I was smuggled into Ireland: Vanessa’s journey from Congo to Dublin
In 2001, orphaned and alone, the 11-year-old joined a smuggler for the month-long trip
Vanessa Manunga photographed by Cyril Byrne
The journey – from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to Ireland – was meant to last three days. It took more than a month. I was accompanied by a woman in her 30s whom I called “Aunt Sandra”, and two other girls. One was about 17, the other about my age: 11.
I left Kinshasa following the sudden death of my 13-year-old brother, Reed Manunga, in 2001. Reed was a talented artist who had made different portraits of me that looked incredibly surreal. When he died I had no other immediate family members left.
In 1992, when I was two, my father died. He was a pilot who worked in Kinshasa. A few years later my younger brother, Glodi, died at the age of five. When I turned seven, in 1997, my mother died too. She was an elegant, beautiful, charming and generous woman who had worked as an air hostess for Air Zaïre.
In Dublin I could start a new life in a developed country, get a better education, and live in an environment free from war, poverty and corruption – which is everywhere in Congo
The loss of my family members left me feeling isolated and sad. I started getting sick regularly, vomiting and suffering headaches, but the hospital couldn’t detect what was wrong with me.
After some time my aunt, who was married to a businessman in Kinshasa, took charge of me. They fed me, clothed me and sent me to school. I travelled to Gabon with them in 1997, when we fled a war in Congo.
My aunt’s family had a comfortable life in Kinshasa, but I still felt alone and empty. Even as a cousin I missed the feeling of belonging to a family of my own.
In 1976 my mother had had a daughter, my half-sister, who moved to Europe in 1999 to pursue her studies. She then moved to Ireland, to settle down and start a family.
When Reed died it was decided I should travel to Ireland as soon as possible. I was an 11-year-old child, and my sister – now pregnant with a baby boy– was my closest living relative.
My aunt was saddened that I was leaving the country. I got along well with her eldest son: we played, ate and hung out together. I was like the older sister he never had, and he was like my younger brother, Glodi, whom I had lost.
Although it was sad leaving Kinshasa, I was also excited about making my dreams come true. Ireland seemed to offer opportunities beyond my wildest dreams. Although my life in Kinshasa was not uncomfortable, in Dublin I could start a new life of my own in a developed country, get a better education, and live in an environment free from war, poverty and corruption – which is everywhere in Congo.
Unemployment is high there, the work environment is poor, and it is difficult to grow as an individual. The ambition of most young people is to travel and live abroad.
“Sandra”, who lived in an urban area in Kinshasa, was the younger sister of a people smuggler who lived in Ireland. A down-to-earth, confident and outspoken woman, she would be in charge of me and the two other girls on our journey to Ireland. Sandra was a single mother at the time and was leaving her daughter, who was about five, in Congo.
The two other girls were from different families in Kinshasa. The tall, dark-brown-skinned 17-year-old was reserved and observant. She barely spoke but was always willing to help when things were tough. The 11-year-old was noisy and chatty, careless at times, but like me she was only a child.
From Kinshasa, the first stop was Matadi. It is the main seaport of Congo, and has one of the largest harbours in central Africa. I think we travelled by bus. The weather was extremely hot.
Paved roads are rare in Congo, and are mainly limited to motorways. On many national roads, cars drive on sand instead. The sand is red in Matadi, and people walking on the street became dusty quickly. Many people began to look blurry to my 11-year-old eyes, as the sand covered their nice colourful outfits. I soon became one of them, covered in dust.
In Matadi we stayed at a family’s home for two nights. The house was very stuffy, and I couldn’t breathe comfortably, as it was very warm and there was no fan.
Outside, the streets were darker than I was used to. There were no street lights, but people were comfortable walking on the street in the evening.
People there were respectful and friendly, especially when they became aware that we were heading to Europe. They hoped we might remember to send them something when we got there and gained some expendable income.
A studio in Zambia
From Matadi we went to Zambia by plane – a small aircraft, not luxurious. My stomach felt sick, as I had an extreme fear of flying. I cried out loud, and my whole body shook. Sandra gripped my hands firmly and pointed out a younger girl who wasn’t crying. I had no reason to cry nor to be afraid, she said. We landed safely.
On arrival in Zambia, we took a minibus crowded with passengers both sitting and standing. In this crowded space I could see only the eyes of some people, which scared me. I was particularly afraid of the men. I forced a smile, hoping this would prevent people attacking me.
Sandra rented a small studio for the two weeks we spent there. The studio – a small room with a double bed and no indoor toilet – was attached to several other rented houses. We took turns to sleep in the bed or the floor. I was in the bed most nights, as I was younger and very insecure.
I turned 12 in Zambia. I felt disappointed, as I had hoped to celebrate my birthday in Ireland surrounded by my family, but a call to Sandra’s mobile phone from my uncle and aunts in Kinshasa helped make the day feel special, and Sandra bought me juice and biscuits.
The smuggler from Ireland was tall, glamorous and softly spoken. She had a number of children, and I had to use her daughter’s Irish passport
That night we went to a pub, where I saw men mingling and dancing seductively with women. I felt I shouldn’t be there, and knew that at home I would never have been allowed out at that time.
One night in Zambia I wet the bed, and had to sleep on the floor the following night as a consequence. At that age, I was very embarrassed.
On one occasion Sandra sent me to drop something to some guys living next to our studio. They called me inside, but they looked creepy and I feared I was going to be raped and refused to go in. I wonder if Sandra also sensed this danger. The other girl of around my age started going to that house regularly. I still sometimes worry that she was sleeping with these men.
As a child, I didn’t realise how serious this situation might have been. Now I feel lucky I was bold enough to speak up and say no to those men. I was in a position of weakness, in a foreign country as a minor with no money or family.
My family members in Kinshasa were worried about me travelling in such conditions but felt they had no other way of getting me to Ireland at the time. I would not have been given a visa to travel here by ordinary routes.
The scariest journey
Soon we took the road to Zimbabwe, which was the scariest journey I have ever been on. The buses we took were crowded and drove on small roads that should have been one lane but actually had two. The fast-moving buses were driving on hills where pavements were fiercely broken. Knowing that one bad turn could lead to tragedy was terrifying.
We spent a week in Zimbabwe. We were lodged in a motel which had one room but with an indoor toilet. It was nice compared with the studio in Zambia.
The first few days were tough, as we ate once a day and we had to share food from one pot. I had to eat very fast, as eating slowly meant no food. I dreamed about eating a proper meal of chicken or fish.
Eventually the smuggler from Ireland came. She was a very beautiful woman, tall, glamorous and softly spoken. My reaction when I first saw her was “Wow”; I wondered whether I could look this polished when I grew up. She had a number of children, and I had to use her daughter’s Irish passport.
She brought along a suitcase of outfits sent by my family. After weeks without a change of clothes I was delighted with these beautiful and fresh dresses, as I loved looking pretty. Sandra, however, rushed to my suitcase and shared my outfits with the two other girls. With nothing much left, I felt extremely sad but was too young to argue.
As we rushed out of passport control the smuggler whispered: ‘Hurry, sometimes the police can come after us again.’ But nobody did
The smuggler from Ireland, the 17-year-old-girl and I were to travel to London now, leaving Sandra and the other girl behind. I was told to get rid of my own passport and use the smuggler’s daughter’s passport. She also told me to practise saying her address in English, in case they asked me for it.
During the flight to London I felt a mix of happiness and anxiety. On arrival at the check-in desk, the man checking our passport seemed to notice something was off. The woman at the desk beside ours looked at me and my smuggler and whispered to the guy. He began to ask more questions.
When he asked me my address I was able to answer like I had practised, but when he asked about other things I started to reply in French. The smuggler told him that my grandmother had just passed away and that I was traumatised.
The man looked straight into my eyes and I looked back at him helplessly. He closed my passport and showed us the exit. As we rushed to the exit doors the smuggler whispered: “Hurry, sometimes the police can come after us again.” But nobody did.
Londoners looked the same
I was in London for two weeks. In London it was just after Christmas. The lights in the city-centre streets were still up; it seemed like magic walking around the streets of London among all the Caucasian people. I couldn’t tell them apart. Everyone seemed to look alike. The only point of distinction was the colour of their hair.
I welcomed the cold weather at first, but I could enjoy having my hands frozen for only a short while, and I remained indoors for most of my stay. I lived with a Congolese family, parents with a girl my age and a younger boy. The family was Christian and welcoming.
However, the mum locked the kitchen door when she went to work. The kids would go to school and eat their breakfast and lunch in school. The father was usually out, so I would stay in the bedroom or sittingroom without food until everyone came back. Then I would eat dinner with the family.
One day I overheard the father complaining about the kitchen door being locked during the day, and they had a fight. I was reminded that I was just a stranger in their house, not trusted to have free run of the kitchen.
Questioned in Dublin
The smuggler had told the family that I would stay at their home for only three days, but I was there for more than two weeks. At last, she came to collect me, and we embarked on the journey from London to Dublin. The trip was long, as we took several buses.
I decided that being nervous wasn’t an option. I had practised and learnt a lot of English words during my two weeks in London. I felt more confident and was able to briefly answer back whenever I was questioned by the checkpoint personnel. I was also able to dodge some questions that I wasn’t able to answer.
At the port in Ireland I could answer most questions that the official put to me, but at a certain point the smuggler grabbed my hand, as if she was running late for an important meeting. We walked away as the man was still speaking.
Finally, I was walking on the streets of Dublin. We took the bus, and the woman pointed at the roadworks, which she said was a never-ending part of life in Dublin.
It felt like home, but the few hours prior to meeting my family felt like the longest hours I’ve had to endure. My heart was racing. The next day I was driven to my sister’s flat in central Dublin – a humid one-bedroom apartment in an old building. I met my newborn nephew and the rest of the family.
“She’s here,” my sister said, with tears in her eyes.
In the years since, I have studied drama in Liberties College, and journalism in Ballyfermot College. I am currently a professional actor, and in December I will graduate from Dublin City University with a 2:1 bachelor’s degree in media production management. My daughter is turning five on October 22nd. Although it was very challenging combining my studies with raising her, she is the reason I wanted to get my distinctions.
Six years ago I became an Irish citizen. I jumped and cried for joy when I received the letter.