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Born in DRC, weaned in Rwanda, found life in Kenya

Sunday January 12 2020

CONGO WAR

Patience Dositha, who survived the First Congo War, trained as a photographer at De-Capture Media Institute. PHOTO | COURTESY 

MESHACK YOBBY
By MESHACK YOBBY
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In 1997, in the thick of the First Congo War, a toddler lay underneath her dying father. Her mother lay dead nearby.

The three-month-old was screaming, her left hand having been cut off by militia. Her father had crawled over her to protect her.

All around, people were running towards Rwanda. Knowing that he wouldn’t make it, her father desperately grabbed a passing woman’s foot and begged her to take his daughter with her.

The woman’s husband refused. The little girl was screaming so loudly he felt she was an unnecessary risk to the safety of his family.

The woman, however, could not leave the baby to die out in the cold. Disregarding the husband’s wishes, she took the baby and wrapped a piece of cloth around the amputated hand to stop the bleeding.

“Call her Patience,” her father said. The family left him and continued running towards the border.

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Later, her guardian angel gave her Dositha as the second name. She was now Patience Dositha.

PART OF THE FAMILY

The main roads had roadblocks, so refugees used the bushes, stopping every now and then to avoid being spotted by the militia on patrol.

But Patience was still screaming in pain, and the militia soon heard it. The man could not let his family get caught.

He sent them ahead, saying he would remain behind to delay the militia and if God willed, they would meet in Rwanda. That was the last his family ever saw or heard of him.

In Rwanda, the family settled at Gisenyi, near the base of Mount Rubavu which overlooked Democratic Republic of Congo.

Her adopted mother was very kind, treating Patience as one of her own children.

She had instructed her children to never tell Patience the truth, to just let her grow knowing she was part of the family.

Patience would never know why she risked her family and husband for her. “But you know children have fights all the time and say mean things to each other,” Patience, now 22, said.

“One time, I had a fight with my sister and slapped her. She told me ‘You don’t belong here. We just picked you up on the road from your dying parents.

You caused the death of our father and you are still giving us problems.’ I thought she was just being mean, but the distance my siblings had always shown me started to make sense.”

SAD, LONELY

At school, the teachers were kind to her. Perhaps so kind that she felt isolated. Patience wanted to stand out.

It annoyed her that she was always excluded from physical tasks yet she did not see her herself as disabled.

When other pupils were given duties and she was not allowed to even sweep the class because of her amputated hand … she felt it.

Even the boys did not hit on her. So she made sure to pass all her exams well just because she wanted to be sought after.

“I wanted to be famous. If I was famous, everyone would look for me. And I wanted to make my mother proud,” she said.

Things started changing in 2014 when her mother got admitted to hospital. One day, her condition deteriorated and she asked to see Patience.

Her children waited outside the room as their mother took Patience’s hand and breathed her last.

Patience didn’t know her mother was gone. She looked so peaceful, like she was just asleep. It was a doctor coming to check on her that declared her death.

Sometime after the funeral her siblings started taking advantage of her by making her do all the house chores.

TRUTH REVEALED

One morning, they ordered her to go to the farm but she had an exam she needed to sit that very day.

“They took my uniform, threw it on muddy ground and stepped on it. So I couldn’t go to school. I sat outside the gate and cried my heart out.

Then their grandmother, a woman that I loved very much, who treated me like her own blood, saw me and called me into the house. She gave me some milk, then said, ‘It is time to know the truth.’ My heart sank,” Patience told Lifestyle.

“You are now 18 years old,” the grandmother started. “There are things you must know. This is not your home. The woman that you called ‘mother’ is not your mother. Your siblings are not your biological siblings.”

She went on to describe everything that had been hidden from Patience since she was a toddler.

She described how she was picked from her father’s hands, the death of her ‘mother’s’ husband and their escape to Rwanda.

“I lost all hope. I remembered everything that I had gone through at the hands of my siblings. It took me more than a week to accept the truth,” Patience said.

“I went up to Mount Rubavu every day for 10 days straight just to meditate. From my sitting spot, I could see the vastness of DRC. I told myself that I had to go home.”

JOURNEY TO DRC

However, there was a problem: Patience did not have documents. Her ‘mother’ had not included her name in the family documents.

Patience decided she would find a way after her final examinations.

A day after she finished writing her exams in 2017, her siblings kicked her out.

They said they had provided everything for her and now it was time to leave. Patience packed what she could and left for the border.

The police, however, would not let her through despite her begging. She had no documents and no destination, so they would not allow her entry.

Discouraged, Patience walked to the shores of Lake Kivu, wondering if life was worth living.

For four days, she scavenged for food in the nearby markets and at night, dug a bed of sand.

She covered herself with the sand everywhere but her nose. This not only hid her from being spotted but also kept her warm from the biting cold at night.

After the fourth day, a lorry driver stopped near the lake to freshen up.

ARRIVAL IN KENYA

It so happened that it was a family friend. He tried taking Patience back home but her siblings would have none of it.

They said that Patience had killed their mother since she died holding Patience’s hand.

“I asked the man to take me back to Lake Kivu. I had nowhere else to go and I was too old to go to an orphanage. However, the man was hesitant to take me back to the lake. He said it was risky for a woman to be out there alone,” Patience narrates.

The man considered taking Patience to his house but figured his wife would not be comfortable.

Patience asked how far the lorries went. The man said that he was leaving for Mombasa the next day and Patience asked to come along. That night, she slept in the lorry.

It was a tensed journey. Patience would alight before roadblocks to avoid being caught during inspection.

At the borders, she hid herself in the crates and finally, in Kenya, they stopped at Kikuyu market.

“He gave me Sh500 to start me off. Unfortunately, he didn’t know anyone in Nairobi. I was grateful for his help.”

BEAST OF BURDEN

For three weeks, Patience lived in the markets of Kikuyu, scavenging as she did in Gisenyi.

She found two street girls who advised her to wrap her breasts tightly so that no one would find out she was female.

Her hair was shaved. One day by pure chance, she heard someone speak Kinyarwanda on the phone.

She moved closer and when he was done with the call, spoke to him in the language.

It turns out he was indeed from Rwanda, working as a night guard. Patience told him her story, and he said he would talk to his wife about accommodating her.

If she agreed, he would be back for her the next day.

The wife agreed and finally hopeful, Patience took her belongings and went to Kinoo with the man.

They lived in a single iron-roof house in which the man lived with his wife and eight children. To earn her stay, Patience did all the housework.

INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE

She fetched 12 jerry cans of water every day, washed clothes for everyone, cooked, fed and bathed the children and tidied the house.

By the time night fell, her back would be on the verge of breaking. She caught what sleep she could, only to wake up and continue the cycle the very next day.

After UNHCR helped her acquire an alien card, her hosts started parading her in different churches for donations.

She never received a single cent from them. Still, she hung on because this was the closest she had gotten to having a decent life.

“One day I went to a Catholic church and cried. I was angry and frustrated, wondering why my life had to be one of hardship.

A priest sat with me as I told him my story. I would often go there to talk to him and have lunch. He is the one that gave me a SIM card registered in his name so that I use it to communicate,” Patience said.

“I used that line to search on the internet for where I could get help as a refugee in Kenya. That is how I found the International Rescue Committee.

It was just the first link that came up. In May of 2017, I called them and after listening to my story, I was asked to visit their office on Galana Road, [Nairobi].”

The meeting went well. After a week of orientation, Patience was enrolled at De-Capture Media Institute to pursue her dream course — journalism.

WALK TO SCHOOL

However, the living conditions in Kinoo were still unfavourable for her. She moved to a single iron-sheet room in Kabiria in Dagoretti.

“The landlady was kind. She gave me a spoon, a cup, a plate and a sufuria. To pay the Sh2,000 rent, I would save the fare that IRC gave me to attend school. I walked every day from Kabiria to Hazina Towers, where the school is,” Patience said.

“Then I’d freshen up in the washroom, put on different clothes, and no one would know I had walked. That was my life for eight months.”

At school, she worked tirelessly to be the best in her class. She became one of the most trusted students and had great rapport with teachers and her mates.

“There was a time the photographer was absent and a client had come, so they had to look for a competent student to take the studio photos. I was requested to fill in. The client was impressed with my work. This really grew my confidence,” she says.

After her course, Patience was advised by her tutors to start her own company if she wanted to make a name for herself as well as decent money to support herself.

VOLUNTEER

In August 2018, she established Able Photography, whose focus is weddings, birthdays, studio and outdoor shoots among others.

She did not need a lot of capital. Whenever she has a client, she hires a camera or studio space. Buying her own equipment is still part of her plan.

She sometimes meets clients who take a look at her hand and ask for another photographer, so she asks them to take just one photo and if they don’t like it, they can move on.

Invariably, they all stay because the quality of her work speaks for itself.

Being looked at differently is something she is used to. She does not bother to hide her arm despite the stares.

It is part of who she is, and she considers herself same as everyone else. Every Friday, Patience volunteers at Heshima Children’s Centre.

Children with special needs remind her of her journey, her loneliness growing up and her isolation.

She recognises their need to be included in society. So she helps with duties at the centre as well as mentoring the children with special needs on photography.

TAKE-HOME MESSAGE

She encourages them with her story, saying that if she could come this far, they also could achieve their wildest dreams.

The greatest lesson, Patience said, is perseverance. Giving up is not an option, because the past is far worse than the present, and if she did not give up then, why give up now?

Now living in Umoja, Patience has not tried to go back to Rwanda. She has no home there.

It is only recently that her older “siblings” made contact after hearing of her successes, but she still has no home there too.

She dreams of becoming a journalist and hopes that either through work or a sponsor, she will be able to go back to school.

Being a journalist, she says, will not only arm her with research skills needed to find her real relatives, but also make her name known.

Then, perhaps, one of them will find her, and she will find her roots.

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