With sincerest thanks to Rosey Kunene, Marina Rafter, Ann Lawlor, Gerry Callaghan and all at New Horizon, Miriam Mulrennan and Muireann Ní Chonaill
Sandy was born in Zimbabwe in a town with a strong sense of communal identity. ‘If one family cooks they say come and eat to everyone. When you are sick you can call your neighbour and they will help you.’ All the female elders were like mothers, aunties or grandmothers to her.
It surprises her how in Ireland people keep to themselves and she regrets that she must call people by their first names, and not just ‘sister’ or ‘brother’. She’d love to go home, but it’s just not safe, as she was active in promoting women’s rights. ‘I am a poison in the country. We used to see our mothers being beaten. We formed a group to educate the girl child that she mustn’t be abused. We were being beaten up, taken to jail, so that we don’t teach the women these things.’
Ivann is a teacher from the Guatamalan city of Quetzaltenango. He had to flee his home when drug cartels moved into the region. ‘It's close to the border with Mexico and five or ten years ago terrorists with guns set up in the area with drugs, and it changed everything, especially for the kids. Now it is very dangerous.’
His grandmother spoke the traditional Mayan languages K'iche' and Katchiqua. She mixed aspects of Christianity with Mayan practise. ‘In springtime we used to pray to a god of rain to see how the corn was going to grow up in the land. A Mayan god can be all of nature, or one tree, or a lake or mountain, or the clouds. God is everywhere.’
He misses teaching and is ‘focused on trying to be a teacher here in Ireland, and maybe even teach about Mayan culture or Spanish culture here. Since this country is doing so much for me why can't I contribute in return?’
Fortunate grew up in a village in a mountainous region of Zimbabwe with many dangerous snakes, ‘All the mambas that you've ever heard about are in those mountains: black mamba, green mamba, white mamba. And we've got baboons - when we plough our maize they come to steal from us.’
She insists that snakes aren’t dangerous, ‘sometimes when you go to the field to cultivate with horses you might step on a snake, but they realise it’s a mistake and they won't bite you. They will flee. But if you really attack it it will bite, and even follow you, and kill you.’ She says that a small child can touch and play with a very poisonous snake ‘but the snake will not bite that child’.
She has fond memories of harvest parties when ‘all the villagers would come together. They would kill cattle and we would eat a lot and celebrate the summer season.’ They’d also offer prayers for a good harvest, and for suitable rains. This communal aspect of life in Zimbabwe suffered under colonisation, and Fortunate sees a similar impact in Ireland, though ‘the Irish are still very social. They have come together to support me, through thick and thin.’
Noma, a model, grew up in rural Zimbabwe, tending cattle and growing vegetables and cereals. At age twelve she moved to South Africa with her parents and ‘was exposed to many things there. We used to go to the library to study, and play netball, and go swimming.’ There was more freedom than with her grandmother but still, ‘I prefer my grandmother’s way because the respect was there. In a rural area when you meet someone you greet them, you help your neighbourhood, but in a township you let your neighbour do whatever.’
The sense of possibility and lack of bribery is something she values in Ireland; that people will help without demanding something in return. ‘Here, the sky is the limit. We can still fulfil our dreams. I can do the things I wanted to do back home that I didn’t get a chance to do.’
David was born in Lompopo province, South Africa into a family descended from kings and so who were regularly consulted for guidance and justice. He learnt from his father and uncle that ‘everyone must come to a point where they compromise. When this is implemented, the results are wonderful. They transform the entire community to good from bad.’
Having worked alongside Mandela at conferences with the ANC, David is passionate about community development and conflict resolution, ‘If Irish people want to know me they ought to give me a task that involves uniting people. It’s a gift I have, to talk to people who have been fighting and killing each other.’
He is now studying social studies in Westmeath, and is keen to work in the community where he can be of service. ‘I wish God sends me somewhere where there is huge need, so that I can make impact among the poorest people. I hope that I can identify something that will be able to bring a change for them even if they are no resources.’
Ireland has been gifted with an influx of people from a range of fascinating and exotic cultures in recent years. Most of them were fleeing some form of trauma and are now making their way (slowly) through the Direct Provision system. These new members of our communities offer us an opportunity to get to know different parts of the world and different cultures.
"Home Stories" is a podcast funded by Creative Ireland through Laois and Westmeath County Councils. Its aim is to help us get to know our new neighbours from Africa, Asia and South America. I visited Co’s Laois, Offaly and Westmeath to have a series of short conversations with people who are currently living in Direct Provision Centres in Abbeyleix, Emo, Mountrath and Athlone. The chats were edited by Lauren Varien with music by Brían MacGloinn (of Ye Vagabonds) and Myles O'Reilly.
Amongst the myriad topics we discuss are pagan faiths, ploughing with oxen, rituals of kingship, traditional languages, polygamy, gospel singing, herbal cures, culinary delicacies and the hopes and dreams these new Irish residents have for their future in Ireland, and the services they would like to perform to show their gratitude to Ireland.
"Home Stories" airs on Midlands103 and on most podcast feeds.
Read an Irish Times article about it here.
Meeting our new neighbours - voices from Direct Provision
Feza, is from Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, where her mother, step-brothers and sisters still live. She has fond memories of ‘my grandmother who used to cook beans mixed with cassava leaves and we’d have it with rice, and of the wonderful smoked fish from Lake Kivu.’ She used to love swimming in the lake and going to visit Virunga National Park there the mountain gorillas live. 'We used to go in school holidays or on a Sunday. We’d organise a picnic. In the beginning seeing the gorillas was scary, but they are actually nice.' She hopes to return there, but ‘Up till now there is still violence. Women are being raped.’ She herself experienced some traumatic things, but now ‘in Ireland I have hope. Ireland has given me hope.’
Naledi grew up in the town of Francistown, Botswana as her grandmother was a teacher there. ‘My mum had me when she was twenty so she went to university, so I had to stay with my grandmother. I remember the times sitting by the gate at the time she came home and I’d be standing there singing songs.
As regards her hopes, ‘I like to work with people, which is why I decided to be a healthcare assistant, to assist people who cannot assist themselves. I’ve always done homecare as that’s what I’m good at and what I prefer. Because in homecare you assist the person, you don’t do everything for them. I like that it doesn’t take away their freedom.
She describes how jobs are limited for foreigners and so most find it easier to go into healthcare. Most stay there as it is just too difficult to find another job. ’You try to do the easiest and the quickest job, rather than applying for another job and hoping you might get it.’ She remembers feeling boxed in when she arrived in Ireland, ‘I realised I couldn’t do the things I wanted because I didn’t have the qualifications or documentation. You end up settling.'’
Ndididi is from the eastern part of Nigeria from a village ‘that is like a city also, as all the amenities of the city are there. My own village even has a university. There is a big thick forest there, and a river, and a market and schools. There is electricity also. It is very beautiful.’ Their local market is renowned and people ‘from other cities, far and wide come to do their market there. People bring many foods and some people trade by barter. They might bring crayfish, and if they don't have money, they will exchange it for something else.’
She lived with her grandmother ‘in a traditional mud house, and even when my father was going to build a new house she refused, saying that this was the house that my husband build for me and so that's where she lived till she died.’
Singing was always a major force in her life. ‘My dad was an organist, and my husband is also one. My children and I sing a lot. Singing is part of us. When you are happy you sing, you can also use singing to stop crying, as when you are singing you can’t be crying.’ Mostly they sing and play Christian music, but also high-life, which is highly percussive vibrant form of Nigerian music ‘It’s very happy music. You’d be jumping and dancing. Us women, use our waists to dance, so that are waists are shaking. Western people use their legs.'
Aruna is from the democratic republic of Congo. ‘I was born in the east of Congo, in a war zone. I grew up in Goma in my mother's family. You’ve got the big mountain in the centre called Mont Goma. On the far side you have the volcano, Virunga. Ngorgongo is the oldest one. Sometimes you see them burning and you have earthquakes.’ Life was hard growing up as his father wasn’t present and his mother’s family were poor. His uncle who was paying his school fees died in the fighting, then his mother died soon after.
He describes having to escape amidst scenes of chaos during the protests to overthrow the dictator, President Mobutu, in 1997. ‘We had to flee. We didn’t know where we were going. Everybody has a small bag and was just going. There was gun-shot &, heavy guns. My brother got shot and so I went back to the house.’ He eventually went to the capital Kinshasa and then to South Africa seeking work. Life was tough, but he now has been granted refuge status and is living here with his wife and 3 children.
Tika was brought up in a town in the southern part of Malawi, Blantyre. Her happiest memories are of her secondary school and the beautiful places they visited, ‘like Mount Mulanje which translates in the local language as ‘you don’t go there’, as people believed there were ghosts there that used to take people. This is because you need a guide there, or you won’t easily find your way back.
She speaks the national language in Malawi, Chichewa, and a local language, ‘Tumbuka, which makes me feel connected to my tribal village in the northern part of Malawi. There was no electricity or television there, but life was so much fun compared to living in town, as grandmother would tell us stories, and everyone would do things together. In the village you have the privilege of not having to buy food, but of growing it yourself. People didn’t have proper jobs; they’d sell their farm products and then buy whatever products they might need. Whereas in town you are buying everything.’
Oyeyemi is from the Yoruba tribe in southwestern Nigerian. ‘To be a Yoruba is a thing to be proud of. We are ready to learn new things and open to new cultures.’ Christianity and Islam are the principal faiths, but a traditional belief known as ifa, based on divination, is still practised. ‘There’s a god of iron, a god of thunder, a god of commerce, and also a god of the river and waters. I think we have the god of the forest too, that people worship and make sacrifices to.’
Each town will have a central altar, and people have smaller altars in their homes on which items like iron objects are placed for worship and blood sacrifices are made. Christian missionaries convinced the Yoruba that Christ had stronger magical powers than their gods and many converted, but Oyeyemi says, ‘In my own community there are still people who practise pagan worship.’ Both faiths emphasise honesty, sincerity and honourable practise. ‘The ifa faith says you must look after nature. You should not cut down trees. You have to respect your environment.’
Oyeyemi is grateful for the role Irish priests played in Nigeria in ‘getting people educated and treated like human beings and also advising against old practices. With all due respect, these are the things that I'd like to see in Ireland again. I want to see the saints and scholars again. I want to see their influence on society.’
Lwandise comes from a small farm of cattle, sheep, goats and other animals in Matebeleland South, Zimbabwe. His family also ‘grew grains so that we can feed our families throughout the year until the next rains.’ His father practised polygamy and so Lwandise had five siblings from his mother’s side and twelve from his father’s. Everyone was reared as part of the one family, ‘boys have their own rooms and girls have theirs, regardless of which family. It was a very good way of being brought up as there is always someone in the house for you. There is always a mother. In the village the more you are as a family the healthier you are, the more you can do and the more you can produce.’
He misses life back home, but it's just not safe for him there. For his life in Ireland, he wishes that he be recognised ‘regardless of my race or skin colour. That is my greatest hope.’
Pauline is from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and ‘grew up relatively poor, but happy. I remember my dad let us watch a python eat a dik-dik (small deer) and for seven days we returned to watch it as it lay there digesting. We only ate wild meat when we were growing up. My young brother started to hunt when he was four years old.’
She moved to South Africa and now has five children and nine grandchildren. They lived outside Johannesburg. ‘It was extremely dangerous. My husband was in twelve armed robberies, and we experienced four attempted high-jackings.’
She believes the Irish don’t understand how violent South Africa really is. ‘Horrible things happened to us there, especially to my daughter. It wasn’t easy at my age to make this transition to Ireland, it was the hardest things we ever did, but now, I think, it was the best.’
Adam comes from Safi, a Moroccan coastal town famous for its seafood barbecues. ‘Everyone in the city knows how to swim and how to fish, and the sardines we catch are known throughout Morocco.’ He tried cooking fish from Irish rivers, ‘but it’s not the same’.
He works in a barber shop in Athlone and has made good friends. He says the Irish are similar to Moroccans in that both are easy going and like to joke. The main difference is that ‘the Irish get drunk while the Moroccans get stoned’. He’d love to go home, but life isn’t safe for him there and he realises that he might never get back. 'It's hard. After five years you miss your family a lot. I used not to think about it, but now I miss my mum. I see her getting older.’
He wishes people here would remember that most direct provision residents are entirely alone. ‘Maybe if they try to get closer to us it's better. I have no family. When I go home I'm all alone.’
Rosemary runs a social enterprise called Dignity Partnership that encourages Direct Provision residents to acquire new skills and set up businesses. Her goal is to expand the enterprise and be able to help encourage and motivate more Direct Provision people. She realises she lost so much of her own confidence when she was in the Direct Provision system and sees so many people suffering from trauma and undiagnosed depression and stress.
‘We don’t know what has happened to these people before they came to Ireland.’ She remembers all the anxieties of being in the system, and knowing that at any moment someone could knock on your door and demand to inspect your room. Now living in a rented house in Mountrath she still feels her heart pumping when the doorbell rings, thinking she’s going to receive a letter saying she’s being sent back.
She was born in Malawi, but was raised by her grandmother in Swaziland who was active in local politics and hired people to work the fields for her.
'I’d appreciate for Irish people to understand me as a person, not me as an African, or me as a continent,’ says Sie who comes from a village without electricity in a northern province of Zimbabwe called Lubane. She stresses that her family had access to a bore hole for water but other neighbours still fetch it daily from the river. She says it was a difficult life of long trips to fetch firewood and a 6km hike to school each day through the bush, but looking back now on it she says she appreciates many of its positive aspects.
She has fond memories of gathering worms from the mopani trees, which the family dried, then used to cook by soaking them in water, then boiling and frying them. They’re crunchy, delicious and rich in protein.
'The good thing about the village it teaches you your culture, values, a sense of belonging, but we are living in a world that is evolving they still don’t have electricity, still don’t have sanitary system. But I still appreciate what's there. My father still lives in the village.'
Kemi, grew up in Igarra Eclo State in rural Nigeria before moving to a city after her mother died when she was twelve. Her town is famous for its natural beauty, with vast rocky outcrops amidst glistening streams. It’s also known for an edible land snail that is a sought-after delicacy. ‘The snail can be as large as a sausage inside a shell that is as big as an orange.’
She speaks four languages as well as English, ‘Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa and my own language. Each language is like getting into a different character. When I speak Igbo you get into their character, I act like them, I talk like them. When you speak the Hausa language, you because more like Arabs, as that’s the language from the Northern, Islamic part of the country.
She is ‘constantly shocked when people are surprised that I speak English. I tell them that we learn it in school. She is also amazed when people assume she doesn’t know how to operate modern devices. ‘Some of us are here because of safety issues, not because we don’t use a computer, or speak English or drive a car.’