How would you feel if you’d lost all contact with your family at the age of two and didn’t know if any of them were still alive? This is the stark reality of life for Eunice Masala, and just one of many challenges this resilient woman has had to meet head-on in Africa. Yet today, she’s living in Cape Town, training to be a teacher and delighting in a community that’s reached out in a way that can inspire us all. Read Eunice’s story and watch our short video of an extraordinary woman who’s finally home. By KAT FARQUHARSON
Eunice is not entirely sure of her age, but believes herself to be around 47. She lives in Plumstead, where she is training to be a pre-school teacher at the Centre for Creative Education
‘MY GREATEST DESIRE has always been to have a home, to belong somewhere, to someone. My mother Naomi was born blind, a curse in the eyes of my Kenyan culture and her mother, my grandmother, was pressurised to do the unthinkable and kill her. My grandmother resisted but was forced by family pressure to abandon her husband and my mother, whose life became one of fear and despair.
So my mother Naomi decided to have her own child, me, to see what she couldn’t see, to do things she couldn’t do. The family’s desire to kill her remained, so we began a new life in a refugee camp on the edge of Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. But the warlord Joseph Kony and his guerilla army were recruiting from our camp, killing any men who resisted and abducting women and children to use as child soldiers or sex slaves. The hostility was so bad that the UN closed the camp and relocated the refugees.
With immense pressures on her life, Naomi felt she could not raise me and sent me alone to Tanzania’s Nyarugusu refugee camp. That was the last time I was to see or hear from my Kenyan family. I was two.
For the first decade of my life, I moved from one refugee camp to the next as a ward of the UN. As a teen, I heard from a social worker why my mother had decided to have me, her child, and I started to feel that I too was a curse.
Eunice in her 20s at a refugee camp, helping prepare an article for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. ‘I had to quit when political instability in countries like Rwanda made it too risky for women to be involved in reporting,’ she says
By my late teens, I so craved a real home and family that I left all I knew to try find my own way. I got to Musina, a small town in South Africa just south of Zimbabwe. I started volunteering as a life skills trainer, working with youth. It was here that I met a man who seemed to have everything I had wanted: security, a place to belong to and even an extended family. Before long, we had an African traditional marriage and I moved in with him to start the home I’d always dreamed of.
I tried to find my own way
Only years later did I discover how corrupt he was. While working with at-risk youth and building a home with me, he was involved with smuggling rings across several African countries, dealing not just in stolen electronic devices but, even worse, in stolen lives. Everything I thought I’d been building since I left the refugee camp was ripped out from under me as the shocking realisation hit: the man I had wanted to start a family with was trafficking people. Before I could process what this meant, he was shot and killed in Zimbabwe on one of his smuggling trips.
Eunice on the day of her marriage. ‘Only years later did I discover [my husband] was involved with smuggling rings across several African countries, dealing not just in stolen electronic devices but in stolen lives,’ she says
My partner’s family now saw me as a threat to his assets. They started emotionally abusing me, telling me I was useless and accusing me of killing my partner for his assets. By then I was working as a domestic worker and my employer was afraid for us both and begged me to leave town, giving me money to help me go. My identity in tatters, I fled. My first family had given me up, my second family had run me out of town. The questions I had been carrying my whole life reared up and assaulted me as I left. Who am I? Where do I belong?
I hitched a ride with a truck driver going to Johannesburg, thinking a large city would be a good place to start over. I felt more lonely and destitute than ever. But sometimes a fortuitous stranger can provide a lifeline. Hearing my story, the truck driver convinced me to go with him all the way to Cape Town. He brought me to the Department of Social Development, which found me accommodation in a shelter in Retreat. Here I was safe but started asking myself Where is God? I want to see Him.
Eunice: ‘Sometimes a fortuitous stranger can provide a lifeline.’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott
And I believe He started revealing Himself to me by coming to my rescue. First I went to a job-readiness course offered by The Zanokhanyo Network, a place of hope where I learnt skills for finding and doing work. Then I walked past a small Anglican church in Diep River called St Luke’s and I went inside to see what it was like. I wasn’t expecting much but what I found was incredible: the people of that little community were a family.
They actively sought to make their family bigger by opening their homes and hearts to me, and accepted me as one of their own. I got the first sense of what home could be, even though it looked so different from what I’d expected. It was here that I feel that I met God and found out what He’s really like. Finally, I know I belong somewhere, and to someone.
St Luke’s Church, Diep River, Cape Town. Eunice was walking past this church one day on her way to a job readiness programme at The Zanokhanyo Network, and went inside. ‘I wasn’t expecting much but what I found was incredible… I got the first sense of what home could be.’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott
My new church family used its networks to help me apply to study early childhood development, and I’m now in my second year of a four-year course, studying two days a week and getting practical teaching experience on the other three. Not only was I accepted into the programme, but I was awarded a bursary and residence. Again, my ‘family’ rallied and covered the remaining study fees.
I was astounded at how my picture of home and family had changed. The kindness of strangers, the warmth of new friends, the sense of belonging that comes from journeying in friendship and the community – all this has showed me in different ways that I matter, and that I’m loved. I’ve found new passion and purpose in ensuring that other children grow up experiencing this, too. I plan to teach for the rest of my life and my absolute dream is to open my own educare centre for pre-school children.
I’m no mistake
Going from the refugee child with no home or family to a woman who counts many as family, I’m so grateful. Most of all, I’m grateful to God who brought me from believing I was a curse to seeing that I’m whole, and loved as His. I have seen that I’m dear to Him, I belong to Him and that to Him, I’m no mistake. Before I came to St Luke’s I knew Him just as a Creator. Now I have a relationship with Him. When I feel fearful or anxious I call upon Him, and He gives me peace and often opens a door, too.
Despite searching, I have no idea if any of my Kenyan family members are alive or not today, which feels heavy sometimes. I‘ve also struggled for over 40 years to come to terms with my mother’s heart-breaking wish for a child who would experience all the things she couldn’t. But I now believe it was not physical sight that Naomi needed, rather spiritual fulfilment. She longed to know love, compassion, goodness, forgiveness, peace… and I’m the beneficiary of those desires today.
Eunice has no idea if any of her blood relatives are still alive. ‘It feels heavy sometimes but I now realise what I was born for and I’m so grateful.’ | Photo: Nicky Elliott
This is what I was born for: to see God’s glory, to see God’s love. And it’s happening as my mother had hoped. I’m surrounded by people who love me, care about me, are concerned about my well-being. I’ve also seen that there’s no love without sacrifice: both in how my mother sacrificed to give me up, believing that I’d have a better life in the refugee camp, and ultimately that God sacrificed himself so that I could know Him and have my identity restored in Him. This has reshaped me into who I am today. I am loved. I am home.’
SEE AND HEAR THE VIBRANCY OF THIS RESILIENT LADY!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: ‘5 things that have made me feel at home’ by Eunice
✸ Being included in holidays and family events. I no longer worry about what I’m going to do for holidays like Christmas or Easter as friends invite me and treat me like family
✸ People taking time to get to know me personally. How I’ve loved all the teas, coffees and meals where I’ve got to sit and share life with people! Really getting to know another person enriches life
✸ People using their networks. If a friend hadn’t thought of me when chatting to another friend who worked at Waldorf Plumstead school, I’d never have heard about this school or the potential bursary. Often newcomers to a city have no networks or contacts. Just thinking and using your network and influence to connect people can be enough to give someone a launchpad
✸ Generous provision. My Cape Town ‘family’ has so generously ensured I have what I need while studying – whether it’s clothes or supplies. Students don’t often have much time to earn extra money, and even though tuition and sometimes food is provided for, it’s hard to afford toiletries and stationery
✸ Encouragement. If I had a moment of discouragement, my new community took the time to listen to me, offering advice when I asked and praying for me. An encouraging word can go a long way towards boosting someone’s morale