BY JACK ZIMBA
CAR DIARY: “SHE’S NOT JUST MY CHILD, SHE’S A ZAMBIA ARMY CHILD”
…The girl who melted soldiers’ hearts – and the captain who couldn’t leave her behind!
“It’s a beautiful feeling, I’m in love,” says Captain Mwila Chansa.
In A flat in Lusaka, a little girl makes unsteady steps, her radiant face, shrill baby calls and yellow floral dress lighting up the room. Watching her every move is the girl’s adoptive mother, Zambia Army captain Mwila Chansa.
She is a doting mother and is all bubbly as she talks about the little girl. She thinks one day she will become president of her country.
The little girl’s story does not begin in Zambia, surrounded by love, care and hope; a place where her future is guaranteed. The little girl’s story starts in a corner of Central African Republic (CAR), far, far away in a desolate, war-worn place called Birao, near the border with Sudan and Chad.
According to the United Nations, 41 per cent of children under five in CAR are chronically malnourished, and one-third of school-age children do not attend school, while between 6,000 and 10,000 children have been recruited by armed groups during the long-drawn civil war.
That is the world the little girl was born into. The little girl was born to a polygamous man with four or five wives and about 10 children, and a mother who did not live to see or hold her in her arms – she died just after the little girl was born, on November 5, 2020.
The little girl’s mother was carrying twins in her womb, but after her first baby was born, the woman had lost so much blood and had no more strength to bring forth her second child or to live.
In a place like Birao, with no proper health facilities, such deaths can only be deemed inevitable.
Birao, in Vakaga Prefecture (province), is where the Zambian peacekeeping mission to CAR is headquartered. Now in its seventh year of deployment, the mission has been one of the most successful in the war-torn country. It is also the only contingent in the history of the UN that has a special women-only team called Female Engagement Team or FET, a critical component in a deeply Islamic society.
One day when the FET was engaging the local women, teaching them how to garden, they noticed one woman with a tiny baby on her back that could not be consoled. She cried incessantly.
The little girl, who was only six weeks old, was listless as a result of acute severe malnutrition.
“Why don’t you breastfeed your baby,” one of the soldiers asked the woman, assuming her to be the mother.
The woman, who was the little girl’s aunt, only answered in tears.
It was then that the soldiers learnt about the little girl’s heart-rending story.
The troops swung into action, donating whatever food they could get hold of for the baby and her family.
But even after that little gesture, they were haunted by the little girl’s pitiful image when they retreated to their barracks.
One morning, after hearing about the little girl, nursing officer Caroline Chimwala decided to visit the baby.
When she arrived at the poor homestead, she watched with teary eyes and a lump in her throat as a woman fed a light cassava porridge with nothing else but salt to the tinny infant. The woman had improvised a feeding bottle by putting the porridge in a plastic bag and then making a small hole to go into the infant’s mouth.
“I was touched. They say soldiers don’t cry, nurses don’t cry – that day I shed a tear,” she says.
But the scene also aroused Capt. Chimwala’s motherly instincts, and she decided to take the baby as her own, although she knew the risk involved. With acute malnutrition, there was no guarantee the baby would live.
“She didn’t have many days to live,” says the captain, who is an experienced midwife.
She was haunted by the thought of how the community would react if the little girl died in her care, but she decided to give her another chance at life.
For the next few weeks, she became a dedicated mother, attending to the baby from the level one hospital at the army base.
The hospital is only meant to cater for military personnel, but the captain and the medical team had to improvise a pediatrics wing for the little girl who was brought to the facility each morning till evening.
Some nights, Capt. Chimwala would sleep with the little girl at the medical facility.
It did not take long for the bond to grow. The little girl now became a familiar face in the Zambian camp, and was a darling of the troops who clamoured to give her affection.
When the little girl was born, she was named Ousna Nassaldine, but one of the soldiers decided to call her “Thabo”, a Lozi name which means joy.
Within three weeks, Thabo had picked and she lived up to her name.
KISSED BY A PRINCESS
One Sunday afternoon in March last year, a few days after she arrived in Birao to begin her mission as legal officer, Capt. Chansa was introduced to Thabo and immediately fell in love with her.
“She was such an adorable child; it’s hard not to love her,” says the 33-year-old lawyer, who is also a princess from the Kaputa chiefdom.
And one day, in the small chapel where the troops met for prayers, an emotional exchange happened.
Capt. Chimwala, who had come to the end of her mission, handed over Thabo to Capt. Chansa.
“I was so emotional, I cried,” says Capt. Chimwala.
But she got an assuring promise from Capt. Chansa: “Madam, I’m going to bring this child home.”
It was a promise she would keep, against all odds.
Meanwhile there was uproar from the family and community when they heard Capt. Chimwala was leaving.
“The time I was leaving, the whole family rose up and came crying to the battalion commander saying ‘please we don’t want this woman to go’,” recalls Capt. Chimwala.
Let her go with the baby then, they demanded.
The days and months that followed, Capt. Chansa found herself engaged in a legal battle she never prepared herself for – to become a mother.
She got support from her battalion commander at the time, Col. Paul Sapezo, who had his own personal attachment to Thabo.
“I got so attached to Thabo, I still consider her as my child,” says the colonel.
Capt. Chansa made several trips to the capital, Bangui, to plead with the courts to allow her to legally become Thabo’s mother, and she had only a small window before she could be allowed to travel with the baby to Zambia.
Capt. Chansa says she got a lot of support from her family to adopt the child. Her father, who is Chief Kaputa, was keen to have Thabo brought to Zambia.
The adoption process was very technical, and everything was in French, a language Capt. Chansa was unfamiliar with. And Capt. Chansa had to bear exorbitant fees.
“It was an uphill battle,” she says.
Adding to the complexity was the novelty of her case.
It was unheard of for blue helmets to adopt a child in a conflict zone where they served. There were many blind spots.
But it was a battle Capt. Chansa was determined to win.
“Leaving Thabo behind was not an option because we had created our own special bond,” she says.
She went to a court in Bangui armed with written consents from Thabo’s family, community leaders, including the sultan of Birao, as well local government officials.
Now she had to convince the courts that bringing the child to Zambia was in her best interest.
And in January, Capt. Chansa was granted the right to become Thabo’s legal mother by the magistrates’ and children’s court.
“It was such a relief, because I was very anxious; I wasn’t too sure if it was going to be granted,” she says.
But the legal battle was only the first hurdle; she now had to face the administrative hurdle of the bureaucratic United Nations and MINUSCA, as the UN mission in CAR is called.
One day she walked into the office of the chief legal officer of MINUSCA in Bangui – a judge from Morocco – to present her case. He was perplexed by the captain’s quest.
What the captain was attempting was unheard of in the mission, but he still commended her for showing compassion on a little girl and gave her the green light.
But Capt. Chansa also had to inform the UN headquarters in New York and seek special permission to allow the baby travel on a UN plane to Zambia. Although she was told to expect anything, the UN granted her permission.
Then she also had to write the Zambia Army Commander to seek permission to travel with Thabo back home.
She was anxious fearing she might get a negative response from the commander.
A week later, she received response from the commander in the affirmative.
“I was in so much disbelief. I did not expect it at all,” says Capt. Chansa.
After obtaining legal documents, finally Thabo’s name was included on the manifest.
“I think at that point, I realised this was meant to happen. God wanted this to happen,” says Capt. Chansa.
On March 8, Capt. Chansa flew back to Zambia with Thabo in her arms.
“I remember sitting with her on the aircraft and it was all like a dream,” she says.
Capt. Chimwala is happy that Thabo is now guaranteed of a better life.
“If you have been to Birao, you know that there is no future for any child growing there,” she says.
For Col. Sapezo, Thabo represents the humane side of the mission in CAR, and the confidence it inspires in the locals due to the Zambian troops’ good track record.
KEEPING FAMILY TIES
Twice a week, Capt. Chansa video-calls Thabo’s family in Birao, she does not want her to lose touch with her country.
“I believe that Thabo’s destiny is not in this country, I still feel that her destiny is for Central African Republic,” she says. “Her destiny lies in her country. Sometimes I even entertain the thought that one day she might end up being president.”
The captain now has new duties as she learns the ropes of motherhood and relishing the feeling of being called “mama”.
“It is a beautiful feeling. I’m in love,” she says.
She adds: “It’s a very unique feeling because I don’t have children, she is the first one.”
“She is not just my child, she is Zambia Army child,” says the captain.