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Language no barrier for doctor, patients

18 January 2013
Guy Rogers

PORT Elizabeth’s Animal Welfare Society has a new recruit with a difference,  and his work as an over-qualified veterinary assistant is proving of great value to the hard-pressed AWS. Mwamba Kabasele, 42, is in fact a qualified vet but his degree from the University of Lubumbashi back in the Democratic Republic of Congro (DRC) where he is from does not enable him to practise here unless he completes further exams. Most  relate to establishing his proficiency in English.

Kabasele is aiming to do these exams at some point but in the meanwhile, he says, he’s greatly enjoying his work as an assistant to AWS vet Dr Dave Stuart, and the quiet life in Port Elizabeth.

And work like a Trojan he does. Stuart said he was very impressed.

“It’s fantastic to have him on board. When he’s not working in theatre, he always finds something to do clipping, washing or dipping the animals. He sets a great example for the whole AWS team.”

AWS manager Mark Mullan agreed. “He’s a good man and a vital member of our team.”

Interviewed this week by The Herald, Kabasele answered questions slowly, searching for the right words in English, which he still does not speak very well. He has a slight stutter and — when asked about his ongoing dealings with the home affairs department — a wry grin.

He was born in the town of Kananga in central DRC, and has the startling blue eyes and freckled skin typical of many of the ancient Baluba tribe who have been in central Africa since the 5th century. 

He moved with his family at a young age to the eastern city of Lubumbashi where he grew up and was educated. Even as a boy, he liked animals, he recalled, an inclination he inherited from his father Bakuswawenda Kabasele, who had a passion for dogs.

He also learned at a young age to work with them, he explained. 

“When I was still in secondary school I had goats, pigs, pigeons and ducks. I bred them so as to have the young ones to sell, to raise money for my education.

“In fact, animal welfare in DRC is okay because of this situation. People there realise they can make money from these animals, so they take care of them.” 

DRC’s civil war, flaring up right now, was rumbling already in the late 80s, and it peaked in 2003. Kabasele had friends, colleagues and neighbours who were slaughtered in the brutal conflict between government, rebels and rival militas. Many others, driven from their homes to live in poverty, “died in the heart”.

His own sister Bilonda was forced out in this way, he said,  but the reasons for her death were were more visceral.  She had to trek from her home in Katanga Province to an under-developed disease-ridden area in Zambia and, with no medical assistance at hand, she fell ill and died.

Besides the atrocities in DRC reported through the years in the media, there were countless knife-edge confrontations with armed and hostile groups, which made life intolerable, he said.

“One day, they stopped me and claimed — you want to kill (President Laurent-Désiré) Kabila, don’t you? I said no and, that day, I got away without more problems.

“The strange thing is, the next day, Kabila was dead (assassinated).”

In another disturbing incident, his elderly father and scores of other passengers on a train were hauled off by young thug soldiers and ordered to strip naked before being forced on board again to continue their journey.

Having decided to leave for South Africa, he wanted to do it in the proper way and he obtained a visa from the embassy in DRC. He was apprehensive about his plunge into the unknown and could not speak a word of English, he recalled. “But I knew, I can’t look back.” In 2006, he travelled south on a bus via Zambia to the place he now regards as home.

He had been advised by a friend to avoid Johannesburg as it “is not a nice place”. He travelled to Cape Town and then George quickly finding work in animal welfare and then, three years ago,  he settled in PE and started his job at AWS.

Kabasele said one of the things he likes about South Africa is its egalitarian spirit.

“In DRC, if you are a cleaner, you do not speak to a doctor. If you do, you speak like a slave. Here, everyone  can speak to everyone.”

He chuckled when I point out that he himself as a doctor would have been safeguarded from this humiliation.

“I believe everybody should be happy.”

Pressed for any negatives about living here compared to in DRC, he admitted he missed the warm equatorial climate. “Here in Winter we are crying.”

With home affairs having closed their Port Elizabeth refugee office,  Kabasele and other African foreign nationals have to travel to Cape Town to get their temporary asylum or residency status renewed or, they hope, made permanent. It is a “difficult” experience, he said.

“The queues are long and the officials do not talk properly to us. We are nervous and it is very stressful. Language is a problem. Their rules on who will get residence seem to be not consistent. Different officials on duty say different things.”

In a 2008 visit, he was assured by an official he could come back for his permanent residency document “tomorrow”.  But the next day the clerks were all on strike and, by the time the strike ended, the particular official had disappeared, no issuing instruction had been logged, and the whole process had to start again.

Still, Dr Mwamba is happy. Each Monday, he and a few other people  meet for Bible study. There is no real difference between the people here and in his former homeland, he said. Colour likewise is not a distinguishing factor between people, in his view. “If there is a difference here it is because of different environments — between those living in the township, for instance, and those living in the suburbs. But in general, I believe,  people are the same.”

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