Anna Maria Miwanda Bagenda was a mighty woman.
The first time she spoke for RAPAR it was at a Home Office organised conference about Refugees held at the newly completed Radisson Hotel at Manchester Airport in 2002. The stage was raised and Home Office officials were looking down upon us when Miwanda began to walk towards them from the back of the hall. She raised her hands as she approached, speaking out in a clear and utterly uncompromising tone: “We are here because you were there.” The hall became silent as she went on to explain to the assembled, in her own inimitably charming and humorous way, how all Refugees are part of the solution. Miwanda was always part of the solution.
During the three years that she lived with us here in Britain, many people felt her curious combination of indomitable will and deep empathy. ‘Superglue’ was how Bagenda affectionately nicknamed one early RAPAR member, a young Bengali mum of three young children. Like many others, she loved to be around Anna Maria because, no matter how anxious or traumatised an individual may be, Miwanda could inspire a sense of security and a feeling of love.
In late 2003, RAPAR became aware of the systemic racism being demonstrated by some bus drivers working along The Crescent in Salford who were refusing to stop for Muslim women who were covered. Bagenda strode into a University of Salford public meeting that was being addressed by then Home Secretary Hazel Blears and, during question time, extracted a public commitment from Hazel to take the matter up.
Of the many people who knew Miwanda, here are some memories:
“Anna Maria was larger than life, fearless and inspiring. I never forget what she said about what attitude we should have to the police: ‘They should stay in the station and not leave. If we need them we will call’." (Mark Krantz, anti-racist campaigner)
"She was a kind hearted, very firm, and dedicated activist. As an Exiled Journalist Network pioneer member, when she seconded my Committee Member nomination I got 23 out of 25 votes. As a pioneer member of RAPAR, she made a true struggle to help other people. She made a lot of difference in the lives of displaced, desperate people from all over the world and refugees seeking safety in the UK. Rest In Peace my Friend. " (Mansoor Hassan, RAPAR member and former Chair, NUJ member and editor www.saraikistan.com)
“I first met Miwanda in 2004 at the National Union of Journalists’ office in Manchester. I was a Union accompaniment representative and she was the Lead Development Worker at the Salford RAPAR SRB5 project. It was through this work that I came to know this African woman of short stature and great presence. I liked her sincerity and her humanity. She was, without doubt, principled and courageous. Miwanda was also a Roman Catholic and she lived her faith. I kept in sporadic touch with her when she returned to Africa and she always enquired after my grandchildren. When my second grandson was born she knitted him a blanket for his cot. I am very saddened to hear of her passing.” (Bob Pounder, Minister at the Unitarian Chapel, Oldham)
“I am deeply saddened by the news of her death. She was a kind, caring, person who always seemed to make time for others regardless of her own personal circumstances. She had first-hand experience of the cruelty of the UK’s asylum process but her resistance for herself and for others was formidable. She was intelligent, engaging and strong willed - an asset for humanity. My memory of her, as I am sure with many others, will live on. (Ameen Hadi, Treasurer, Salford City UNISON)
“This is very sad news. Anna Maria made a real impression on me when I first became involved with RAPAR. She was also a lovely, gracious client, despite the difficulties she had to face from the Home Office.” (Gary McIndoe, RAPAR Patron and Director of Latitude Law)
“I was proud to know and call Miwanda my friend. Her smile, her ability to laugh at the absurd, her genuine solidarity with all for social justice, and her fierce articulation when speaking truth to power: losing her is a huge loss but she helped, influenced and strengthened so many people to live on.
Sadly, Miwanda’s leaving of the UK more than a decade ago was grim, and an example that a ‘Hostile Environment’ has existed in the UK long before this current Government. That she left on her own terms, and to support her family and others, reminded all around her about what, ultimately, is important. I am glad we stayed in touch over the years. When my Mom died she was among the first to call. She shared this Mandela quote with me some years ago. ‘As the years progress one increasingly realises the importance of friendship and human solidarity. And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the centre of the values by which you live.’ She always encouraged, supported and loved as a Mama, Sister and Friend.” (Jason Bergen)
“We were all shocked and saddened to hear of your mother’s passing. Our thoughts are with you. It is not easy to express how we shall miss her. Your mother was a fighter for justice and equality and that is something that cannot be forgotten easily. I know how wonderful and supportive she was to you all, and I can imagine the emptiness that you are all feeling without her, but I hope you can find solace in the memory of who your mother was. May her soul rest in peace.” (Zeinab Mohammed, RAPAR Matron)
Some words now from Anna Maria Miwanda Bagenda’s Children, Nantalaga, Juliet Ssanyu and James:
“We thank the almighty God for the gift of our mother, for the time we spent with her. We called her Lixa. She was a loving mother who taught us to be independent early on in life. From her we learned to treasure friends and to love God. We are proud of all she achieved and, even when the storms came, she always remained true to herself. She made friends faster than anyone we know. We are grateful for the time we spent with her; in her moments of illness, we are glad we were there. She remained herself even when we suspected what was coming. We thank God that he chose to cut short her pain. Lixa, May the Good Lord give you peace in His Kingdom. When God took you back He said, ‘'Hallelujah, you're home’ (Ed Sheehan).”
Miwanda’s last communication as Matron of RAPAR was in February of this year. In it she discussed the ‘Voluntary’ Returns in The Community that the Home Office is currently trying to roll out across the UK:
“I am glad that something is still going on raising such major issues in the lives of the affected people. ‘Voluntary’ can mean different things, the way I see it, but to return to a country where one escaped death, imprisonment etc. in the first place!!!!! Well, we know what I know, what I have gone through in order to remain alive. I also know what the word ‘Voluntary’ means, in the case of people seeking asylum. It is mockery of justice to force them to accept to return voluntarily to their home countries or even the third country. Love to you all, Friends, and thanks for ringing the bell.”
In Lusaana, in the District of Kalungu, sixty kilometres from Kampala, the capital of Uganda, Anna Maria’s Children buried their Mother in the ground of her Father’s ancestral home.
Her smile, her drive, her fearlessness and her generosity of spirit live on.
Dr Rhetta Moran, for RAPAR, 13th June 2018.