The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention is a key legal document and defines a refugee as: “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”.
With The Escape from Lubumbashi (published by Unisa Press), author Estelle Neethling tells a story that she felt compelled to share especially of this particular woman and her excruciating journey and circumstances to find a life and home for her family. And more than ever, this is the time to share the stories of refugees she tells DIANE DE BEER :
When author Estelle Neethling first met Adolphine Misekabu, her dignity and obvious honesty struck her forcibly. “From the very first time I saw her sitting in a makeshift classroom at a refugee centre in Cape Town in the mid-2000’s, teaching refugee children,” she says.
At the time Neethling was working for the South African Red Cross Society as the national tracing coordinator (restoring of Family Links Programme, International Committee of the Red Cross).
When the South African Red Cross, where she was based in Cape Town, relocated to Pretoria, she chose to remain in Cape Town. “I felt the need to write about the hardships of the genuine refugee, something I came to know all too well during my 10 years working in the refugee sector, my main mandate being to restore family links in cases where people had been displaced due to conflict and political turmoil over which they had no control.”
She was especially affected by the sorrow felt by women and children. And this is how her book Escape From Lubumbashi: A Refugee’s Journey On Foot To Reunite Her Family was given life.
“My life-changing ten years at the Red Cross also made me realise that there are other forms of displacement and I needed to explore and come to terms with my own personal history of emotional displacement,” she explains.
“Because Misekabu’s story so poignantly represents what the refugee goes through, I wanted her story to be ‘out there’, to combat the scourge of xenophobia so rampant in the world, but particularly among our communities in South Africa. It can be said that displacement – brought even more into focus because of the Covid-19 pandemic – is the theme of our time, second only to the ravages of World War 2.”
And fortunately or so it seems, the world is very slowly waking up to this reality with books like these and more and more real-life stories emerging. It is becoming harder and harder to simply ignore.
For Neethling this dignified woman’s story reflects the power of the human spirit to combat unimaginable challenges. “When Misekabu was finally reunited with her husband, Sepano, in Cape Town after almost two years through a confluence of circumstances, some kind of synchronicity that baffles me to this day, she suffered enormously because of cruel xenophobic attitudes, including the 2008 xenophobic violence that raged in South African for many months.”
And when you read her story, at this stage, this young woman had endured and survived what most of us will never see or experience in a lifetime. In fact, it’s impossible to understand how she motivates herself to keep going. That took willpower and courage, something not asked from many of us
“Emotionally drained at times due to the humiliation inflicted by local people and crime she encountered here after her gruelling search for her husband all the way from Lubumbashi in the DRC, she remained undaunted,” writes the author as she highlights Misekabu’s strength of character. And that’s what it takes once you’re part of that world, one you’re not a willing part of – but without any choice.
“In trains and on buses, when she was called amakwerekwere and other derogatory names, she would speak out: “Excuse me. Are you talking to me? Forget about other people’s business. Think development!” In telling me, she’d add, with eyes flashing: ‘I didn’t come to Cape Town to give up’,” explains Neethling.
She knew that this was a story that needed to be told. But she was also aware of the responsibility towards Misekabu to honour her truth. She was especially aware that she was delving however respectfully, into the life of a highly traumatised human being who had lost all her family, except for her baby, her small brother and eventually her husband.
She explains that the enormity of this remarkable woman’s loss was due to the First Congo War during which Mobutu Sese Seko’s ruinous reign destroyed innumerable lives. “Probably only my work with people in crisis made it possible for me to take on such an onerous task, albeit with the utmost respect and sensitivity.
“Misekabu immediately agreed when I initially approached her. The problem of re-traumatisation was always foremost in my mind, but slowly we pieced together her story, because there were times when I needed to do extensive research regarding the history of the times she lived in as a Kasaian, and a member of a family which was persecuted by Mobutu’s army and the factions which supported him.
“Her enduring love, especially for her dead father shone through all our interactions. Nkudimba’s name means ‘man of peace’ was a trained doctor, an internationally recognised artist and a leading politician in opposition to Sese Seko, who had disappeared mysteriously months before she and Sepano had to flee Lubumbashi in 1976.
“Our interactions over four years, with a few intermissions when I had to earn my daily bread, were of course often emotionally draining for me. Undoubtedly these intermissions gave her respite from verbally relating her memories. However, she expressed that our work together had had a healing effect on her. But of course that is an ongoing process,” Neethling stresses.
The impact of reading her story is one of admiration but also trying to understand why such a gruelling journey, probably the toughest you could ever make on every level possible, is turned into even more of a nightmare because of the impossibly difficult hoops refugees are asked to jump through when applying for the necessary status.
Neethling explains that there are organisations which assist refugees as best they can, but the process to obtain refugee status is gruelling, shared with migrants, persons who have come to South Africa ‘in search of a better life’, some whose goal is to be resettled in an overseas country of their choice.
“The Department of Home Affairs needs to deal with applications to become, first, an asylum seeker, secondly, a recognised refugee and, if it is the final goal, to seek permanent residency. The road to the latter is arduous, very long and not easily achieved.”
And she explains further: “The ‘refugee question’ is convoluted and many refugees become desperate. Some do ‘fall through the cracks’ or remain in the country illegally. Refugees often speak of corruption during their efforts to remain in South Africa. Our country has also had its fair share of troublemakers among these ‘immigrants’ or ‘foreigners’, as they are often called, and those who turn to crime, just as one would find in most groups of people.”
Add to that xenophobia which Neethling describes as a universal problem and based on the difficulty diverse groups have of accepting the ‘otherness’ of people who are strangers to the ways of their adopted country. “Lack of respect for human rights, an absence of tolerance, the burning issue of scarce resources and jobs play a huge part in the cruelty on which xenophobia is based,” she notes.
And how is the family doing now? In many ways fortunately after many years of unthinkable hardship and miraculous survival, three more children were born to Adolphine and Sepano.
There was much distress when her young brother, Joseph (five when she fled Lubumbashi with her baby, Ilunga, as a 22-year-old woman) was not granted permanent residency with the rest of the family through some bureaucratic error, but after persistent efforts, he is now also a permanent resident.
But that doesn’t mean their lives aren’t still a daily struggle. Despite being a permanent resident, finding stable work is difficult for this warrior woman. “As a strong, confident woman, a trained teacher, she should in my opinion have more employment opportunities. But as it is, she plays a significant part in assisting refugees and in helping local communities to accept refugees,” Neethling says.
She concludes that the world has in many ways become a perilous place, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and the effect it has on people and the economy. “My hope for the future is that people will stand up for and support basic human rights. All of us have agency – even the most humble among us. Tolerance and a word of kindness to someone ‘at sea’ in their desperation can go a long way in alleviating distress and even open the door to hope of acceptance – and a good life.”
And as a final word: “The journey with Adolphine started in 2010. Writing her story was an experience I wouldn’t change for the world. However, I always knew it would be difficult to find a publisher, because it is nonfiction, although a memoir in many ways, because most of her story is told in her own words. Further, the book isn’t about a famous person or a politician. Therefore, much of the time it took before I held the book in my hands was harrowing.
I have Unisa Press to thank for believing in Escape from Lubumbashi. When all’s said and done, it is in many ways a life’s work that has become an integral part of my very being.”
And in this time when millions in the world are either refugees or displaced people, all of us have to understand exactly what that means.
At a price of R137, the book can be ordered from Emily Monyai at firstname.lastname@example.org or from Johannes Morodi at email@example.com.