By Wengi Africa
As a counsellor at Rape Crisis we face many challenges but always we learn from our clients in the process. Working with refugee clients is different, it is hard, makes us feel helpless and that we can never do enough. That sitting there and thinking about the different resources that are available are never going to be enough. The story I would like to tell you about is one that has shown me that I should never give up, that small things can make a difference that change can happen and perhaps not in the way that we think it could.
*Ndege is 38 years old and came from the Congo to South Africa. I started counselling Ndege who was experiencing depression and symptoms of trauma. What struck me though was the story of why she was in South Africa. As a refugee, fleeing from her home, surviving multiple rapes, she came to South Africa because she had this idea that her children had travelled here. Ndege walked through different countries searching for her children; she went through Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia searching for them in each country to no avail. Her feet became bloodied and toenails torn but she carried on. Each time she walked past a child, she would look at them to see whether it was her own child and then wonder about her children. She had a very clear picture in her mind of each of her 13 children, what they looked like, how they sounded. She held the picture of each of her children in her mind. She always had the hope that she would find them.
She told me the story of how she was parted from her children during the war. One of her 13 children was 8 months old at the time and still being breastfed. I felt completely sad and concerned because of what it evokes in me as a mother and the thought of what it would be like for me to be parted from my children. She told me that she didn’t care that her 8 month old would now be grown up; she would still put him on her back and carry him around. It felt important to try and mobilise our resources in order to see whether she could be reunited with her children. I contacted Petronille Mukarugwiza from the Tracing Department at the International Red Cross and set up an appointment for Ndege to see her. Before meeting with Petronille, Ndege was relating the story of her missing children to a neighbour who then said that she had heard that Ndege’s children might be on the Uganda and DRC border.
Her neighbour called someone who lived in the area who was then able to confirm the location of her children. Ndege was given the number for her eldest daughter. Imagine Ndege’s joy at being able to speak to her daughter whom she had prayed was still alive and well after 8 years of being parted! The International Organization on Migration (IOM) interviewed Ndege and agreed to help Ndege reunite with her children in the DRC. It was a coincidence that I was in the office and had just had a supervision meeting when the crisis line received a call for me. I answered and it was Ndege calling from the DRC to say how happy she was, she sounded very excited – I wish everyone could hear the joy that I heard. She was so joyous I could hardly hear all that she was trying to tell me on the phone. Her son recognised her, the children were fine and they were all very happy to be together again.
Ndege’s story has given me hope, courage and a sense of motivation. Her story evokes joy within me and I have a renewed appreciation of myself and what I do. What I take from Ndege is that we should never give up, there are always small things that can change lives. A small conversation with a neighbour lead to a very profound change in one woman’s life and those of her children. The importance of communication and listening to others… taking that time.
Thank you to Zoe Rohde and her team at the IOM. The logistics were not easy to arrange but Ndege says that she was treated “like a queen” returning home after a long absence. IOM staff accompanied Ndege at each point on her journey home.
*The survivor’s name has been changed to protect her identity.