Hariette Ntakirutimana and her family escaped hunger and deepest poverty for a new life in Australia. But one thing remained, a goodbye song that lives on in her heart and soul. She tells her story to reporter Titilua Ikenasio.
At six Harriette Ntakirutimana sat on a bus watching Africa pass by one last time. She was dressed in her best clothes and her whole body seemed to buzz with both excitement and fear of the unknown. She didn’t know where she was going but she had been told that it would be close to heaven – nothing like the Dzaleka Refugee Camp she had lived in for the last two years. It was in that camp where she had experienced the realities of poverty and learnt the true meaning of starvation and hunger. Where she had felt the sadness of what it was like to have a house but not a home. As a result she was mature, well beyond her age. Forced to see the cruelty of life, of pain and suffering.
As the bus drove them to the airport, the voices of their friends who had come to bid farewell, filled her head – the song they sang at the close of each Sunday mass.
“Goodbye, goodbye old friend, where you go, may you serve the Lord, and remember us.”
It’s surreal that the Hariette of today is the same Hariette that lived in that refugee camp all those years ago. Australia has been good to her. When she smiles the corners of her mouth spread across the edges of her face.
“It’s still amazing to us when we compare what we have now – this house and this life – to what we had back then,” she says.
Positioned on a hill in Unanderra, her two story home is huge even for her family of seven. The sitting room has deep red walls and white furniture. Her petite figure sinks into one of the white sofas, her tiny body contrasted against the two metre windows behind her and a large painting of a traditional African woman to her right.
The space resembles the elegance of a small hotel foyer. A space designed for show rather than comfort.
This is a stark comparison to the mud walls of the five metre wide hut that she lived in during her time in the Malawian Dzaleka refugee camp. The space would be considered sufficient for one person in Australia, but inside the mud walls contained a small kitchen, two rooms that were sectioned off with a mud wall and a hole in a corner that served as a toilet. The thatched roof held together with more mud, safeguarded them from the heat of the sun but did little else, especially when it rained.
“I remember so clearly the times when it rained. We didn’t have mattresses but my dad had the most pathetic thin piece of mattress, and he’d grab it and he’d put it down for all of us to try and huddle on to,” she says. “We’d spend the night trying to stay warm against one another, while it rained down on us.”
She smiles now as she’s remembering, not because it’s funny but because speaking of those rainy nights spent huddled together reminds her of family.
The camp was made up of thousands of people who had all fled their homeland to seek shelter and safety from war and violence. Despite sharing similar traumas, people formed exclusive groups, wary of those they let in to their inner circle. Trust could be dangerous.
“That’s the thing about these refugee camps, people seperate themselves into cultural groups so they can make it feel like home,” she says. “Just being surrounded by your own people makes you feel so much better. This can fuel discrimination between tribes and people from different nations.”
This became evident to the Ntakirutimana’s when they attended their first church service in the camp.
The majority of the Dzaleka population was made up of the Congolese people and so the nearest mass to their hut was at a Congolese service. During the service the congregation’s focus gradually shifted from the sermon to their family, as the Congolese people became aware that there were outsiders in their sacred space.
When mass ended and the congregation gathered outside, a man came to speak to them. “Why don’t you go with your people to your own church?” he said.
Hariette’s dad was adamant on staying because he did not want to give in to the pressure. He was a man that didn’t like the idea of segregation and so despite the looks they received each Sunday, they attended that church until they left for Australia two years later.
Hariette’s elder sister Lydia recalls that the congregation warmed to them, but never fully accepted them.
“I remember every Sunday we would close mass with a song. It was a goodbye song to those who were leaving and at the end of each verse they would list family names of those who were to leave next,” Lydia says. “At the top of the list were the preachers, the pastors, the well-respected and at the very bottom, the very end, was our name.”
Their mother always complained to their father, unhappy that in the one place there should feel acceptance and caring, they were being unfairly treated. Their dad would laugh and say they should be happy that their name was on the list al all. Their father always trusted that the camp would not be their home forever and that God had greater plans for them.
Hariette was too young to understand why their father trusted in God, when they were so poor and could barely afford to eat.
“One time my dad couldn’t buy us breakfast (just tea and a slice of bread) and he started crying,” she says. “Our neighbours would be eating breakfast and my dad would tell us to stay inside because he didn’t want us to see.”
It were these rare moments of weakness from her parents that made Hariette and her siblings mature beyond their young age. Where kids on the other side of the world were dreaming of new computers and toys, the refugees in Dzaleka were dreaming of food.
When lunch time came and there was no food, Hariette would wander the camp, walking until her feet hurt. The pain overcoming the feeling of hunger deep in her stomach. When dinner time came and there was still nothing to eat, they would blow out the candles and sleep off the hunger.
Hariette’s frame slumps deeper into the sofa as she recalls the pain.
“To be honest, thinking about Malawi makes me upset,” she says. “I have a lot of mixed emotions about that dreadful place. I feel like it was a stepping stone that we needed to pass to be here. But for me its a place of a lot of hurt.”
She has witnessed too many horrible incidents during her time in the camp. Women being bashed in the streets, cries of children being abused by drunken fathers and babies with so little to eat that their bodies were skin and bone. It was a scary place and no matter how hard her parents tried to make it a home, it never was.
In 2004 her family’s asylum application was accepted by the Australia Government. It had taken months of check-ups and questioning, her father had felt discouraged when news hadn’t arrived, but when confirmation finally came, tears of joy fell for the first time in a long time. They were given money to buy clothes for Australia and just two weeks later, they were on the bus travelling to the airport – this time it was their friends turn to sing the farewell song.
“The harsh reality is that many are born and raised in those camps and many more will die in them too,” says Hariette. “The fact that of all the people that applied that year we were chosen. That makes me feel blessed every single day. That each day I wake up in this home, well fed, well educated and well loved, I am so thankful.”