Last night, as I sat with my fellow council colleagues listening to President Clinton and Senator Mitchell being awarded the Freedom of the City for their part in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, I thought of my mum. Seventeen years ago in Zimbabwe, we were down to just two (my brother, sister and father all living in different countries) and I was at boarding school. My mum had heard rumours that after weeks of shortages there was petrol arriving in Marondera, the small farming town we lived not far from. After queuing for several hours, when she got to the front of the queue it had run out. She drove home late that night on the last of her tank, only to arrive to a house where there was no electricity. Despondent and alone – she picked up the phone to hear the voice of another person, and the phone lines were dead. She decided in that moment it was time for us to leave. Ironically the reasons they had left Belfast in the 1980s were the very reasons for the return: Zimbabwe then a newly independent country and there was an optimism that enticed my mother, the daughter of anti-apartheid activists. Now the hope for a better life for her child, for (relative) political stability, for opportunity – for peace, lay in Belfast.
We had that opportunity to leave, something our socio-economic privilege afforded us, and I have always known that we were the lucky ones.
We arrived in Belfast in August 2000. The previous year had not been an easy one, the father of children I went to school with had been murdered and many others lived in fear the same would happen to their families. On our first trip to Tesco’s my mum and I spent 20 minutes in the refrigerated section just staring at the yoghurts (in Zimbabwe you had the option of 3 flavours), it wasn’t like this in the 80s my mum would marvel. Nor was the lack of army presence or the sound of bombs or being searched each time you went into the city centre she would say, but for me and many of my age that is something we are still not quite able to imagine, and we are the lucky ones.
I went away to university with not much intention of coming back, I had felt safe in Belfast – but I had also felt foreign. It was a surprise to me then that every holiday I would come back I would feel an overwhelming sense of relief. I realised that this was now my home, that Belfast is where I belong.
I am under no illusion of the severity of the issues and differences which still exist, for four years working for Anna Lo I would listen to the debates in the Assembly and wonder how anything worked. Even now with the Assembly collapsed, and generosity of spirit urgently lacking, somewhere in the back of my mind is always Zimbabwe, and as election after election was rigged, I have held on to my hope.
My life has been very different to what it could have been and I am grateful for that. I did not live here during the troubles, but I have witnessed the fear and uncertainty that is borne from the ashes of democracy, and I know that no good comes from division in any part of the world. When people ask is Good Friday Agreement outdated, I know that reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust and the vindication of the human rights of all is something that will never be outdated, and something we must all continue to work towards.
For me and my mum, Belfast was a sanctuary. And we have the Good Friday Agreement to thank for that.
Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party Councillor for Balmoral.