This interview was conducted on 16 October 2017 at the house of Katerina. Questions were posed by two students at Brown University, Aliosha Bielenberg and Jeanelle Wheeler. Audio recording and general assistance was provided by another Brown student, Andrew Robbin. Interpretation and a significant amount of contextual information was given by the director of Women’s Refugee Care, Aline Binyungu. The interview was conducted in French, with Aline providing translation from and into Swahili. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Katerina Kashindi at her home in Providence. Photo credit: Addy Schuetz.
Hello, Katerina! Could you please introduce yourself?
My name is Katerina Kashindi and I am from the Congo. I am 52 years old and there are six people in my family.
Do you like the United States?
I like this country a lot, but I have a lot of problems. This country gives me a lot of difficulties. I have a lot of challenges, like health problems. Since I’ve come here, I’ve always been sick. I’ve felt things I’ve never felt before. I don’t understand.
When did you come to America?
Last year. It was around the 14th of December. I did not come with all my family. Some of them stayed in Burundi.
How many years did you stay in Burundi?
How many years did I stay in Burundi? Oh… I gave birth to my children in Burundi. So it was a long time.
So you were born in Congo. What was it like in your home in Congo growing up?
Life was beautiful. But things changed when there was a bad government.
Ah... It was terrible. It’s a long story and very serious. For example, President Mobutu – if the university students wanted to say anything that opposed him – he could kill and massacre everyone at the university. That’s what he did. It’s a very big problem. And when the other – President Kabila – came to power it was terrible. It is still terrible now. There are the Banyamulenge, a people that originate from Rwanda but who have Congolese nationality. Because during the war Kabila took power and the Banyamulenge military helped him, they killed a lot of Congolese people.
Was this before or after the Rwandan Genocide?
The genocide was in 1994, and Kabila took power in 1997. In fact, it was together since the war in Congo really started from the genocide because there was a massive flow of refugees coming from Rwanda to the Congo. All of the population. So, it’s a long story.
Did you go to school?
No, I didn’t go to school.
Can you write?
Can I write what?
You want me to write? Then give me a piece of paper and I will write something. [Katerina and Aline laugh. Katerina writes her name on a piece of paper.] I learned to write my name at Dorcas International Institute
Are you learning English there?
Yes. Little by little. Learning about numbers, money. I know about bank accounts – I know the word “withdraw”!
Do your children go to school?
Yes. They really need to learn. They also teach me little things like how to say “hello.” Things like that. For example, this here is “window.” And this is a “table,” “chair,” “sleeping,” “door.” Little by little, I am learning. [Right now in Dorcas] I’m in a course for older people with disabilities. It meets twice a week.
You stayed in Burundi for several years. Did your children go to school there?
Yes, they went to school there. But I couldn’t go to school. I was trying to find something to eat, something to live on. Life was so difficult that I didn’t have the time to go to school. And in both Burundi and the Congo, school costs money. You have to pay every first day of the month, even in public schools. If you don’t have any francs, you don’t go to school. You have to pay for everything – even for a pen. And if you lose your pen and you can’t find it the next day, then you don’t want to go back to school.
How is life different between the US and Congo/Burundi?
Here in the United States, it is better. But for me, it is not really better because of my health. In Burundi and the Congo, I worked. I was always at the market selling things. I had a small business. I sold tomatoes, eggplants, and more…
Do they have them here?
Yes, they do!
Yes, there are many ways to cook eggplants. I know a special way to cook them!
Did you grow vegetables or buy them?
I went to the big market – the biggest in the area – to buy vegetables. I used a bike, but it was someone else who took me on their bike. If you had a lot of things, you had to take the motorcycle because time was money – you had to satisfy your customers. But if you weren’t pressed for time you could also take the bus. But you had to wait for the bus to fill up. You had to pay 1000 francs for the bus and 800 francs for the motorcycle. I sometimes went by taxi because sometimes there was no other way – especially when there was rain – and the taxi was fast. This was in the capital of Burundi, Bujumbura. In the city, but in the area with people who are poor and don’t have the means, a bit far from the center – a bidonville [shantytown].
What did you like to do when you had free time?
I cleaned the house, I prepared for my children. I prepared the food – that’s what I liked to do. I used to be able to do a lot and lift heavy weights, but I can’t now because I feel weak.
So when you arrived here you continued to do all the chores and prepare food, but not work?
No, I don’t. The day that they promised me I could go start work, I woke up and I couldn’t. I was too ill. I had fallen ill. When I went to the doctors here, they searched everything, I did all kinds of exams, but they didn’t find anything. Sometimes I sit here at home and I feel like I can’t even go to the toilet right over there. Sometimes I can’t even speak. I can look at you like this but I’m not capable of speech.
Were there interpreters at the hospital?
Yes. There were interpreters. It was Clément! [Aline’s husband and the co-director of WRC]. And another, who helped me get to the hospital once.
Really, the doctors thought you weren’t ill?
I will tell you: my head was in a machine, and they didn’t find anything. The doctors referred me to a therapist, and the therapist said that it is probably because I was so traumatized. That’s why I’m like this – I also have nightmares, I hear things, I don’t know.
Do you have a dream in your life? What is your vision of an ideal life, for you and your children?
I’ve had a very nice life, me and my children as well. But I really don’t know, I don’t see anything. I don’t see that I have any future here. There isn’t any hope.
[A sigh, followed by laughter from everyone.] It all depends on my health. What has happened to me may happen to my children as well, because I don’t understand what I’m living through. When I came, I wanted to enter the same process as everyone else – find work, do housework, live my life. But I’m always at home and I can’t leave because I feel like I don’t really have support, I feel weak. At the hospital they don’t see anything, though. I’m afraid the same will happen with my children.
Are you religious?
Yes, I am religious. I am Muslim. I go to the mosque here nearby.
What languages do you speak?
I speak Swahili fluently, but I understand other languages. I understand a bit of French and a bit of English. Swahili is not my mother tongue. My first language is actually Kusu, because I am from the Mukusu/Batetela tribe in the province of Maniema.
Is it similar to Swahili?
No. [Both are Bantu languages, but they are mutually unintelligible.]
How did you learn Swahili?
I learned Swahili in Burundi. [Aline provided explanation for our sake: In Congo there are five major (national) languages. It’s only in the East that Swahili dominates. French is at school; we start learning French bit by bit in grade five in public school through university, so only those who go to school can speak it. Me, I have my mother tongue, because most people from the Congo come from the villages. There, they speak the traditional languages. But Swahili is the lingua franca, which people speak in the cities. So, my mother tongue is Kusu, but I didn’t learn it very much because I left Congo when I was eight for Burundi. I grew up there with my cousin, and I learned Swahili. I also learned a bit of Rundi, the national language of Burundi. But I lost my mother tongue.]
Could we talk a bit about how you went to Burundi?
It was my cousin – my uncle’s daughter – who got me to leave Congo to move to Burundi. I lived with her father, my uncle. They all died there, in Burundi, but I stayed. I couldn’t return to Congo.
Was it a long way to go to Burundi?
Congo to Burundi? It was rather far. Driving, it takes about five hours; you cross the eastern border of the DRC. We flew by plane. I was very young, so I don’t remember exactly, but we went to the airport in the city [probably Kindu, the capital of Maniema].
Do you cook? What is your favorite dish to make?
I really like ugali and fufu! You make it by heating water and adding manioc (cassava) flour. You knead them together then knead some more. You eat it like polenta, with sauces, meat, fish, anything. You make little round balls with your hands and it’s delicious. Every Congolese eats it, even twice or three times a day. Manioc is expensive here, though, so we use cornmeal instead.
What kind of meat do you use? Do you eat pork?
No, because I’m Muslim. But I eat goat, beef, everything else.
Can your children speak English?
Yes! They go to school and learn English. But they also speak Swahili at home.
So right now you’re speaking your second language, Swahili?
Yes. But I forgot my first language, so I’m most fluent in Swahili. So my “mother tongue” isn’t really the language I speak.
How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Three sisters and four brothers. They are in the Congo.
Could you please describe how Women’s Refugee Care has helped you?
It has helped me forget what I have lived through. Women’s Refugee Care has really helped me forget all my nightmares – everything bad I’ve lived through. It’s also encouraged me to study and find work. And it’s helped my children to thrive [s’épanouir] and be glad [se réjouir]. They are not sad because they take care of themselves. The students are taken care of. My children are happy. Still, I suffer. Ni hatari. I want you to remember that word. It means “it’s dangerous,” “it’s serious,” “it’s terrible.” Life, that is – the past, the present, and the future.