There are two versions of the story of how Ellie Kisyombe came to be the first female asylum seeker to stand for local election in Ireland. The short version is that, after many conversations about politics and society, her friend Gary Gannon, a Social Democrats councillor, suggested it to her at a Christmas party in 2017.
“He saw something in me. He calls me ‘our mayor’,” she says. That night, she remembers him asking her, “What about standing in the local elections, Ellie?” She laughed it off, although she would come back to it later, finding that it made more and more sense. But that’s not really where the story begins.
It doesn’t begin, either, in 2016, when she stopped being merely frustrated with feeling like a prisoner in the direct provision system, and decided to do something about it, setting up Our Table, a non-profit pop-up restaurant to allow people in the system to cook for themselves.
Nor does it begin six years before that, when she arrived at Dublin Airport, knowing absolutely nothing about the country except that she didn’t need a visa to enter it.
It begins much, much earlier, during her childhood in Malawi. That is where the long version of the story has its roots. It begins with her father.
A happy childhood
Kisyombe’s early years were very happy. Both of her parents had good public service jobs. Her mother worked for the Malawian treasury; her father was the head of the country’s agricultural development body, and a property developer with political connections. They were ambitious for their children – the three they had together, and they several more her father had with his other wives. “My father was a polygamist, so there are half brothers and sisters as well.”
This wasn’t all that unusual in Malawi, despite it being a Christian country – especially not if you had money. “We all grew up together. My father is coming from a culture that even if he had a child outside our home, he’d bring that child into our home.”
She clearly adored her father. “My father had such energy, like I have. If people describe me, they always describe me as my father, except a woman. He was a very opinionated man, and he never changed his mind when he believed anything. He was somebody who was ready to die for what he believes in.”
He was also, she says, “a controlling man”. He had a plan for his daughter: he wanted her to have “the best of education”, and then make a good marriage. That plan did not involve her becoming pregnant in her teens.
She was not “a wild child”, she says. “I was strong, independent. I didn’t date much.” But at an interschools basketball game, she met a boy, and “we kind of hit it off, and the next minute I’m pregnant. With twins.”
Kisyombe doesn’t do anything by half measures. She fizzes with energy. She talks fast, ideas tripping over each other in a rush to get heard. And then there is her laugh: warm, infectious, always ready to erupt.
After her twins, Tina and Maurice, were born, they were subsumed into the sprawling family, and Kisyombe was dispatched to Johannesburg to finish her schooling.
She remembers making a trip home when the little ones were five or six, and having a really good conversation with her father. He had got over his disappointment in her, and told her how happy he was she was continuing her studies. “That always makes me feel good … he was proud of me. I remember that night so well.”
And then the next morning, her life changed forever. “I heard the words ‘your dad is not here’.”
Powerful former ally
Later, Kisyombe would piece together what might have happened. He had been one of the key people in the movement to bring multi-party democracy to Malawi. But he had fallen out with a powerful former ally, a man Kisyombe refers to as her ‘uncle’. “My father felt my ‘uncle’ sold himself out.”
That view, she says “landed my father into trouble”. She thinks now that his death was due to poisoning. “It wasn’t my uncle directly,” she says. “My father went for a meeting, and he came home and sat on the couch, and he died.”
There was no police investigation. “In Malawi people die, people get killed, things don’t even get followed up.”
Though she cries often, “I’ve not grieved quite a lot. There are times now that I feel like all this” – she gestures around the office in the Irish Refugee Council where we meet – “it’s part of my grieving. I feel like I owe them something good, something that would make them proud.”
Kisyombe’s mother coped for a while after her father died, but “she just got sick, one thing and then the other.” It was, she thinks, “exertion and exhaustion and stress”.
The twins were taken into the care of an aunt and uncle. That uncle was closely connected to Elson Bakili Muluzi, who was the Malawian president from 1994 to 2004. Kisyombe got to know well him as well; they became “good friends”.
But after Muluzi stepped down, life became more difficult for everyone connected with him. By 2011, international human rights organisations were warning that under his successor, Bingu wa Mutharika, civil rights were being eroded, and the country was slipping into authoritarianism. Kisyombe got involved in the protest movement, working with a network of underground civil rights activists. “I knew I wanted to go into politics,” she says.
But it wasn’t safe: people were getting arrested. There were crackdowns on protestors and journalists. An activist friend would end up dead in 2011, his body apparently dumped on the college campus, although authorities later ruled it a suicide. “Somebody came to us and said you know what, you have to go, they will hunt you one by one, and these people once they start looking for you, they will find you. They will damage you. We started saying, where can we go?”
The Republic of Ireland was mentioned. “I said, Ireland where the Troubles are? That was all I knew of it. I didn’t even know there was a Republic of Ireland. I knew people got bombed, and there was an IRA fighting the British colonial state. They said, no, Northern Ireland is a different state. Within 24 hours of that conversation, I was in Ireland.”
Alone and terrified
She remembers arriving at the airport in early 2010, alone and terrified they would send her straight back. “I met a very polite immigration officer. He was friendly and he was chatting to me, and I was like ‘Why can’t you just tell me if I am in?’”
From there, she went to a reception centre at Balseskin in Finglas, which is still her home today. “I was thinking, okay, this is where I’ll be for two weeks and process my case, and hear stuff out. Just to be let in was a relief.”
That was nine years ago. Kisyombe is still in the direct provision system, still waiting. She has been moved several times to different centres, and lived for a period in an apartment. Now she’s back in the centre. She doesn’t know why it has taken so long.
It is hard to imagine the vibrant, lively woman opposite me, as she was during her first year in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, alone and clinically depressed. “This is a system that controls you in every sense of human life. Your life is being run basically with a remote control. You’re being told what to do. You wake up in the bed you’ve been given. You don’t own the space you’re in. Your life is managed by the centre administration.
“Even after almost a decade here, I’m a nobody. I’m still somebody that cannot have a say about my life. I’m on €21.60 a week, hoping that by March, we’ll be getting €38. I’m in the old system, so I’m not allowed to work, I’m not allowed to go to the school. You live in a room like this, me and my daughter, in a room this size.” She gestures around the small office.
The twins joined her in Ireland four years ago. Now, Tina is studying law and Maurice is planning to go to college and establish a career in the music industry. But although having them with her has given her support, they still don’t have stability or a proper family life. “At the moment I don’t have control of my life. I can’t make a five-year plan. I can’t even make a two-month plan.”
One of the toughest aspects of direct provision is not being able to cook for yourself and eat together as a family. This is where Our Table, the non-profit set up with the food writer Michelle Dermody, comes in. “There was no way to cook for yourself. Kids were not able to sit at a table with their parents together. That idea that, ‘Okay, we’re busy Monday to Friday, but we should be able to sit down together on Sunday around the table’. They couldn’t do that.”
Following from the first pop-up, the organisation now employs 12 staff and 20 volunteers. Kisyombe, who is its volunteer director, has been to Ballymaloe to study under Darina Allen.
After her conversation with Gannon, she thought about her father, and her experiences in direct provision, and her own ambitions. It seemed like all of her life has been leading to this point. She is running as a candidate in Dublin north inner city in the upcoming local elections. She wants to work towards ending direction provision.
“I want to see people given their independence. Give them the opportunity, and if they screw it up, and I’ll be like ‘Bingo, you’ve got me’. Because I believe if people are given the opportunity, they can shine. Out of 10 people, maybe not all 10 will go on to have an amazing story. But we might have four. Or five.”
She isn’t a single-issue candidate, however. “I consider myself as an Irish woman. I am a single mother who has raised two children in poverty. I have been affected by homelessness.” She sees herself as representing people in the margins of society. “The people on the floor.”
She has spent close to a quarter of her life in Ireland. She has more family here than she has left in Malawi, where almost everyone she loved has died. It’s home now, even if, in some ways, this country has let her down. “But I have never stopped living. I’m still Ellie. And I can actually use this situation to my advantage. And maybe I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone through this. So there is a reason for everything.”
Now, she says, “I feel very much Irish. The things I worry about: I worry where I sleep. I worry where my life is at. I’m a very ambitious woman. I can’t ever claim back the nine or 10 years that’s gone. But I can claim the nine or 10 years that’s coming. So that’s what I’m fighting for.”