By Bernard Chiketo
Angela slowly lifts from an awkward stooping position at the edge of her small smart and tidy yard. Halfway up – back arced to a bow, hips tilted up, she makes a laboured trot as she races this reporter to her small khaki cardboard and black plastic shack which sways in a gentle easterly breeze at the back of her stand.
Everything appears in its place – except that this is an illegal settlement between Chikanga and Sakubva high-density suburbs in the eastern border city of Mutare and nothing is in place in her own life.
That she’s illiterate, stateless, aging, holding to an identity document that only got her first name correctly is the least of her problems.
“I’m afraid of dying here alone and being buried without anyone grieving for me,” Angela said.
Sexually abused and used as a baby mill – with her two sons being snatched from her hands in the labour room at the prohibition of suckling either for being a ‘kaffir’ by her white abuser.
Her only reminder of her children is her current state of being. “I can’t walk upright or even stand because of a botched operation during the birth of one of my two sons,” the homeless woman who was taken from the streets to hold down a stand in the illegal squalor settlement said.
Thousands of women had their mixed-race stolen from them in colonial Africa and the world is still in the dark over the psychological and social impact of the practice that was most brazenly undertaken by the Belgian government.
Born to Malawian immigrant workers in South Africa at an unknown location and date, she was handed over to a white missionary family as a pre-adolescent. She was never in school and her employers only taught her Fanagolo or Chiraparapa, a dead colonial-era pidgin.
On her recently acquired identity card, Angela’s surname is stated as Zulu on an identity card that she only got for the first time three years ago. Her origin is given as South Africa. Her date of birth is stated to be 11 November 1949.
And there is no truth in all of it except her first name.
Her surname should have been Phiri but she mentioned her father’s nickname as Zvuru, with a distinct Malawian accent as well as her place of birth as South Africa had her surname given as Zulu.
Because of her illiteracy, she only realised that her purported identity document was actually a misrepresentation during her interview with the Spiked Online Media news crew.
Her life offers a rare insight into the life of an African woman whose mixed-race babies were kidnapped during the colonial era as the stealing of mixed-race children is not something that is unique to her.
During the colonial period, the Belgian government stole over 20 000 children born to black mothers and white settler fathers in Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi. The mixed-race children were referred to as Métis.
Belgian authorities feared the children could be used as tools for revolt.
The infants were snatched from their mothers and placed in catholic convents and orphanages before they were shipped off to Belgium to be raised by white families for decades.
It was only in April 2019 that the Belgian government issued an official apology. Prime Minister Charles Michel recognized a system of racial segregation as well as the pain of the victims over the “kidnappings”.
Some of the victims are only now breaking their silence after over 60 years by taking steps to sue the Belgian state for crimes against humanity.
Five mixed-race women are currently leading the legal challenge which kicked off on September 10, 2019. They accuse Belgium of child kidnapping, with the complicity of the Church.
They hope that their lawsuit will lead to a law recognizing colonial crimes and offer financial compensation to the victims whose life, like theirs, was destroyed.
The Belgian government has so far refused to comment on an ongoing case.
A similar campaign was also done by the Australian government where mixed-race aboriginal children were also stolen from their mothers and placed in homes during the same period.
The Aussie government appears set to also officially acknowledge the pain suffered by the stolen children and their families.
Activists are also demanding their compensation and are pushing for a A$1bn (£443m) fund to be established, saying an apology without recompense would be a hollow gesture.
No effort has however been made to find out how prevalent the theft of mixed-race babies was in Africa.
A major complication has been the statelessness of some of the victims.
Angela last saw her parents as a child when she was given away as they later moved to Angola while she departed to Botswana.
Her two older sisters had long been married and settled in Zambia by then.
While in Botswana with her ‘employers’, she would be sexually abused by a white man with who her employers were sharing accommodation with.
“The man said they had paid my family a lot of money and I was actually the family’s bride and being young and naïve and without anyone to consult, l ended up giving in,” Angela said.
The man would bed her at will for years during which she had two pregnancies giving birth to two healthy sons.
Both would however be wrestled from her arms in hospitals and she would never hear from them again.
“The man’s sister would come with feeding bottles and bar me from suckling my sons saying l was a ‘kaffir’. She would disappear with the babies the moment l left hospital,” Angela said with tears welling up in her eyes.
She has long lost any hope of ever reuniting with her sons who she believes – if they are still alive, were prevented from looking for her. “Wherever my sons are, they are now adults with their own families as well.”
So insidious was the plot to rob her of her children, she said, that when she delivered her second child the man had left her and married a fellow white lady but his sister came to ‘collect’ the baby from the hospital and in the process told that he had since passed on.
“That was the last l heard of the man and my two boys,” Angela said with a crackling voice.
House hands from her neighbourhood would console her with lies on how ‘whites’ raised their children in complicated fashion – in cages, probably court beds, like chickens.
“As someone who was not educated and knew very little at the time l accepted this only to realise later that they had just plainly stolen my babies from me,” she said adding that others told her that she would have risked arrest for baby theft if she had held on to the ‘white’ babies.
A leading women’s rights activist said there is no proper documentation of this issue among immigrant girls who lost contact with their families as they migrated from one country to the other across the region or on the continent this could have been widespread.
“This is shocking. It’s unimaginable that something like that would happen to one person in just one lifetime.
“It’s unfortunate that not much has been documented on such things but there is a need for more studies but we would love to follow up on this issue,” Bertha Jambaya, a leading women’s rights defender and Jekesa Pfungwa director said.
Zimbabwe’s Gender Commissioner Tsungirirai Kundai Hungwe-Chimbunde said her body had not encountered such issues in their engagements.
This is because of the marginalized nature of people like Angela. There are around 10 million people who are stateless like her worldwide. And she is one of over 700 000 in Africa.
These marginalised and disenfranchised individuals can hardly assert their rights as they have no backing from any state – pushing them to live marginalised lives on the fringes of society.
According to article 1(1) of the 1954 convention relating to the status of stateless persons is a situation where an individual ‘is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Regional Bureau for Southern Africa Bureau deputy director Leonard Zulu says the right to nationality is often described as “the right to have rights” because often stateless people can neither enjoy nor assert their rights to any government.
Zulu says people like Angela suffer incalculable social injustices and are often drowning in worrying poverty levels as they also suffer exclusion from key services pushing them to the margins of communities.
“I have met stateless persons who are trapped in poverty, and who told me about their lives on the margins of society, isolated and stigmatized. Such persons find themselves excluded from participation in public affairs, precluded from deciding their future on their own terms,” Zulu said.
Without hope of ever finding her children or compensation for the abuses, Angela only wishes to be embraced by her own country – Malawi. “I would like to go back to my village in Malawi. I want to die among my people,” she says as tears well up in her eyes. “I just hope l can at least get this one thing.”
But the biggest tragedy is the absence of any form of forensic audit to identify and support women like Angela either in Zimbabwe or across the continent either find their stolen children or relocate back to their countries of origin.