Ireland has been gifted with an influx of people from all over the world in recent years, many of whom are making their way through Ireland’s Direct Provision system. These new members of our communities offer all of us an opportunity to get to know different cultures.
As part of a project funded by Creative Ireland and the county councils of Laois and Westmeath, I met residents of Direct Provision centres in Emo, Abbeyleix and Athlone, to chat about their memories of home, and the dreams they have for their future here in Ireland.
‘It’s a gift I have, to talk to people who have been fighting’
David Nesengani, South Africa
David Nesengani was born in Lompopo province in South Africa into a family descended from kings, who were regularly consulted for guidance and justice. He learned from his father and uncle that "everyone must come to a point where they compromise. When this is implemented, the results are wonderful. They transform the entire community to good from bad."
Having worked alongside Nelson Mandela at conferences with the ANC, Nesengani is passionate about community development and conflict resolution. “If Irish people want to know me they ought to give me a task that involves uniting people. It’s a gift I have, to talk to people who have been fighting and killing each other.”
He is now studying social studies in Westmeath, and is keen to work in the community where he can be of service. “I wish God sends me somewhere where there is huge need, so that I can make impact among the poorest people. I hope that I can identify something that will be able to bring a change for them even if they are no resources.”
‘To be a Yoruba is a thing to be proud of’
Oyeyemi Onipede, Nigeria
Oyeyemi Onipede is from the Yoruba tribe in southwestern Nigeria. "To be a Yoruba is a thing to be proud of. We are ready to learn new things and open to new cultures." Christianity and Islam are the principal faiths, but a traditional belief known as ifa, based on divination, is still practised.
“There’s a god of iron, a god of thunder, a god of commerce, and also a god of the river and waters. I think we have the god of the forest too, that people worship and make sacrifices to.”
Each town will have a central altar, and people have smaller altars in their homes on which items like iron objects are placed for worship and blood sacrifices are made. Christian missionaries convinced the Yoruba that Christ had stronger magical powers than their gods and many converted, but Oyeyemi says, “In my own community there are still people who practise pagan worship”.
Both faiths emphasise honesty, sincerity and honourable practise. "The ifa faith says you must look after nature. You should not cut down trees. You have to respect your environment."
Onipede is grateful for the role Irish priests played in Nigeria in “getting people educated and treated like human beings and also advising against old practises. With all due respect, these are the things that I’d like to see in Ireland again. I want to see the saints and scholars again. I want to see their influence on society.”
‘If one family cooks they say come and eat to everyone’
Charmaine (Sandy) Moyo, Zimbabwe
Charmaine (Sandy) Moyo was born in Zimbabwe in a town with a strong sense of communal identity. "If one family cooks they say come and eat to everyone. When you are sick you can call your neighbour and they will help you," she says. All the female elders were like mothers, aunties or grandmothers to her.
It surprises her how in Ireland people keep to themselves, and she regrets that she must call people by their first names, and not just “sister” or “brother”. She’d love to go home, but it’s just not safe, as she was active in promoting women’s rights.
“I am a poison in the country. We used to see our mothers being beaten. We formed a group to educate the girl child that she mustn’t be abused. We were being beaten up, taken to jail, so that we don’t teach the women these things.”
‘In springtime we used to pray to a god of rain’
Ivann Rodas, Guatemala
Ivann Rodas is a teacher from the Guatemalan city of Quetzaltenango. He had to flee his home when drug cartels moved into the region. "It's close to the border with Mexico and five or ten years ago, terrorists with guns set up in the area with drugs, and it changed everything, especially for the kids. Now it is very dangerous," he says.
His grandmother spoke the traditional Mayan languages K’iche’ and Katchiqua. She mixed aspects of Christianity with Mayan practise. “In springtime we used to pray to a god of rain to see how the corn was going to grow up in the land. A Mayan god can be all of nature, or one tree, or a lake or mountain, or the clouds. God is everywhere.”
He misses teaching and is “focused on trying to be a teacher here in Ireland, and maybe even teach about Mayan culture or Spanish culture here. Since this country is doing so much for me why can’t I contribute in return?”
‘We would eat a lot and celebrate the summer’
Fortunate Nanhlanhla Nesengani, Zimbabwe
Fortunate Nanhlanhla Nesengani grew up in a village in a mountainous region of Zimbabwe with many dangerous snakes. "All the mambas that you've ever heard about are in those mountains: black mamba, green mamba, white mamba. And we've got baboons – when we plough our maize they come to steal from us."
She insists that snakes aren’t dangerous. “Sometimes when you go to the field to cultivate with horses you might step on a snake, but they realise it’s a mistake and they won’t bite you. They will flee. But if you really attack it, it will bite, and even follow you.”
She says a small child can touch and play with a very poisonous snake “but the snake will not bite that child.”
She has fond memories of harvest parties when “all the villagers would come together. They would kill cattle and we would eat a lot and celebrate the summer season.”
They’d also offer prayers for a good harvest, and for suitable rains. This communal aspect of life in Zimbabwe suffered under colonisation, and Fortunate sees a similar impact in Ireland, though “the Irish are still very social. They have come together to support me, through thick and thin.”
‘Everyone in the city knows how to swim and how to fish’
Adam* comes from Safi, a Moroccan coastal town famous for its seafood barbecues. "Everyone in the city knows how to swim and how to fish, and the sardines we catch are known throughout Morocco, " he says. He tried cooking fish from Irish rivers, "but it's not the same".
He works in a barber shop in Athlone and has made good friends. He says the Irish are similar to Moroccans in that both are easy going and like to joke. The main difference is that “the Irish get drunk while the Moroccans get stoned”. He’d love to go home, but life isn’t safe for him there and he realises that he might never get back. “It’s hard. After five years you miss your family a lot. I used not to think about it, but now I miss my mum. I see her getting older.”
He wishes people here would remember that most Direct Provision residents are entirely alone. “Maybe if they try to get closer to us it’s better. I have no family. When I go home I’m all alone.”
‘The more you are as a family the healthier you are’
Lwandise* comes from a small farm of cattle, sheep, goats and other animals in Matebeleland South, Zimbabwe. His family also "grew grains so that we can feed our families throughout the year until the next rains".
His father practised polygamy and so Lwandise had five siblings from his mother’s side and 12 from his father’s. Everyone was reared as part of the one family, “Boys have their own rooms and girls have theirs, regardless of which family. It was a very good way of being brought up as there is always someone in the house for you. There is always a mother. In the village the more you are as a family the healthier you are, the more you can do and the more you can produce.”
He misses life back home, but it’s just not safe for him there. For his life in Ireland, he wishes that he be recognised “regardless of my race or skin colour. That is my greatest hope.”
‘My young brother started to hunt when he was four’
Pauline Van Wijk, Zimbabwe
Pauline Van Wijk is from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and "grew up relatively poor, but happy. I remember my dad let us watch a python eat a dik-dik (small deer) and for seven days we returned to watch it as it lay there digesting. We only ate wild meat when we were growing up. My young brother started to hunt when he was four years old."
She moved to South Africa and now has five children and nine grandchildren. They lived outside Johannesburg. "It was extremely dangerous … we experienced four attempted high-jackings."
She believes the Irish don’t understand how violent South Africa really is. “Horrible things happened to us there, especially to my daughter. It wasn’t easy at my age to make this transition to Ireland, it was the hardest things we ever did, but now, I think, it was the best.”
‘In a rural area when you meet someone you greet them’
Noma*, a model, grew up in rural Zimbabwe, tending cattle and growing vegetables and cereals. At the age of 12 she moved to South Africa with her parents and "was exposed to many things there.
We used to go to the library to study, and play netball, and go swimming.” There was more freedom than with her grandmother but still, “I prefer my grandmother’s way because the respect was there. In a rural area when you meet someone you greet them, you help your neighbourhood, but in a township you let your neighbour do whatever.”
The sense of possibility and lack of bribery is something she values in Ireland; that people will help without demanding something in return. “Here, the sky is the limit. We can still fulfil our dreams. I can do the things I wanted to do back home that I didn’t get a chance to do.”
*Some surnames have been omitted at the request of the interviewees
Home Stories is a podcast series of interviews by Manchán Magan with Direct Provision residents, featuring music by Brían MacGloinn (of Ye Vagabonds) and Myles O’Reilly