Tuesday, October 19, 2010


On Friday we had to send a young woman with her two year old son to a home for abused women and children. At  6pm this was not an easy task, but this was an emergency which could not “wait until Monday”. The threat- two or three police officers from the Jeppe police station to whom she had turned for protection after weeks of being victimized by a gangster, who robbed her of her business, her possessions, and her physical safety.

This young woman has no hope left. “There is no God for me”, she told fellow refugee women who meet for weekly counselling sessions at our centre, just a few days before she called us in a state of utter despair late on Friday afternoon.  She wants to die, to join her parents, and her little brother, who after being killed in a massacre, at least have to suffer no more.

The shame belongs to all of us. Ten or more years ago this young woman had a loving family and a solid home in Burundi. She dreamt of being a lawyer, of seeking justice in a land racked by ethnic hatred and years of violent conflict. She was sent to boarding school to get a proper education. One day, she returned to school, after a few days of being ill at home, to find the entire school community wiped out. Her friends and teachers killed, the building burnt down. She was sent to another school, and coming home for the holidays at the end of a term, she stumbled not into the arms of her family, but onto the bodies of her mother, father and younger brother.  She escaped with her grandmother, and roamed the countryside with her for some time before finding sanctuary in a community where her grandmother was well known. The community was able to offer protection to the grandmother but the young woman, because of her ethnic background, was a security risk, and so she was on the run again. She met a woman who suggested that she find her way to South Africa, where she promised her brother would take care of her.

In South Africa the young woman found the brother of the woman, who insisted on making her his “wife” in return for protection. She fell pregnant, was beaten and forced to sleep on the floor while the man invited other women into his bed. Just after the birth of their son, the man disappeared. A kind South African family offered her a draughty garage in a derelict part of the inner city. Although she did not have to pay rent, the search for food, nappies and clothing for the baby was a relentless one and that is how she came to us. We provided what material help we could and the young woman was helped through an intense grieving process. Gradually she began to pick up the pieces of her life. She found out by chance that an aunt, whom she had long presumed dead, had found her way to Canada and was able to make contact with one of the last two surviving members of her family.

 But then the South African family sold the house they were living in and now the young woman was forced to pay rent for the room she was living in. The aunt in Canada made many promises but kept none, and the young woman gave up any hope of any real family support. Then came the news that her grandmother had died some time ago. The young woman’s anguish was almost unbearable to witness. Once again though, she pulled herself up from the ashes of her life, for the sake of her baby son. The boy’s father returned, and with no money to pay the rent she was forced to take him back into her life. They rented a small room which they turned into a hair salon.  The young woman worked from morning till night washing, braiding, and styling the hair of poor women with little or no money to pay for the hair styles which would restore some dignity and beauty into the drabness of their everyday struggle for survival.

A few weeks ago a gangster forced the young woman and her “husband” out of the “salon” they were renting and when they protested he beat them up and threw all their belongings onto the street. In the ensuing chaos the little boy was lost.  Distraught they opened a case at the Jeppe police station. They were not given a case number. When our social worker intervened a case number was finally registered, but we were told that there would be no arrest for assault.  When the social worker persisted in demanding police intervention, a case of housebreaking was opened.  A police officer who went to the scene threatened the young woman with deportation. The child was found late at night with a local woman who had taken pity on him.

A week later, last Friday, the boy’s father was arrested. No charge was put to him, but police officers at Jeppe Police Station, where he is being held, told him that he would be released immediately if he dropped all charges against the gangster. He refused and so he remains in custody.  When the police officers could not get anywhere with him, they phoned the young woman and asked to meet with her.  She agreed to come to the police station but they refused, saying they wanted to meet her privately. Suspecting that they wanted to intimidate and beat her into dropping the charges against the gangster she panicked. Weeping in absolute despair she called us. She had nowhere to hide. God had abandoned her- once again. Thanks to the kindness of a local shelter we could at least get her to safety for the weekend.

I sat in church this morning and wondered about God. Hymns and prayers washed over me. They meant nothing to me, if they could not be made to hold meaning for a young woman and a little boy who have lost all hope. I replaced the words with her exhausted face, the readings with the story of her life, the prayers with the voice of a child whose solid little body as yet resists the infusion of despair.

The shame that will forever cling to these police officers at Jeppe police station is also ours. It is the shame of a history that has turned and continues to turn human beings against each other in the greedy pursuit of self-interest. And like the young woman who will  face me and the shame of my nation again tomorrow morning, I will continue to question God, until  sometime somewhere together we re-discover a glimmer of hope.

Johanna Kistner
Sophiatown Community Psychological Services

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