I met Mama Isabel two days ago at Osire Refugee Settlement in Namibia. Dressed in an elegant white long skirt and top, she draped a pastel green scarf over both shoulders. Mama Isabel had a little magic about her. Maybe it was the way she walked, or her soft smile, or the way she looked at you with those hazel eyes.
She led Fabiano and me around Osire, and we spent the whole day talking to families in the settlement. We talked to businessmen, writers, farmers, students and other community leaders. Everyone knew her.
Mama Isabel is from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and, a refugee herself, she is the voice of the community in Osire to other government officials and stakeholders. At lunch, I sat with her just outside the UNHCR office.
I told her how much I was struggling with journalism and how I saw the power of journalism to bring the voices out to the world, especially for people who don’t otherwise have the chance to share their story, their fears and dreams. Yet, I wanted to bring their voices, not just to the world but to the discussion table as well.
She nodded and said, “That’s why local leadership is so important. You can represent the people. If UNHCR wants to do anything, they come and talk to me first. You gather and help them have access to the whole community.”
Mama Isabel was elected for the second time vice-president of the Refugee Committee at Osire. She was the first woman elected to the local leadership in 2005 and re-ran for the position in 2008.
As we continued walking around, she told us, “One of the stereotypes of refugees is that people think we are dirty, we are useless, but we are not. There are so many talents here that we can use to bring ourselves up. If people teach us to fish, we can fish for ourselves.”
Empowerment to create self-reliance, that’s what she said is needed in Osire. In the midst of monthly food distribution of beans and maize, where people are seen as helpless and in need of assistance, Mama Isabel just wants to teach people how to fish.
She told us of opportunities to submit projects for seed capital, and brought us to meet a carpenter, an agricultural specialist, a youth group so passionate about reaching the youth in community and the lifestyle ambassadors group – a mentoring program for the young people; she told us of people being creative, active and trying to be independent.
That day with Mama Isabel, we went fishing at Osire.