As Aimée turns into the sandy driveway that leads to their house, the dog chained to a tree stands up, shakily. Its bark sounds thin and whiny.

“Hey shuttap!” Mrs van Rheenen shouts, kicking at it. She is sitting outside on an old fold-up beach chair, peeling potatoes, watching the street. Her unemployed son, Ricardo, fiddles in the engine of a car that is up on bricks, rusting in the winter rains. But it still has a sound system, and he turns the volume right up when he sees Aimée.

“Oh, sexy lady… wop… wop…. wop… wop… wop …Gangnam style…” the song pumps. Ricardo grinds his hips and laughs. Aimée’s mom often complains about the music he plays. Now Aimée hears her turn up her music inside their shack – Napesi yo nde motema na Ngai. Music from her country.

Ricardo turns ‘Gangnam style’ louder. It’s like a war going on between them. A war neither will ever win.

Mrs van Rheenen nods at Aimée, then says the same thing she always does.

“You people better be careful. They burned one of those Somali’s shops down, in Site B. To the ground. Those Somalis, they’re Muslims, but they’re not the same as our Muslims,” she adds. “I don’t want trouble here.” She says it like she’s already regretting letting them rent the tiny room in her back yard. But she knows none of ‘her’ people would pay the rent she charges for a shack that lets in the rain in winter.

“People don’t like the way you people take our jobs,” Mrs van Rheenen calls after her. “Look at Ricardo, unemployed. Waste of time.” She throws the peels into the bucket.

Aimée pushes the door of their shack open and turns down the music.

“Is it true mom?”

Her mother is cooking on their two plate stove on a small table in the living room.

“Is what true?” She stops what she’s doing and looks at Aimée.

“That they burned Ali’s shop down in Site B?”

“I don’t know. She’s always got a story about ‘you people’.” Her mother imitates their landlady’s voice. “You people go to church? You people cook that funny food. Stinks up the whole place. Why you people talk so loud?” Aimée laughs. Her mother sounds just like Mrs van Rheenen. But now her voice changes back to normal. “And how was school?”


“Just ‘fine’?”

“I made friends with Nokiwe and Chantelle. They live near here.”

“That’s good. Have you got homework?”

“I have to write,” she says, making a face, “an autobiography. All about me. But I’m going to wash first.”

Her younger sister is holding a brush like a mike and singing into it. Like she’s on Idols. She’s kneeling on the top bunk: “Hey sexy lady… wop… wop… wop…” The song’s gevaarlik ne Aimée? Ayoba.

“Listen to her. I can’t understand what she’s saying. She came back from primary school and everything is ‘gevaarlik’ and ‘ayoba’ and ‘not ayoba’,” their mom complains.

“I thought you’d be pleased,” her sister chirps. “Isn’t that what you want – for us to fit in?”

“But not to forget. You can’t even speak our language.”

“She was too young, Ma,” says Aimée. “Anyway, English is our language now.”

“You wouldn’t think so, listening to her,” her mom says.

“You want us to fit in. You want us to stand out? Which?”

Suddenly the day at school overwhelms Aimée and she wants to cry. In the toilet she fills a bucket of water. She takes off her school shirt and looks at the scars on her arms and her leg.

Scars that are her living memories from the night they nearly made it out of Congo, across the border of Cyangugu Province which links Bukavu town to Rwanda. She remembers how they could see the Ruzizi River that flows from Lake Kivu, when suddenly they heard people shouting and the guys that were leading them told everyone to keep quiet and move slowly because the soldiers were approaching. She was so scared she peed in her pants.

One woman was crying out, calling for her ten-year-old boy who had been captured by the soldiers. The woman was living in fear of what they all knew would happen – that her child would be trained as a soldier and taught to kill. Aimée’s mother held her so, so tight, and Aimée could see the fear in her eyes. Her own heart was beating so fast.

Then the guys leading them to the border started shouting: “Kimbia, kimbia, wanajeshi wanatufuata!” (Run, run, the soldiers are on our trail!)

People started running and Aimée and her family followed them. Aimée could not see where she was going. She tripped and fell among some rocks. But there was no time to stop and cry. Her father pulled her up and they carried on moving fast. Tree branches kept cutting her and when they finally reached the border they had to push their way through a barbed wire fence. It cut her leg, but she had become numb and couldn’t feel the pain as the red lines of blood smeared all over her clothes.

To this day she doesn’t know how they survived that night. It’s as if it was a horrible dream. But the scars on her arms and leg are proof of how real it was, how close they came to death in search of their freedom.

She covers the scars now with her clothing and goes back to the living room where her mom hands her a new exercise book and pen. “I bought you this,” her mom says. She has cleared a space on the small table.

Aimée kisses her mom. She opens the book. White fresh paper. A new start. A blank page. Hope.

She writes her name and the date.

She crosses ‘Aimée’ out and writes ‘Amy’. Her new, easy-to-pronounce name.

Her mother shakes her head and makes a tutting noise. “We gave you that name. It means ‘love’, Aimée. You were our love.”

“Was?” says Aimée cheekily.

“Still are. If you do your homework.”

Aimée starts to write her story for the English teacher:

I was born in Bukavu, a town in North East DRC, near the border of Rwanda. We fled because of the civil war in our country. Our lives were in danger. We travelled through many African countries before coming here to South Africa. My younger brother died of malaria in one of the refugee camps in Rwamwanja, in the western part of Uganda…

She stops. This is her story, but it is also the story of thousands of refugees. This story is not hers alone. She is a refugee but first, before that, she is Aimée Mwamba, an individual, unique and special. She starts again:

My name is Aimée. It means love in French. My mother said the first thing I ate was fufu and peanut soup. I still love it. I was cheeky at school, but I did well. I can remember some things about our house. It was big and beautiful surrounded by a fruits and vegetable garden, my friend Claudette and I used to love helping my mother with the planting. I lost my friend, Claudette, in the madness of the war. I love drawing, I always have. My father taught us in the camps. We were lucky, he was a teacher. We wrote sums in the sand. He taught us everything he knew about geography, history and science. I love my family so much. I also love listening to R&B music and my favorite singer is Nathalie Makoma, she is a very famous Congolese singer. My favorite colour is blue.

My dreams for the future are many. I have scars on my body where the wire cut me, but I have hope in my heart.

She stops writing.

She tears out the page and starts again.

When she turns out the light to go to sleep she can hear her mother and father speaking in low tones.

“Ali was a good man. Half the people in Site B used to go to his shop. I saw Mrs Themba this morning at Francoise’s school. She was very upset about it. She said he always gave her credit when she didn’t have enough food and no money to pay.”

“If they only knew what he had suffered in Somalia.” Her father’s voice is hushed. “His whole family was killed. He had to start again here, from nothing. He was a kind man. He hurt nobody. He just wanted to survive here and make a new life.”

“At least we have each other, and Aimée and Francoise. But I am afraid, Patrice. It’s not just Ali’s shop. They have started burning refugee homes in Site B. They are driving them out. There was a strike, local workers were dismissed, and now they are blaming the refugees there. I am worried it will spread here.”

“We can’t move again. Aimée’s just started at the new school.”

“We might have to.”

Aimée has just found friends in Noki and Chantelle. And she has to get her coin back from Mandla. It’s all she can think about.

* * *

Tell us what you think: Why is it important to not label people as ‘refugees’, but rather to see each person as a unique individual?