In 2001, aged 11, Vanessa Ma­nunga left Congo in the com­pany of an adult stranger and two other girls. The month-long jour­ney to Dublin was filled with fear and fraught with risk

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Vanessa Ma­nunga

The jour­ney – from Kin­shasa in the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo to Ire­land – was meant to last three days. It took more than a month. I was ac­com­pa­nied by a woman in her 30s whom I called “Aunt San­dra”, and two other girls. One was about 17, the other about my age: 11.

I left Kin­shasa fol­low­ing the sud­den death of my 13- year- old brother, Reed Ma­nunga, in 2001. Reed was a ta­lented artist, who had made dif­fer­ent por­traits of me that looked in­cred­i­bly sur­real. When he died I had no other im­me­di­ate fam­ily mem­bers left.

In 1992, when I was two, my father died. He was a pilot who worked in Kin­shasa. A few years later my younger brother, Glodi, died at the age of five. When I turned seven, in 1997, my mother died too. She was an el­e­gant, beau­ti­ful, charm­ing and gen­er­ous woman who had worked as an air host­ess for Air Zaïre.

The loss of my fam­ily mem­bers left me feel­ing iso­lated and sad. I started get­ting sick reg­u­larly, vom­it­ing and suf­fer­ing headaches, but the hospi­tal couldn’t de­tect what was wrong with me.

Af­ter some time my aunt, who was mar­ried to a busi­ness­man in Kin­shasa, took charge of me. They fed me, clothed me and sent me to school. I trav­elled to Gabon with them in 1997, when we fled a war in Congo.

My aunt’s fam­ily had a com­fort­able life in Kin­shasa, but I still felt alone and empty. Even as a cousin, I missed the feel­ing of be­long­ing to a fam­ily of my own.

In 1976, my mother had had a daugh­ter, my half- sis­ter, who moved to Europe in 1999 to pur­sue her stud­ies. She then moved to Ire­land, to set­tle down and start a fam­ily.

When Reed died sud­denly in 2001, it was de­cided I should travel to Ire­land as soon as pos­si­ble. I was an 11-year-old child, and my sis­ter – now preg­nant with a baby boy– was my clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tive.

My aunt was sad­dened that I was leav­ing the coun­try. I got along well with her el­dest son: we played, ate and hung out to­gether. I was like the older sis­ter he never had, and he was like my younger brother, Glodi, whom I had lost.

Al­though it was sad leav­ing Kin­shasa, I was also ex­cited about mak­ing my dreams come true. Ire­land seemed to of­fer op­por­tu­ni­ties beyond my wildest dreams. Al­though my life in Kin­shasa was not un­com­fort­able, in Dublin I could start a new life of my own in a de­vel­oped coun­try, get a bet­ter ed­u­ca­tion, and live in an en­vi­ron­ment free from war, poverty and cor­rup­tion – which is ev­ery­where in Congo.

Un­em­ploy­ment is high there, the work en­vi­ron­ment is poor, and it is dif­fi­cult to grow as an in­di­vid­ual. The am­bi­tion of most young peo­ple is to travel and live abroad.

First stop

“San­dra”, who lived in an ur­ban area in Kin­shasa, was the younger sis­ter of a peo­ple smug­gler who lived in Ire­land. A down-to-earth, con­fi­dent and out­spo­ken woman, she would be in charge of me and the two other girls on our jour­ney to Ire­land. San­dra was a sin­gle mother at the time and was leav­ing her daugh­ter, who was about five, in Congo.

The two other girls were from dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies in Kin­shasa. The tall, dark-brown-skinned 17-year-old was re­served and ob­ser­vant. She barely spoke but was al­ways will­ing to help when things were tough. The 11-year-old was noisy and chatty, care­less at times, but like me she was only a child.

From Kin­shasa, the first stop was Matadi. It is the main sea­port of Congo, and has one of the largest har­bours in cen­tral Africa. I think we trav­elled by bus. The weather was ex­tremely hot.

Paved roads are rare in Congo, and are mainly lim­ited to mo­tor­ways. On many na- tional roads, cars drive on sand in­stead. The sand is red in Matadi, and peo­ple walk­ing on the street be­came dusty quickly. Many peo­ple be­gan to l ook blurry t o my 11-year-old eyes, as the sand cov­ered their nice colour­ful out­fits. I soon be­came one of them, cov­ered in dust.

In Matadi, we stayed at a fam­ily’s home for two nights. The house was very stuffy, and I couldn’t breathe com­fort­ably as it was very warm and there was no fan.

Out­side, the streets were darker than I was used to. There were no street lights, but peo­ple were com­fort­able walk­ing on the street dur­ing the evening time.

Peo­ple there were re­spect­ful and friendly, es­pe­cially when they be­came aware that we were head­ing to Europe. They hoped we might re­mem­ber to send them some­thing when we got there and gained some ex­pend­able in­come.

A stu­dio in Zam­bia

From Matadi, we went to Zam­bia by plane – a small air­craft, not lux­u­ri­ous. My stom­ach felt sick, as I had an ex­treme fear of fly­ing. I cried out loud, and my whole body shook. San­dra gripped my hands firmly and pointed out a younger girl who wasn’t cry­ing. I had no rea­son to cry nor to be afraid, she said. We landed safely.

On ar­rival in Zam­bia, we took a minibus crowded with pas­sen­gers both sit­ting and stand­ing. In this crowded space I could see only the eyes of some peo­ple, which scared me. I was par­tic­u­larly afraid of the men. I forced a smile, hop­ing this would pre­vent peo­ple at­tack­ing me.

San­dra rented a small stu­dio for the two weeks we spent there. The stu­dio – a small room with a dou­ble bed and no in­door toi­let – was at­tached to sev­eral other rented houses. We took turns to sleep in the bed or the floor. I was in the bed most nights as I was younger and very in­se­cure.

I turned 12 in Zam­bia. I felt dis­ap­pointed, as I had hoped to cel­e­brate my birth­day in Ire­land sur­rounded by my fam­ily, but a call to San­dra’s mo­bile phone from my un­cle and aunts in Kin­shasa helped make the day feel spe­cial, and San­dra bought me juice and bis­cuits.

That night we went to a pub, where I saw men min­gling and danc­ing se­duc­tively with women. I felt I shouldn’t be there, and knew that at home I would never have been al­lowed out at that time.

One night in Zam­bia I wet the bed, and had to sleep on the floor the fol­low­ing night as a con­se­quence. At that age, I was very em­bar­rassed.

On one oc­ca­sion San­dra sent me to drop some­thing to some guys liv­ing next to our stu­dio. They called me in­side, but they looked creepy and I feared I was go­ing to be raped and re­fused to go in. I won­der if San­dra also sensed this dan­ger. The other girl of around my age started go­ing to that house reg­u­larly. I still some­times worry that she was sleep­ing with these men.

As a child, I didn’t re­alise how se­ri­ous this sit­u­a­tion might have been. Now I feel lucky I was bold enough to speak up and say “No” to those men. I was in a po­si­tion of weak­ness, in a for­eign coun­try as a mi­nor with no money or fam­ily.

My fam­ily mem­bers in Kin­shasa were wor­ried about me trav­el­ling in such con­di­tions, but felt they had no other way of get­ting me to Ire­land at the time. I would not have been given a visa to travel here by or­di­nary routes.

The scari­est jour­ney

Soon we took the road to Zim­babwe, which was the scari­est jour­ney I have ever been on. The buses we took were crowded and drove on small roads which should have been one lane but ac­tu­ally had two. The fast- mov­ing buses were driv­ing on hills where pave­ments were fiercely bro­ken. Know­ing that one bad turn could lead to tragedy was ter­ri­fy­ing.

We spent a week in Zim­babwe. We were lodged in a mo­tel which had one room but it had an in­door toi­let. It was nice com­pared with the stu­dio in Zam­bia.

The first few days were tough as we ate once a day and we had to share food from one pot. I had to eat very fast, as eat­ing slowly meant no food. I dreamed about eat­ing a proper meal of chicken or fish.

Even­tu­ally the smug­gler from Ire­land came. She was a very beau­ti­ful woman, tall, glam­orous and softly spo­ken. My re­ac­tion when I first saw her was “Wow”; I won­dered whether I could look this

I have since stud­ied drama and jour­nal­ism, and in De­cem­ber will grad­u­ate from Dublin City Univer­sity

pol­ished when I grew up. She had a num­ber of chil­dren, and I had to use her daugh­ter’s Ir­ish pass­port.

She brought along a suit­case of out­fits sent by my fam­ily. Af­ter weeks with­out a change of clothes, I was de­lighted with these beau­ti­ful and fresh dresses, as I loved look­ing pretty. San­dra, how­ever, rushed to my suit­case and shared my out­fits with the two other girls. With noth­ing much left, I felt ex­tremely sad but was too young to ar­gue.

The smug­gler from Ire­land, the 17-year-old-girl and I were to travel to Lon­don now, leav­ing San­dra and the other girl be­hind. I was told to get rid of my own pass­port and use the smug­gler’s daugh­ter’s pass­port. She also told me to prac­tise say­ing her ad­dress in English in case they asked me for it.

Dur­ing the flight to Lon­don I felt a mix of hap­pi­ness and anx­i­ety. On ar­rival at the check- in desk, the man check­ing our pass­port seemed to no­tice some­thing was off. The woman at the desk be­side ours looked at me and my smug­gler and whis­pered to the guy. He be­gan to ask more ques­tions.

When he asked me my ad­dress I was able to an­swer like I had prac­tised but when he asked about other things, I started to re­ply in French. The smug­gler told him that my grand­mother had just passed away and that I was trau­ma­tised.

The man looked straight into my eyes and I looked back at him help­lessly. He closed my pass­port and showed us the exit. As we rushed to the exit doors, the smug­gler whis­pered: “Hurry, some­times the po­lice can come af­ter us again.” But no­body did.

Lon­don­ers looked the same

I was in Lon­don for two weeks. In Lon­don it was just af­ter Christ­mas, the lights in the city-cen­tre streets were still up, it seemed like magic walk­ing around the streets of Lon­don among all the Cau­casian peo­ple. I couldn’t tell them apart. Ev­ery­one seemed to look alike. The only point of dis­tinc­tion was the colour of their hair.

I wel­comed the cold weather at first, but I could en­joy hav­ing my hands frozen for only a short while, and I re­mained in­doors for most of my stay. I lived with a Con­golese fam­ily, par­ents with a girl my age and a younger boy. The fam­ily was Chris­tian and wel­com­ing.

How­ever, the mum locked the kitchen door when she went to work. The kids would go to school and eat their break­fast and lunch in school. The father was usu­ally out, so I would stay in the bed­room or sit­tin­groom with­out food un­til ev­ery­one came back. Then I would eat din­ner with the fam­ily.

One day I over­heard the father com­plain­ing about the kitchen door be­ing locked dur­ing the day, and they had a fight. I was re­minded that I was just a stranger in their house, not trusted to have free run of the kitchen.

Ques­tioned in Dublin

The smug­gler had told the fam­ily that I would stay at their home for only three days, but I was there for more than two weeks. At last, she came to col­lect me, and we em­barked on the jour­ney from Lon­don to Dublin. The trip was long as we took sev­eral buses.

I de­cided that be­ing ner­vous wasn’t an op­tion. I had prac­tised and learned a lot of English words dur­ing my two weeks in Lon­don. I felt more con­fi­dent and was able to briefly an­swer back when­ever I was ques­tioned by the check­point per­son­nel. I was also able to dodge some ques­tions that I wasn’t able to an­swer.

At the port in Ire­land, I could an­swer most ques­tions that the of­fi­cial put to me, but at a cer­tain point the smug­gler grabbed my hand as if she was run­ning late for an im­por­tant meet­ing. We walked away as the man was still speak­ing.

Fi­nally, I was walk­ing on the streets of Dublin. We took the bus and the woman pointed at the roadworks, which she said was a never-end­ing part of life in Dublin.

It felt like home, but the few hours prior to meet­ing my fam­ily felt like the long­est hours I’ve had to en­dure. My heart was rac­ing. The next day I was driven to my sis­ter’s flat in cen­tral Dublin – a hu­mid one-bed­room apart­ment in an old build­ing. I met my new­born nephew and the rest of the fam­ily.

“She’s here,” my sis­ter said, with tears in her eyes. Cit­i­zen­ship In the years since, I have stud­ied drama in Lib­er­ties Col­lege, and jour­nal­ism in Bal­lyfer­mot Col­lege. I am cur­rently a pro­fes­sional ac­tor, and in De­cem­ber I will grad­u­ate from Dublin City Univer­sity with a 2:1 bach­e­lor’s de­gree in me­dia pro­duc­tion man­age­ment. My daugh­ter is turn­ing five on Oc­to­ber 22nd. Al­though it was very chal­leng­ing com­bin­ing my stud­ies with rais­ing her, she is the rea­son I wanted to get my dis­tinc­tions.

Six years ago I be­came an Ir­ish cit­i­zen. I jumped and cried for joy when I re­ceived the let­ter.


Vanessa Ma­nunga near her home in Clon­dalkin: “The loss of my fam­ily mem­bers left me feel­ing iso­lated and sad. I started get­ting sick reg­u­larly, vom­it­ing and suf­fer­ing headaches.”


Vanessa Ma­nunga: “I jumped for joy – with tears in my eyes – when I re­ceived the let­ter.”

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