Mwangaza Mama: meaning and moments

By Rebecca Walker (Postdoctoral Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa).

When my colleague Elsa and I first started our arts-based research group in Johannesburg it didn’t have a name. We simply referred to it as “The Mother’s group” – based on the fact that we had started the group as a way of exploring – through participant research and arts-based methods – the everyday experiences and challenges of migrant mothers in Johannesburg. However, not all the women were mothers and motherhood for those who had dependants was so much more than what the term often conjures up. As my previous blog (The burden of care) discusses motherhood is often a space of turmoil, of the struggle to provide, of frustration and desperation and, of a burden. Therefore the name needed to be something that would not only mark the group, state it’s claim as something to which the women belonged but that also reflected what the group was about, how it was experienced by the women.

So after a discussion the women chose “Mwangaza Mama”. “Mwangaza”, a Swahili word translates literally as “light”. However, the women also described it as meaning “joy”, “love” and “caring”. “Mama is a term of respect used for all women – with or without children” they told us.

The name also seemed to encapsulate all that has taken place in the group – the light (“Mwangaza”) – of the friendships created, the support given and the times of understanding and fun and the contrasting dark times and spaces. And there have been many very difficult, darker times. I have previously written about the struggles Elsa and I have experienced in dealing with the levels of trauma in the group, in knowing how or what we can do, or even if we should be doing it (Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities). There are also many experiences I haven’t yet written about in depth like when Mercy received a call to say her brother had died which then triggered an outpouring of grief from all the group members. This was early on in the year and the stories of deaths and violence that surfaced were beyond comprehension. Later in the year Precious arrived one week bent double with pain. The story that unfolded was that she had suffered a partial miscarriage and been treated horribly at a government clinic. After they forced her to wait in a toilet cubicle (as they wanted a urine sample) she miscarried. She had not known she was pregnant and so was in shock and pain. When the nurse found her she told her “good…now throw it in the bin and open a file”. She was then operated on at a government hospital and discharged without antibiotics because the nurse told her “you’ve already had an operation -medicines are only for South Africans”. There was also the time when we realised one of our group members, Mercy who had gone away for a while leaving her three children behind wasn’t coming back. These were tough times and there will be more of them. Recognising the sheer level of desperation that the women battle on a daily basis has often left us in despair –  it has also challenged us, shaped our work and questioned us at every step.

But the dark moments have been central to the group in shaping the ties that have emerged and in generating some of the lighter moments too. And there have been some wonderful moments of light. Getting to know each of the women over the twelve months has been really important and especially seeing how they have formed friendships together. Recently for example, Precious told us a story about helping Mercy, another group member who had moved to the same area as Precious but kept getting lost. The first time this happened Precious had randomly bumped into Mercy who had left her new place to buy bread but couldn’t find her way home. Precious had then walked round and round the streets with Mercy trying to help her find her building. Precious was worried about Mercy being alone in an area she was not familiar with, and even though Precious had two small children at home and many of her own worries she still spent time helping Mercy get home. These two women ten months earlier had not known one another and yet now walking the streets of Joburg in force, keeping each other safe – in a mutual recognition of the risks of the city and their own vulnerability as women, as non-nationals and moving in spaces shaped by crime.

In our last meeting for the year we had a small Christmas party and the women brought their children and danced and exchanged gifts. The dancing was imperative we were told – and it felt like a very special space to watch women who we knew had lost so much and faced a difficult Christmas with no money – dance with one another and with us. We had also taken the opportunity at that end of year session to ask the group to reflect on what the group had meant to them over the past year. The women generally expressed that the group had given them a chance to form friendships, learn from others and share in ways that they wouldn’t do so in their everyday lives. Elsabe from Angola for example, who joined our group later in the year, noted that she had been coming to the NGO (through whom we work) since 2010 but had never seen the other women there: “hearing these stories I feel like I’m not alone”. Redina, one of the quieter group members had commented, “I’m always happy and excited when it’s Friday. Happy to see these faces. I have missed you when I couldn’t come to the group…everytime when I share in the group I feel I leave my load here. Like I leave everything in the room”. Rose had also noted that the group had created a space where she could talk about the stresses of being in a “new country”, where she could feel listened to and, supported.

Some of the women were also very honest and frank about the group. Mary, for example. a single mother to four young children stated that for her the money and food was the most important aspect of the group. Each week we give a small stipend for transport and provide breakfast and lunch for the group. For Mary, and the others, this was often the only money coming in and the only chance to have a proper meal and take home any extra for the children. While Mary went on to say that she also valued the friendships and support she received it was important she was able to say that the money mattered. Important for her in highlighting just how difficult everyday life in Johannesburg is, especially when you don’t work and have children. Important for us to be reminded that research and the groups created cannot always be about people wanting to share and giving part of themselves or stories. While we hope that participation can offer something – a chance to share a story, to meet others, to do something different – we need to acknowledge that sometimes it is only about the money. And this has to be OK as a reality of research and as a reality for many of us in our work and everyday lives. Yet like the difficulties of dealing with emotions – for both the participants and ourselves as researchers – issues of money are rarely discussed easily and tend to lead to divided opinions and judgement rather than context-based understanding.

The descriptions the women gave of the group and of it’s purpose in that last session reminds me of the way in which Judith Butler talks about grief in relation to tragedy (in her case reflecting on 9/11) and the forming of ties. She states that sharing loss with others enables ‘a tenuous ‘“we” of all of us’ – creates ties and new forms of connectibility – through which we reveal our vulnerability (Precarious Lives, 2004: 23). While it is maybe too early, or the context is too complex to claim that strong ties have been formed in Mwangazi Mama it is clear that the mutual recognition of loss and of at times, desperation has allowed a level of connection that did not exist before. This is not an easy connection. It is tense and at times, tested. Mistrust and, even hostility has arisen through misunderstandings. There have been arguments over food, over intentions and over the nature of the group. But there has also been small threads which have started to tangle together – threads of recognition, of sharing in a process, of understanding the pain.  In recognising that the women are generally isolated, that their daily burdens of providing for their children and battling the many obstacles they face in accessing healthcare, education, documentation and employment – this “we” – the group of Mwangazi Mamas – really matters.

And this is what frames our next series of sessions as we move into 2018. This year the project will likely come to an end as the funding finishes and my postdoc will be completed. But before that we want to spend more time reflecting with and on Mwangazi Mamas. We want to complete the quilt pieces that the group have been working on, continue sharing and recording stories and findings ways to provide support. The quilts will be interesting – they are composed of the stories of the women but they also tell the story of the group – the struggles, interruptions, incomplete sessions, things that were invested in and, those that were abandoned – the process that we haven’t been sure about. We are still not entirely clear what this looks like. We are aware that careful planning of sessions is often usurped with a sudden crisis or problem that needs to be discussed. But we at least expect that now, and we value this very ambiguity defining what Mwangazi Mamas is about.


Drawing by Rachel Walker (

The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.

The burden of care

By Rebecca Walker (Postdoctoral Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa).

From 2004-2007 I carried out research for my PhD in Batticaloa, a coastal town in eastern Sri Lanka. Those years of living and researching in Sri Lanka were turbulent: I was there when the 2004 tsunami hit the shores of the island; when the already precarious ceasefire between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) unravelled, descending into fighting which eventually led to the annihilation of the Tigers and the deaths of thousands of Tamil people in the north. What struck me, and what I ended up focusing on in the writing up of my PhD was the ways in which everyday life was held together. I questioned and explored how certain routines and rhythms were held in place despite layers of loss, suffering and uncertainty – but also argued that what is ‘ordinary’ and ‘normal’ in contexts of extreme, protracted violence is constantly remade. In particular I looked at mothers – what it meant for them to keep going – to find meaning when searching for disappeared husbands and sons who had been killed and, the constant threat of violence against their lives and bodies.

I remember visiting one mother whose 14 year old son had been taken by the LTTE. This was her only son. He was snatched on his way to school. She had tried to hang herself twice since his abduction. When we met she had nothing to say. She sat mute with pain.

Another mother had threatened to kill herself in front of the LTTE if they did not return her son. She shouted and screamed outside the camp where her son was being held until they released him, something that almost never happened.

Now in 2017 as I sit and reflect on my current research with a group of migrant women from the DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Angola  – I am again trying to make sense of ‘the everyday’ and the ‘ordinary’ – the attempts and means of keeping going when lives are shaped by layers of loss and violence.

In earlier posts (see Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities  and “This small piece of paper” and Being seen) I’ve written about the challenges that the women face in Johannesburg. These are women who fled to South Africa seeking safety and support – and for most – their everyday lives remain precarious and full of risk. Risk because they are cross-border migrants – the scapegoated ‘other’ – accused of making life for local South Africans harder; of taking jobs away from locals even though they can’t find work. They are the ‘other’ whose reproductive bodies are represented as threatening and hostile – bodies that are blamed for burdening an already fraught and struggling healthcare system. They are the ‘other’ assumed to have had children in order to access documentation (which in reality they cannot do) and (non-existent) forms of welfare. They are the ‘other’ who are expected to integrate into a city that does not want them – expected to simultaneously ‘live in invisibility’ while proving they deserve to remain. As ‘othered’ bodies the entanglements of vulnerability and risk frame a troubling and exhausting everyday life.

I have also reflected on the challenges of doing research in this context. I have described the questions – around representation, responsibility and role – that have arisen when working with individuals who are traumatised and, who have many immediate and often, urgent needs. I have been challenged personally in many ways and particularly in writing this reflection about some of their experiences, my relationship with them, and the lenses through which I try to understand their undoubtedly complex lives: motherhood and migrant mothers.

Like the mothers I met in Sri Lanka, for this group there is that everyday struggle to find meaning, to keep going, and especially to keep yourself and your children safe. But in contexts of suffering and violence mothers are almost always defined by their gender, their relationship to others and their wombs – as wives of men killed or disappeared, as daughters at risk and, as mothers. They are mothers in conflict zones – victims and/or survivors, or migrant mothers – working away from their children or enduring life in a refugee camp. As researchers we create these labels and lenses through which lives are explored. We create another ‘other’ – the mother as a research subject.

But while my research project ostensibly set out to look at the lives of migrant mothers – the participants –have clearly and forcefully pulled my focus over to their lives as woman – as individuals. They have asked me to look at them. They want me to understand them as women facing violence on the streets of Johannesburg and struggling to make sense of who they are and who they can be. Their lives include the struggle of mothering. All (except one) of the group are mothers and largely, coping on their own. Being mothers and having dependants shapes most of their everyday experiences and vulnerabilities. Having children makes everyday life that much harder – in many ways an everyday burden.

This is not just a burden in terms of the difficulties of having to provide – it’s about feelings, and desires and desperation and distress. What emerges most palpably in our group discussions is the absolute exhaustion of having to care; the challenges of facing daily struggles with additional worries about food, money and rent.

When the women talk in the group it is often from this place of desperation and of the burden of being a mother. The love each has for their children is definitely not in question. This is not about the “bad migrant mother” and should not in any way reflect the common negative assumptions made about “foreign mothers” who neglect their children or have them simply to access support from the state.

This is about women who are compromised in what they can do and what they can even hope for because they are ignored and targeted. In a world and especially in a country where women’s bodies are systematically oppressed and violated – and where poor, black, foreign bodies are easily treated as disposable and unimportant – being a mother adds layers of fear, threat and physical and emotional burden.

The burden manifests in social and economic challenges. It is about precarity in a context where everyday survival is a struggle, that leads to many questions:

What if I gave up?

Can someone else care for my children?

If I wasn’t here would things be better for them?

Mercy has three children aged 13, 7 and 5. A few months ago she arrived at our Friday morning group in crisis. She was exhausted and said she was ‘giving up’. Through tears she described how she’d spent the previous evening searching for rat poison to eat. She felt this was her only option,

“I wish I could die.” she said “At least then someone would have to take care of my kids”.

While that moment of crisis passed and Mercy kept going – there were many more Fridays where she expressed the same desperation.

Until the week she left.

She took me aside one Friday and quietly told me she was leaving the group early because she had decided to travel to a neighbouring country with the hope of making some money selling clothes. I questioned Mercy – my fear and concerns were mostly about the children and that she was still waiting for refugee status, which meant re-entering the country could pose a challenge. She replied,

“there is nothing in the cupboards, the kids have nothing…I can’t find work, I can’t do anything…I have to try”.

 She had a point. She had nothing. This was her one attempt to try something different. It wasn’t my place to stop her. Her husband, who had disappeared for a number of months was back in Johannesburg. Mercy thought he could care for the children. She wasn’t abandoning them. She was searching for another way. She was trying to keep going.

This was a few months ago now and Mercy hasn’t returned. Her husband mistreated the children and they are are now in a shelter (funded by an NGO). They are together and being well cared for.

Mercy may not have yet returned for many reasons, lack of money, problems in gaining entry back to South Africa, or worse. But part of me can’t help but wonder is she hasn’t returned because she was exhausted with the realities of life in South Africa. In the weeks before she left she was growing thinner and thinner. The family had no food and what she was given by the NGO she handed to the children. She had hit crisis point. Burned by the expectations associated with being a mother who felt like she had nothing left to give.

I am clearly speculating. I don’t know exactly what has happened to Mercy or why she hasn’t come back. But of course I am concerned about her, and her children and, we miss her in our group.

Her story is powerful because it illustrates the intense levels of distress that many migrant women are experiencing in Johannesburg. Women who are traumatised by what they’ve been through and who meet a callous everyday life in Johannesburg. Women who are expected to ‘get on with it’ and expected to provide as mothers, with little (if any) support or options. Women for whom suicide sometimes feels like the only option.

As Clara, a young woman from Rwanda with a small son has told me,

“sometimes I feel so tired I just want to sleep…and sleep…sometimes I don’t want to wake up. It could be easier.”

Precious, a participant with two small children, one of whom is mentally and physically disabled told us very early on in our group meetings that she often thought of a way out.

“When I am in a taxi with the boys I think about it crashing. I wish it would crash and kill us. I wish it would kill us all together at that one time….then the suffering is over and we are all gone”

Precious is devoted to her children. Everything she does is for them. But she is unemployed, she is struggling to find a place for them all to stay and she has little support with the youngest child who if fully dependant on her. The family were recently evicted from their flat in Yeoville after defauting on the rent during a time that Precious suffered a miscarriage. Precious fled the DRC and the horrific experiences she endured there in the war many years ago. Her family is scattered now and she is alone in South Africa. She doesn’t want her children to suffer. She doesn’t want them dead. But living in a country, a city where violence and loss have become the ordinary and where the everyday is defined by struggle dying sometimes seems like the better/only option.

This talk of suicide as an option, real or imagined has come up a lot and is often a response to the layered nature of trauma and crisis, and sometimes even – a desperate call for help; a way to put into words their anguish, both past and present. Thankfully we work through a Psychosocial NGO at the same site where the group meets. This means that we are able to ensure that support is provided whenever such ideations are shared. But this does not change the reasons why suicide is talked about and often entertained as the only way out of their current stresses and traumas.

Interestingly, in Sri Lanka, the women I came across would say they wanted to die because they didn’t have their children with them. They couldn’t bear life without them. Here, the women talk about dying with or without their children as an end to the immediate pain and/or a place or point where something different can be imagined. With the children they could perhaps all be freed of suffering – without them the children might be better provided for. Thus thoughts around death are tangible in a context where the past and present pose unanswerable questions about the future. The women do not know if next week or month will be easier, they don’t know if they will ever find work, ever be granted refugee status and if this will even make a difference.

To reiterate – this is not about wanting less or loving less.

This is about the burden of motherhood and of care that is created by dire poverty, persistent gender-based violence and brutal xenophobia. And yet, despite the frequent desire to give up many find a way to manage. Week after week they come back to our group, often saying “we are still trying. We are still here”.

Their situation, however, remains desparate – and even bleak.

In Sri Lanka an exploration of the significance of routines and rhythms of everyday life and ideas of what is ordinary helped me make sense of violence and loss. In South Africa – as work with this group of women has shown me – this feels more complex. This is not an obvious war zone – the conflict is not always visible – but the suffering and violence still continues. The women are expected to anticipate this and to deal with the layers of vulnerability they face while caring for children. They have all fled war. They know the realities of conflict and they now know that sometimes the isolation and persistent forms of violence in a country that hoped would be safe can sometimes feel worse.

And this is captured by Mary below. Mary is from the DRC and the mother to four children – the youngest of whom is a result of rape. Her words powerfully express what I have been trying to say and push us to really try and better understand ‘migrant motherhood’ not just through the lens of mothering but from the experience of women, of individuals who are trying – and who sometimes feel like giving up.

“In DRC…In DRC….It’s not a country it’s a hell.

But in South Africa I’m not free.

Killing is something even like the Congo. Everyone has a gun and can do anything. That is so painful that I am not free staying here. Any movement, you cannot enjoy life. Something, anything can happen, anytime, any moment in South Africa. People are dying – foreigners are dying .

 I have nowhere to go, nothing to do, no hope …and my children are waiting”


Thank you to all the courageous participants in the group for sharing their stories and to Elsa Oliveira for her support in running the group and thinking through the issues that arise.

The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.

“This small piece of paper”

y Rebecca Walker (Postdoctoral Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa).

A few weeks back in one of our Friday morning art group meetings we asked the participants, a group of refugee women from the DRC and Burundi to list in order of significance the challenges they faced in Johannesburg right now. Without stopping to think Marie stated: “paper; job; health; accommodation”. The others all agreed. Every week the discussions held amongst the group as they sit and work on their quilt pieces relay the daily challenges and, traumas of living as non-national migrants in South Africa. In our group all of the women are refugees but only one has refugee status. The rest are on Asylum Permits, which have to be renewed regularly and which subject them to multiple vulnerabilities in the city.

IMG_5176After listing their challenges the women described the difficulties of dealing with documentation – of the long hours spent in queues at home affairs; of the disregard and abuse from security guards and officials managing the queues and, of the corruption of home affairs employers taking bribes to ensure that you can a foot inside the building and have a hope of  getting your papers renewed. The process of renewal is challenging and often, demoralising. Regularly the women wait for hours outside the Home Affairs building in Pretoria only to be told they are too far back in the queue, that it is not the day for migrants from the DRC, or that there is some other arbitrary reason why they can’t be helped. Aside from the travel costs to Pretoria, the day spent in a queue and, the money spent on childcare, the frustration and exhaustion of repeatedly trying to be seen is tough. The women are always trying to be recognised as more than a body in a queue, of being distinguishable from the hundreds of others, all of whom have their own stories and demands to be heard. Home Affairs is hard work for everyone – but when your existence in a country, your right to work, your access to healthcare and accommodation and your safety depend on it – it’s a different matter.

More recently the women have been returning from Home Affairs having failed to renew their permits. One week Patience went three times but on each visit she found the queue was too long. When Mary went an official looked at her paper (she has appealed the rejection of her refugee application), told her to wait to one side and then, when realising her husband was not with her (the appeal paper stated the appeal was conditional on her being accompanied by her husband) shouted at her to go home. He did not allow Mary to explain that her husband has been missing for many months now and that she does not know where he is. She has been coping alone with three children and without work, a permanent place to stay and in a state of severe trauma for a long time. This did not matter to the official. Nor did it matter that the country from which Mary has fled remains volatile, violent and a place that she cannot return to. Mary – like the others can’t go home – yet she can’t stay easily or peacefully in South Africa either. Her temporary and precarious documentation renders her an ‘outsider’ and ‘undesirable’– and despite legally being allowed to work and access healthcare with an asylum permit – she struggles with both.

A few weeks back Rachel was mugged. She had been helped to find some money to pay for a seat in a hair salon where she could earn money by doing clients hair. This is something she is trained in and her skills are well-known. The R2000 she had on her, her phone and her asylum papers were taken by a group of men who stopped their car, beat her up and drove off with her bag. In retelling this traumatic experience Rachel had noted, “Even though I couldn’t walk, everything was hurting…the next day I went back there to the place it happened. I checked for my bag in the bins and all over. I didn’t find it but I found my papers (asylum papers)…that was so lucky. If I lost those papers….”

Rachel’s comments highlight the importance and significance of papers – and what their physical presence represents. Rachel had been badly beaten and then refused help by the clinic and also by the police when she went to report the case. But this was less important than the fact that her papers had been taken. While the bruises and the trauma of this incident will take a while to heal, finding her papers has restored a tiny piece of hope. Despite the papers being constantly contested and discredited for Rachel they are her way of affirming her rights in the city, they are a form of communication with those who challenge her existence, and within the crumpled white sheets and black ink they hold together her story –  of how she came to be here and where she wants to go.

IMG_5428Mercy has a small scrap of paper – in fact it is the back of a ripped receipt upon which a series of numbers have been written. That’s her documentation. She carries it around in her purse. Last week the police stopped her and her friends on the street and asked to see their papers. Mercy ran away. She tells me that the last time she went to home affairs the woman she spoke to told her that in exchange for a “cool drink” she could “fix her papers”, meaning this scrap of paper could be converted to an actual asylum permit. “How much is the cool drink?” I ask her – knowing that it is not a R10 can of coke. “R500” (approx. £30) she replies. “I didn’t have it last time…so I go again next week. I’ll sleep in the church then I can be at the front of the queue”. I ask her where she will get R500 since she is currently living in a shelter and not working. “I don’t know” she replied “but I will go.

Mercy’s scrap of paper, Mary’s appeal papers and Rachel’s lost and found papers are simultaneously useless and vital. They are useless because none of the women can get work while on an asylum permit; they are denied access to healthcare and they are always treated as an “other” in their everyday lives. But without these papers they are lost – the shadowy lives they are already forced to lead become even fainter. As Mary stated “I am not a person…this small piece of paper…this is what I am”.

Having the right papers and documentation does not solve everything. It doesn’t ensure you can find a job, can rent a room or that you will be able to access healthcare. It doesn’t topple the intersecting and compounding layers of risk and vulnerability – nor take away previous traumas suffered and current experiences of loss. But it can offer a little sense of security, of legitimacy, of rights – and some confidence to exist in the spaces you occupy. Sometimes surviving the city, making every day work and being able to come up for air can depend on that. As Mary stated, when waving her asylum paper in front of me “if I can just fix this…this small, small thing…then it can be better.


The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.

Being seen

By Rebecca Walker (Postdoctoral Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa).

All of the Friday-morning sessions that a colleague and I run in inner-city Johannesburg are tough. They are tough not because of the participants themselves or what we are doing together, but because of the stories told over the three hours; stories that testify to the abuse and discrimination migrant women, and particularly migrant mothers experience on a daily basis in Johannesburg.

While many of the women have endured horrific experiences in their home countries and on their journeys to South Africa it is often what is going on here, in the inner-city – in the clinics and hospitals, the queues at Home Affairs and on the streets – that is the most shocking. Shocking, not because we haven’t heard these stories before, but shocking because they continue and get worse – and because migrant mothers in particular have to find ways to negotiate, to strategise and to fight against multiple forms of structural and direct violence.


Daily the women have to work out where they can be seen and where they need to stay invisible, where they can make demands and hope for assistance, and where they know they will be told they are not entitled or deserving. And quite often that comes down to the attitude of one or a few individuals on any particular day. Whether it is a Home Affairs official that helps you renew your Asylum papers or whether he or she decides to tell you that “there is no more Asylum in South Africa” and that you will be deported; whether a doctor decides to give you a proper check up or whether they refuse to make eye contact and tell you “I have no time for all of you foreigners why can’t you go back to your own country?” and, whether the police checking your papers on the street decide that it is legitimate and allow you to go, or screw it up and ask you “what is this on the photograph – is it you or is it a monster?” (as experienced by the women in our group).

It is normally the very people that the women turn to for assistance that treat them with disrespect and abuse, preventing them from making their everyday lives work and from being seen.

Last Friday in the group the women began a discussion about accessing healthcare and dealing with doctors. Miriam mentioned how she had tried to see a doctor for nose bleeds she was experiencing. She described, “he (the doctor) sat and didn’t look at me once…he asked me questions but he never even looked at me. He was looking at his phone. He didn’t check me and he spoke in Zulu. I don’t know Zulu”. She compared this to a doctor in a private practice that she had eventually seen (facilitated by the NGO where she gets support). “That doctor treated me like a human being” she said, “he checked everything”. She went on to say “It didn’t even matter if the medication didn’t work, just because he looked at me and saw me and spoke nicely to me asking me all about my life I felt better. In the taxi on the way home I felt better and I hadn’t even taken any medication”.

A few weeks earlier Precious had described another healthcare encounter when she had gone to Baragwanath hospital (in Soweto) to pick up an appointment card to see a psychiatrist. The appointment had been arranged and all she needed was the card so that she knew when to attend. On arrival she had asked a nurse where she could collect the card. The nurse has then turned to her and said to her (as recounted by Precious), “You need to see a psychiatrist? For what? Trauma? You don’t have trauma – I have seen trauma before. You are not traumatised. If you have problems with your husband go sort it out, don’t bring it here, we are not for you people to bring your problems”. What followed was an onslaught of abuse from the nurse leaving Precious in tears. Another nurse tried to apologise to Patience and a security guard tried to intervene.

These stories weave into the overarching narrative of daily discrimination and abuse faced by non-nationals in South Africa. Many experiences of being denied access to healthcare, or charged where healthcare is free (at Primary level), or abused during treatment saturate an already charged context of extreme inequality, disparities and anger. For migrant mothers the stories are particularly bad – Mary described how her newborn baby was “thrown” onto her bed after birth and how the nurses refused to assist with filling in the birth certificate, leaving the child undocumented. She also described how her friend from the DRC lost a child after the nurses said they were too busy to deliver, and so when she gave birth alone  the baby fell onto the floor and died.

Such experiences blister the surface of the realities of surviving in the city – and though individuals manage, they get on and they move on – these experiences often shape what it is to be a migrant, and to be a mother in Johannesburg. Yet, at the same time they do not define who the women are and, are not the only realities they experience. Their lives, like any lives are complex, multifaceted and multilayered. But through sharing stories about being migrant mothers in the city these are the stories and realities that are narrated and described every, single week in our group. Stories and realities about (not) being seen.

While these are not my stories through working with these women, I have become a part of telling them. Whether it is in a small group on a Friday morning, in their counselling sessions, or by the doctors who treat them and the Home Affairs officials who decide whether they can stay (or how difficult to make staying) these spaces and moments of being seen matter. The women ask to be seen in the ways that are available to them and they ask for the spaces where they will be listened to. And of course, more than this, through being seen they ask for things to change and for something definite – something more than hope, than of sharing stories and of nice words – to be offered to them. And that is the most challenging part.

The research for the group is funded through MaHp, SeaM and a “Life in the City’ postdoc with the Wits School of Governance and hosted by The ACMS.

Poking the wound – research, stories and process – thinking through the complexities

By Rebecca Walker (Postdoctoral Researcher, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa).

Since February 2017 myself and a colleague have been working with a small group of migrant women who live in inner-city Johannesburg. Referred to us via a local psychosocial NGO, the women all agreed to be participants in our arts-based research project exploring the experiences of women who are migrants and mothers in Johannesburg. All of the participants are asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi. They all arrived in South Africa over the past ten years having had to flee war and poverty in their home countries and crossing many borders in the hope of finally finding safety and more secure lives in South Africa. All of the women are mothers to young children. They are also all parenting alone – their husbands have either been killed, gone into hiding or are simply absent.