Exile is a painful thing, for both the people who leave and for those who are left behind. Peter and Helene Shilumate are but just two of the people who were separated because of the war in northern Namibia….
One morning, in August 1978, a young shopkeeper from the Ondangwa district in northern Namibia packed a small bag and said goodbye to his wife and five children. He had some business to do, he told them, and would see them in two weeks.
It was a long two weeks — Peter Shilumathi’s family did not see or hear from him until eleven years later. Peter returned to Namibia from exile in early September 1989, together with thousands of other ‘returnees’.
He had been back for just three weeks when Learn and Teach visited him at his home in Oluno, outside the town of Ondangwa.
When we got there, Peter politely welcomed us into his house. He told us to make ourselves comfortable while he went to see if his wife was well enough to join us. He had come home to find her suffering from malaria, he explained.
Heiene Shilumathi got out of her sickbed with a brave smile on her face. She looked at Peter lovingly, as he began to tell us their story.
A WEDDING IN TSUMEB
“I was born here in the north and then I was raised by a guardian down in Windhoek,” Peter told us. “As a young man I often used to go and visit relatives in the Tsumeb district. It was there where we met, my wife and I, sometime in 1963 or 1964. I don’t know the date exactly but Helene was already working as a teacher.”
They got married in 1969 and Helene went with Peter to live in Windhoek, where he worked as a driver for a company that sold “groceries, furniture and everything else.” But the company did not pay well and in 1975 Peter and Helene decided to go and try their luck in the north. They opened a small shop, not far from the place of Peter’s birth.
The Shilumathi’s worked hard and eventually managed to build a small house next to the shop. But their new- found happiness was not to last for long.
“The political situation was getting worse by the day,” said Peter. “The South African security forces were harassing people — and I was one of the people who suffered from this harassment. You know, they would come and accuse you of helping the SWAPO guerrillas. They would stop me when I travelled in my car and question me.”
The day came when Peter came to the painful conclusion that his only choice was to go into exile. “It was becoming dangerous and I decided that it was best for me to leave, before they put me in jail. “But, said Peter, it was not only the question of his own safety that made him go.
He had for long been a loyal member of SWAPO, having joined the organisation way back in 1962. By leaving the country, he believed that he could make a greater contribution to the people’s struggle against South African oppression.
THE LONG YEARS
Peter spoke about why he didn’t tell Helene of his plans to leave: “I feared that if I told her she would worry herself to death. I felt that it was better for me just to leave.”
There was also another reason, said Peter. The less his family knew about him, the safer it would be for them in Namibia. If soldiers came to ask of his whereabouts, they could honestly say that they didn’t know.
It was his concern for the safety of his family that stopped Peter from contacting them in all the time he was away — first, for the few months he spent in a SWAPO refugee camp in Angola after he walked across the border; then for the seven years he was sent to study engineering in East Germany; and then for the four years he worked as a mechanic at the SWAPO garage in Lubongo back in Angola.
How did he survive for all those long years not knowing about the well-being of his family in war-torn northern Namibia? “Well, it was really hard. Not a day went by that I did not think of phoning my wife, or writing a letter. All I can say is that it is a feeling that you can’t imagine.
“I worried about my family all the time. It was only during the day, when I was working hard, that I managed to forget a little bit. But at all other times, I found myself thinking about home.
I listened to the news and read all the newspapers to find out what was happening in Namibia, about people being harassed and killed.”
LIFE BACK HOME
What was life like for Helene and the children after Peter left? “Well, the good part was that I knew Peter was still alive — a month after he left I met somebody who had seen him.”
“But we went through a hard time,” continued Helene, “because every day the police and soldiers came here looking for him. They used to come in their Casspirs, at three or four in the morning, and knock on the door. Sometimes they took me away with them to the police station.
“A year after Peter went into exile, they put me in jail for 12 days, just to ask me where he was and what he was doing. They wanted to know if he had come to visit me while on a mission.”
But it was the children, said Helene, who suffered the most. “The youngest was just 11 months old when their father left. In the beginning, they asked me every day where their father was. I told them that he had gone away to study. But when they got older, they began to ask why he did not come back for holidays, like the other students.
“Later, as time went on, the children became more troubled. They used to come home upset after meeting people who said their father was a SWAPO ‘terrorist’ who was somewhere killing people.
People told them these things just to hurt them. It was then that I decided to tell them the truth.”
Helene spoke about what it was like to live through the war: “We were always afraid because sometimes the soldiers would just stand around here and shoot. Mostly at night, but in the daytime also. They just came here and did whatever they wanted.”
Through all these hard times, Helene knew she had to carry on in the hope that there would be peace in the country and that she would see her husband again. This hope grew stronger last year when, after the agreement in Brazzaville, South Africa agreed to pull out of Namibia.
“PACK YOUR THINGS!”
For Peter, the Brazzaville Protocol was also a turning point in his dream to see his family and country again. “We followed the whole peace process step by step and we knew that the time was coming when we would be going home.”
Peter will never forget when the day came, not so long ago, when he heard the words: “Mr Shilumathi, pack your things, you are going home!”
This time Peter did not have to walk. With his small bag and two suitcases, he got onto an aeroplane and flew home.
“It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when we landed at Grootfontein and I stepped onto Namibian soil. When I heard Afrikaans — a language I had not heard for many years — I knew I was home.”
From the airport at Grootfontein, he was taken to the Maria Braun reception centre. On the first day there he met somebody whom he knew — a nurse, who also knew his wife. “I asked her to phone Helene and tell her I was back. But there was a problem. The telephones were out of order.”
So Peter Shilumathi spent his first night back in Namibia in a tent together with other people who had just come back from exile. The next morning he met a bus driver and asked him to take a message back to his wife.
A SLEEPLESS NIGHT
“When the bus driver came to tell me that Peter was back home I did not believe him,” said Helene. “So I didn’t do anything — I just stayed home.
“But that night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking up and walking around. So at four o’clock in the morning, I wrote a note for the children saying I would be back later. I took the car and drove to Grootfontein.”
When Helene got to the camp almost three hours later, she found people getting into buses. But she could not see her husband. She stood at the fence and asked somebody to go and find him. A few minutes later, there he was, standing a few feet away from her.
“I recognised him as soon as I saw him. He was a little thinner than before and I thought that maybe he was sick or something. He came up to me, and what I can I say, it was so good to see my man again.”
A BEAUTIFUL MOMENT
“I was lucky — when I got home, all my children were there,” said Peter. “My last born, who was just a baby when I left, ran up to greet me — I think he recognised me from old photographs.”
Peter says that words can’t describe his feelings, as he stood there, for a full twenty minutes, holding each of his children in his arms.
All he can say is that it was a beautiful moment, a time that he will forever treasure in his heart. So that is how Peter Shilumathi came to be re-united with his family after a long and painful war. But what of the future?
“You, know, in Germany I learnt the saying, “kom tag kom raad” — this means when the day comes, we’ll see what happens. At the moment, I want to spend time with my family, and to be near Helene while she is still ill. But when SWAPO calls me, I am ready for any task. The war is finished and the time has come to work for peace in our country. Our people have gone through enough…. and fear must become a thing of the past.”
At that point Peter looked at his wife, and very gently said that maybe it was time for her to get back into bed. We said our goodbyes and as they waved us off, we could not help being moved by the deep love Peter and Helene Shilumathi have for each other.
But perhaps what touched us most was the absence of any self-pity or bitterness you might expect from people who have suffered the pain of separation for so long. Instead, there was a quiet dignity that said: “Yes, we have suffered — but we are not the only ones.”
NEW WORDS returnees — people who have come back — or returned — from somewhere malaria — a sickness caused by the bite of mosquitoes concern — worry reception centre — where people are sometimes taken when they first arrive at a place