Boy's death raises spectre of 'choking game'
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By Nomfundo Mcetywa
The death of a 10-year-old Pietermaritzburg boy this week has once again trained the spotlight on the dangerous games children play.
Masibulele Cetywayo, a Grade 5 pupil from Mountain Rise Primary School, was found hanging from a jersey on a washing line. His body was discovered by a woman who rents a room at the boy's home in Grange township.
Police spokesperson Inspector Joey Jeevan said a post mortem had been done, but refused to release its contents as further tests were needed.
"At this stage we don't suspect foul play, but the cause of death will be established by the full post mortem. We will forward the results to the senior public prosecutor to make the final findings," said Jeevan.
In 2006 self-asphyxiation, also known as the choking game, was popular among schoolchildren in Durban and was even discussed in MXit cellphone chat rooms.
Alarm bells rang when Pinetown Boys High pupil Sean Aitchison was found hanging from an electric cable attached to a basketball hoop. At first it was thought that he had committed suicide, but it later emerged that he had died from a game gone horribly wrong.
Self-asphyxiation involves children compressing each other's chest or squeezing each other's neck until the oxygen flow is cut off. The person being choked feels light-headed due to a reduced blood flow and a lack of oxygen to the brain, which causes a high, but if the pressure is not released it results in death.
There are no statistics on the number of children who have died when these games have gone wrong, as they are usually classified as suicides. According to police children use ties, bags or even their own hands in this dangerous game and some play it alone, increasing the danger of injury or death.
Masibulele, who was found hanging from a wet jersey, had been at home with his 24-year-old cousin, Phila. His mother, Nomakhosazana, had been visiting their rural home in Bizana in Eastern Cape.
Nomzi Ntlantsana, who rents a back room in the Cetywayo family home, said she had found the boy hanging from the wet, black jersey when she returned from church on Sunday.
"He was sitting with his buttocks on the ground. The jersey had been tied around his neck using the sleeves. His one hand was on his knee while the other was hanging in the air," said Ntlantsana.
"I thought that he was playing some sort of game. I shouted at him to stop, as I thought it was very dangerous. I also asked him why he was not greeting me as he always does when he sees me coming. When I got no response from him I didn't become suspicious. I then opened my room and went inside."
Ntlantsana said she had become worried when she came out and saw Masibulele still sitting in the same position.
"When I got near him I saw that the collar of the jersey was full of mucus. I called Phila who was watching TV. I untied the knot on the jersey and felt his pulse and found that he was no longer breathing," said Ntlantsana.
Before the accident Masibulele and his cousin had been eating and watching movies on TV. Masibulele had slipped out of the house after going to the kitchen to put the dirty dishes in the sink.
"His cousin said he had screamed from the kitchen saying that he would be back at 2pm to watch a movie with her. When he did not come back she thought he was out playing with friends on the street," said Ntlantsana.
Ntlantsana, who described Masibulele as a "bubbly boy", said she didn't think the youngster had committed suicide.
"If he wanted to commit suicide, why did he do it in an open area? The washing line is right in front of the kitchen door. His cousin and I could have easily caught him. There are other poles at the side of the house where he could have hanged himself without anyone seeing.
"I think he was playing some sort of game. You can never understand the type of games that children play.
"He was very close to his mother. If he had had a problem he would have opened up to her," said Ntlantsana.
The Cetywayo family, who are originally from Bizana, travelled back to their home town on Monday to prepare for the funeral. A police source close to the case said the family had also vehemently dismissed allegations that the boy had committed suicide.
"I spoke personally to the mother and she does not believe that her son committed suicide. She believes that he was playing some sort of game not realising the danger of strangling himself with a jersey," said the officer.
In an interview in 2006 Dr Dora Wynchbank, a psychiatrist at Parkview Hospital, Johannesburg, and a member of the South African Society of Psychiatry, said children participated in such games because they had an immature sense of danger.
The choking game was more prevalent among adolescents in the 8 to 15 age group.
Children also indulged in another type of choking, autoerotic asphyxiation, for sexual experimentation. This involves constricting the amount of oxygen to get a rush of adrenalin during orgasms, apparently heightening them.
Joan van Niekerk, head of Childline, warned that youngsters went further by mutilating themselves during masturbation for heightened sexual pleasure.