The international 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence campaign ran from 25 November to 10 December. The Salesian Life Choices program works with young people in vulnerable circumstances and helps them to tell their stories. Spotlight.africa concludes this series with a story by Beni Kambwa, who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to escape violence, only to find that it followed her to South Africa.
Beni Kambwa (18) is the middle child, she has older twin siblings (21) and a younger sister (14). Beni and her family were born in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC.
“When I was five there was war in the DRC. We were not be allowed to go outside, and we would often hear gun shots and people screaming. My dad was a soldier and would be away from home… we were scared for his life.”
“I was closer to my dad – physically we looked alike and I think this might be the reason I was his favourite. He was a soldier and because he knew the terrain, when there was less fighting, he would take me out. It would often just be the two of us. He used to call me his blessing.”
Beni’s dad treated her well which was a complete contradiction to the way he ruled the home. “My earliest memory took place at a neighbour’s wedding. We ran to see what was happening, I slipped and fell to the ground. When my dad saw, he grabbed my mother and told her that she was stupid and irresponsible to let me get hurt. I felt bad like it was my fault, because I knew my mother would never want anything bad to happen to me.
After this incident, I started noticing my mother crying often when my dad shouted at her, and sometimes he hit her. To see this made me sad but I kept hoping things would get better and he would be nice to everyone.”
“When the war escalated, my dad would often be away from home. He would visit us from time to time and each time his behaviour became more violent. On one occasion, my mom told us that my dad had killed a well-known rebel and that he had to go to a place of safety.”
“We knew the rebels were ruthless, so we were all worried. My dad was not a nice person to have around but he was still our father. After he left, we moved in with my grandmother about 200 kilometres away. I was happy to leave because we did not feel safe and were scared that the rebels would come to our home. My mother, who was a nurse, had to quit her job and we had to move into an already full home where my two aunts, uncle and three children were staying with my granny.”
“We enjoyed living there because we developed a closeness with my cousins. We also heard that after traveling for a while, my father was safe in South Africa.”
Coming to South Africa
Beni says that they stayed with her grandmother for a year, then they flew to South Africa to join her father in Cape Town.
“It was a confusing time, I was 8 years old and felt sad because I was leaving my family and friends behind but excited to be with my dad again. I felt happy seeing my dad – it felt like home, my dad was alive and safe. We rented a room in a house with another family. We had to create a border in the middle of the space to make one room for my parents and the other for the kids.”
Unfortunately moving to Cape Town was not an easy process for the family.
“Because of the language barrier, my mother could not find a job and we could not find a school. My dad could speak a bit of English so he would teach us a few things.”
After a year of living in South Africa, a school was found and Beni met a guardian angel. “One of my teachers, Mrs Shura, offered to give me extra English lessons. It really helped me to adapt better. I struggled making friends, but at least I could communicate and understand what was happening in class.”
More violence amid poverty and despair
Beni says that her family had financial constraints and things at home were difficult. Fighting become the norm.
“My father was the only one working. He worked as a security guard. Money was tight at home, so we didn’t have money for school fees, uniforms or food. Mrs Shura would buy uniforms for my siblings and me. She made living here a bit better, because she was one of the first people that was nice to us. After a while she also helped us with food because she could see that things were difficult at home and we would sometimes come to school with no food.
My dad would stay away from home often and when he eventually came back my mother would ask him where he had been. He would slap her and never answered back. One of their big fights happened one night when my dad was drinking. My parents were screaming at each other and we were on our bed peeping to see what was happening. He shouted at us to go under the blankets because he didn’t want to see our ugly faces. We did that for a while, but we got scared because things were getting worse. My dad was hitting my mom. The bed was close to a window, so my brother broke it and shouted for help. The neighbour called the police and they arrested my father. I was relieved when they took him away.”
“The neighbour gave my mom the number of a safe house in Samora Machel and we moved there. We were there for a few weeks and had to skip school. People were friendly and we got some peace. But my dad found us, and spoke to my mother. We went back home because he wanted us to be a family. I was afraid for my mom but deep inside I was happy because I wished we could be a family.
The fighting continued, he became abusive every second night. It got really bad one night when my father was hitting my mom. My younger sister, who was about nine, tried to hold him back, so he hit her with a plank. Her face swelled and I think that is when my mom realised that enough was enough.
Picking up the pieces
My mom told us that she wanted us all to run away. We went to China Town where she phoned her friend from church to fetch us. But she took us back home, she kept telling my mom that we must sit down and pray together and that my father would change. But when we got to the house, my dad wouldn’t let my mom come inside. He pulled all the children in and pushed my mother to the ground – I remember screaming.
My mom called the police and they told my father that he needed to leave because of his pattern of abusive behaviour. He left and came back a few days later to fetch all of his stuff and the furniture. He did not leave anything, not even the bed.”
The family struggled even more now that her father stopped providing. “My mom began working as a domestic for a family in Newlands. We did not have food in the house, because my mom earned R450 a week. The money was hardly enough for the rent and taxi fare. So there was no money for electricity, food and the toiletries we needed.
Some people from church helped us . However, sometimes we went to sleep without food and went to school hungry. All we could do was wait for my mom with the little she brought. Sometimes the house she worked in would give her food and she brought it to us. But it was seldom.
The school began contacting my mother because they weren’t receiving our school fees. Before my parents divorced, my dad would help with the fees, but when he left he stopped helping. At school you can’t get your report if you don’t pay school fees. I knew an education was the only thing that would change my situation. So, my only option was to work so that I could pay the fees for myself and my younger sister.
Into the future with hope
Focused on her goal, Beni soon began looking for part-time work and telling her family that she would start contributing to the household’s needs.
“I began working at the age of 14, at first I would babysit for the family that my mom worked for during the holidays. They paid me R800 for two weeks and two days. When I was 15, I started working in Athlone at a Chinese clothing shop after school during the week. I have continued working in shops until today. I am proud of myself because I am taking responsibility for changing my situation.”
Beni said that the best part of taking responsibility and helping her family was seeing the change in her mother’s outlook on life.
“After the divorce, my mother was depressed and wanted to move back to Congo, but when she saw that we all supported her it changed. We were still struggling but we were all working (my older siblings included) to change our situation and I believe that she was proud of us.”
Today, Beni is a flourishing Grade 11 student. “I’m good now, I am able to balance my work and studies. I play some rugby and take part in a leadership programme after school. I take life as it is, I enjoy its challenges. Overcoming the challenges that have come my way is what makes me the person I am today. Embrace life’s lessons and they will become blessings.”