Egide Dhala: a man of peace and support for the vulnerable
2017-11-15 15:55:00 -

Describing himself as “an educator” and “a servant of others”, Congolese-Irish man Egide Dhala is rather something of a renaissance man. Aside from his work with development organisation Wezesha and with the UN’s migration agency, the IOM, he is also studying for a doctorate in education, and is a former visiting lecturer at the Kimmage Institute of Theology and Maynooth University on issues from migration to philosophy.

In this interview, he tells Metro Éireann about going up in DR Congo, navigating the challenges of an immigrant in an Ireland that’s changed remarkably over the last 20 years, and his plans for the future…

You are the co-founder and director of African diaspora-led development body Wezesha. What exactly does the organisation do?

Wezesha is a Swahili word meaning empowerment. It is a mission through which we want to address inequality and injustice present in our society, of which women and children are mostly the victims. If in Europe laws and regulations are acting to protect women and children, in Africa it is not the same.


We have designed projects in support of female empowerment in Africa with the view of addressing violence and poverty that affect their lives. We have two pilot countries, Kenya and DR Congo. Salome Mbugua and myself travel regularly to both countries to support projects that women have initiated through our facilitation. In Congo we have Wezesha Congo, with over 400 members. Likewise in Kenya, we have Wezesha Kenya.


In both countries they have been running micro-finance projects, capacity building for income generation, education on gender-based violence and reproductive health, housing development, and most importantly mobilisation of members for large-scale actions. In DR Congo, we have supported the group buying land on which they are going to build a centre for peace and advancement.


In Ireland, we tend to work with the African diaspora in advocating for the mobilisation of resources in support of programme development in their countries. We have been carrying out research that will inform and influence policy of which will benefit the African diaspora, who constitute an important engine for the development of Africa.


Tell us something about your background, growing up in what is now DR Congo.

I was born as Egide-Claude Dhala [in what was then Zaire]. Egide is a word in French, meaning aegis — protection or support. My other Christian name is Claude, but only my parents used to call me with it. Claude is Claudus in Latin, meaning disabled. So Egide-Claude is a protector of vulnerable people. Dhala is my father’s family name, which does not have a meaning as such. 


Now, I have another name which is the most interesting – this is my real Congolese ancestor’s name. In 1973 our former president Mobutu banned all Christian names and imposed all citizens to return to ‘authenticity’ by taking an ancestor’s name. My forename is Tol’mata, the name of my dad’s uncle who was a king. Tol’mata means ‘put down your weapons’. Anyone who tried to fight with this man was defeated, therefore it was wise to put down weapons in front of this man.

Do your names have any reflection of who you are?

I have come to believe that names given to individuals are often name programming. My names have programmed my life in so many ways. Since a young age I have been Egide-Claude: I always have empathy for the weak and vulnerable and try to support as much as I can. This is also how I have oriented myself in terms of both my professional life and voluntary work. As Tol’mata, I am a man of peace; I don’t like fighting and always advocate for peace.

When you were young, what were your dreams for your adult life? Did anything change?

I was born in a Catholic family and received a Catholic education throughout my life. I was very much committed to the church and since a very young age I thought I should serve God. 


My family was Catholic but not a very strongly practicing. I was the only one initially going to Masses and attending church activities, and finally influenced my parents and some of my brothers too. 


My dream was to commit myself for those who are marginalised in the society, and felt strongly that I should do it through the priesthood. And I have achieved my dream. Though I am not in a full ministry, I continue my mission by supporting the vulnerable in my everyday work. My work has always been my life.

How would you compare DR Congo as it is now to when you were growing up?

When I was growing up, DR Congo was a paradise. I remember in the early 1970s, we were told that the dream of South Africans was to come and live in DR Congo. And at that time, one Congolese franc was equal to two US dollars. Of course, it was and still is a very big country but less populated at that time, with immense natural resources. 


We were just a few years after our independence from Belgium; administrative structures and resources left by the colonisers were still in place and the country was functioning very well, despite pockets of rebellions that former president Mobutu managed to control. Education was still mainly run by the missionaries (Catholic and Protestant) but Catholic schools were the most prestigious. And education was almost free. 


It was rare to see unemployed adult at that time. And people in work were able to support their families with their salaries. We were not aware of corruption as such. 


But now, it’s like it’s not the same country. Every time I travel back, I cry and keep telling people that it used to be so beautiful, clean, enjoyable. I keep educating people, even on the street, as to how they should do things correctly, as I feel most of the younger generations do not have any reference. 


As Mobutu’s regime went into a deep crisis, the system became so corrupt that it affected most of the country, and it is still paining to recover, especially because of the war that has aggravated the situation for the past 21 years.

Can you make any comparisons between DR Congo and Ireland, your home for the last two decades?

Hospitality is something that I see very much in common between Ireland and DR Congo. Congolese are very friendly, as are Irish people. Yes, corruption and economic crisis back home have affected the natural generosity that characterize the Congolese people, but despite this, I still see how people are very welcoming when I travel back. 


Geographically, of course, you can’t compare the two countries. Also, DR Congo has immense natural resources that Ireland does not have. However, Ireland is part of Europe, and as such is a developed country with infrastructure that DR Congo does not have.

You moved to Ireland 20 years ago. In what way has that relocation affected your life?

I have spent more of my professional life in Ireland than in DR Congo. Though I had a very promising professional career in DR Congo, I do not regret moving to Ireland since I have managed to pursue my career path here. My migration to Ireland has helped me to better understand global issues, and this will help me to influence change where I came from. And that’s what I am doing now.

Aside from your plans to influence change in DR Congo, what plans to do you have for Ireland?

I am very much engaged in the field of migration. I support refugees and vulnerable migrants who are or want to become full citizens of Ireland. They have families, and their children will have families. This is a good proportion of Ireland now and in the future that no one should ignore. 

I believe that by supporting and working for the integration of minorities, I will contribute to the beauty of Ireland as a society that reflects a diversity of cultures, experiences, expertise and knowledge. This is a positive development.

How is your relationship with other members of the immigrant community in Ireland?

This is my natural community. I am very much connected to other immigrants – not only Congolese people, but immigrants from everywhere, thanks to my profession. I have also benefited from a wide network of friends from this community, of which I am very proud.

Have you been affected by racism in Ireland?

Yes: in my early days in Ireland, I was threatened in my house with hate mail, saying that I was a monkey living on a tree, that I should leave Ireland or be killed, and so on. I managed to catch the guy who was doing it and reported him to the Garda.  


I do experience minor racism incidents now and then, mainly the attitudes of a few ignorant people which I tend to minimise. Most of the time I do challenge people, with the view of provoking their better understanding of the world. I am an educator, after all.


Are there any other issues you have experienced over the years that stand out?

Policies and laws in Ireland have really managed to embrace diversity and I think we should be grateful for that. There have been a lot of discussions on integration, and recently the Government has come up with integration measures and availed of resources to support such processes. This is very positive, I would say. I have contributed to such development in different ways. However, there are still areas where work needs to be done. For example, the representation of migrants in the public sphere; we are still far from achieving this.

Can you mention one or two experiences in Ireland that helped in shaping who you are today?

When I arrived in Ireland, I had no English. I was desperate as I thought I would not be able to build a solid professional career in Ireland and was very much attempted to return to DR Congo. However, I was very lucky to meet good Irish people who really welcomed me in the community and connected me with organisations and other people that opened doors for me. I integrated with my local community and was appointed onto the board of the community development programme. 


Through these interactions, I started learning and improving my English. Again, through connections I was invited to make presentations in different places, which led into securing teaching positions. 


Everything moved then from there. I became manager of the Centre for the Education and Integration of Migrants with Spirasi, and served on different boards of organisations supporting migrant integration.

Ireland has been your home for two decades now. Is this where you want to spend the rest of your life, or do you have plans to move on in future?

For sure my base now is Ireland. I feel now very much more connected to Ireland than anywhere else. I feel it whenever I travel abroad, even when I travel to DR Congo. On my return, I feel that I’m coming back home. 


However, I also see myself now as a global citizen. I believe that as I approach my retirement age and after, I will spend my time in the world, wherever the world would want me. But Ireland will still be my base.


– Interview by Chinedu Onyejelem



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