SC: What did you do before you came to the UK?
BM: I was doing an engineering course at university because I had an aspiration to become a civil engineer.
Why did you leave the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2001?
It became really unsafe for me. I was an activist involved with the student union and with my political party the UDPS. That was a time in the DRC when a lot of human rights abuses were happening and only students had the guts to stand against what the government were doing. My student and political activism associated with my past army experience raised my profile in the eyes of the authorities and it became unsafe for me in the DRC. That’s the reason I left and flew to the UK.
Bavwidi Mpanzu – Djoly
Were you believed when you claimed asylum in the UK?
That’s the funny thing: they wouldn’t believe my evidence but they couldn’t provide their evidence for not believing my story. I’m just glad that today there is a wealth of evidence – the UN mapping report and many others – that confirms some of things I was telling them 10 years ago about Congo. It’s quite difficult for a UK person to have an idea of the systematic chaos that was happening in the DRC. But I believe that the Home Office doesn’t want to see that evidence except in a way that suits them.
What was life like waiting for your asylum claim to be resolved?
It was very difficult to accept myself as an asylum seeker – that was the biggest challenge. You are put in a situation where your life is in the hands of somebody sitting in an office somewhere making decisions and you just can’t change it. If that person wants to keep you in the dark for 10 years, he’ll keep you 10 years. But when I made a step and mixed with the wider community I discovered that there is help, solidarity and a lot of support available.
You did voluntary and activist work too?
Yes. This is where I decided to accept myself. In Sheffield I led an NHS project on HIV that raised awareness on sexual health issues for the African community. I also set up the Africatime organisation, based on the experience of the war of many Congolese in the UK. We decided to do something about the human rights abuses in the whole of Africa. We worked with the University of Sheffield to raise awareness about the war in Congo.
I found a community with the church and I volunteered for family counselling there. Later I began a community development course at the university.
How did you manage to live with no cash support?
My experience was of destitution – no place to live, no food – and I had to rely on friends and people of goodwill. But friends can only help so much and you have to find another way. In my case it was to take the illegal way to survive, that’s how far deprivation can go.
What happened after you were arrested for ‘illegal working’?
I was expecting rejection but I was surprised to see a lot of people at the court fighting for me. I thought ‘people have accepted me so I have to accept myself’. That’s where I picked myself up and really started to fight for it.
And what was prison like for you?
I felt gutted that a lot of young people were wasting their time in prison. I volunteered with the prison chapel and also helped some of these young people to read and write.
The first question you get in prison is “what are you here for?” and when I told them they were really shocked. Some of the ‘proper criminals’ were sympathetic and told me “you did nothing wrong, you shouldn’t be here”!
How did you cope with the threat of deportation at the end of your prison sentence?
I wasn’t expecting any favours from the Home Office and because I was in prison I had to rely on people outside. So, yet again, another sense of lacking power. I’ve been fortunate enough to have committed people outside and I received regular visits and updates. One day I received a visit from somebody I didn’t even know, who had heard about my case. I was nearly in tears – that was proper solidarity.
What finally won your case at the High Court this year?
There were Congolese politicians and British academics at the court as witnesses. All those people came across me in my political, academic and charity activities, making my story more credible.
The judge decided not to focus only on the crime, like the Home Office did, but to go deeper. He granted me leave to remain on asylum grounds. I was delighted that for the first time in my asylum experience somebody actually believed what I said.
What’s your advice to other people who want to campaign against deportation?
First, never give up. Seek out organisations that can help and advise. The community as a whole is important – there are people in the community who have had the same experience as you. I would say that you shouldn’t be afraid to go public. Even though it’s not comfortable putting all that personal information out there, it was the right decision for us.
Your campaign always generalised your experience and helped your supporters (and opponents) understand African politics.
It’s an honour for me to be able to bring something from the worst experience of my life and to turn it into a positive thing. I’m feeling part of the community, now more than ever. Now I walk in Sheffield and people say “Ah I know you, I heard about your story”.
Edited extracts from interview between Stuart Crosthwaite and Bavwidi Mpanzu on 6/9/11
Djoly’s campaign always tried to generalise his experience