctance to open up, about loneliness and homesickness coupled up with his decision to “self medicate with alcohol” consigned him the worst house in a bad neighbourhood. He said: “Because we don’t talk, we try to drink through it. But if you are in a bad place, and you get drunk, you end up fighting, and getting arrested.
“So the services are struggling at the moment but they are there, and at the very least if you ask for help, you get on the radar, and they will try to help. So if you man up, try to pull your socks up, that kind of nonsense, even worse when you are an immigrant, because the stigma is, you are cursed or whatever else, and you start to believe that.”
Mr Gambinga, who has not given up on his dreams of starting another business, is even back on his feet, and has a job that fits in with his new mission to save young people. Explaining, he said: “I have not been homeless since my birthday, on January 24.
“How I actually found the job was after my homelessness. There was something called a wellbeing hub that we did on a Wednesday, and you go there for company, and you get advice around different things, benefits, and you can get signposted to other organisations and then there is an African- Caribbean lunch. So I used to go there as a service user, then volunteered, then this job came up, and I applied.”
And Mr Gambinga says he has found that his experiences in life, sinking to the very bottom twice, have helped him make a huge impact, and he does not shy away opening up to his service users at the SACMHA, the charity he now works for. He said: “I will bring up that I was an inpatient somewhere else. That usually surprises them but it also opens them up. Because then they realise that well I am not just somebody who is here to judge them or whatever else.
“So for example, a lot of the people, as they get better, they get what is called leave. They can go out to town for a few hours. A lot of people make the mistake that, the first time they go out, is probably the first time in weeks or months, so they head straight to the pub, or their dealer.
“So they come back drunk or high, or end up getting arrested again. And that is a very dangerous time, because they feel like they have let everybody down, and for people prone to suicide, that is usually when they start thinking maybe everybody is better off without me. So that is where I come in, to tell them, I have been through worse.”
“I think I would still be an alright support worker if I hadn’t gone through what I went through, but it helps, because I care more about my service users, because I don’t want them to end up where I have been. And I also understand what they are going through, so its easy for me to speak to them man to man.
“For example we had a rule that if you are high or drunk you can’t come to our services. Which kind of made sense but also doesn’t make sense, because most people that are struggling, and a lot of guys, the only way they cope is drinking, so if you say if they can’t come drunk they won’t come.
“So what I do is to try to reach out to them on the streets, there are a lot of places I know. I don’t try to be a Jehovah’s Witness. But, I try to create relationships.”
Gambinga, now back to himself, says he is thankful to two charities that helped bring him back. He said: “My path back was made possible by Sheffield Flourish and Space to Breath, both mental health charities.”
He has even written a letter to his younger self, a metaphor to younger people, where he tells them, they are not alone.
- Maynard Manyowa is a Zimbabwean journalist and documentary maker based in the UK. This story originally appeared in Uk style feature writing in the Daily Examiner here. Maynard is presently looking to get more and more Zimbabweans in UK newspapers. Contact him with your story on his verified Twitter or verified Facebook.