Sanctuary In Solitude: A new home in Ireland wasn't an escape from fresh trauma

When activist Bulelani Mfaco partnered with photographer Brian Teeling to create a stunning series of portraits, the experience would hit deeper than expected. A spokesperson for MASI (Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland), Bulelani revisited his own arrival to this country and the lasting impact of those days.

A man with dreadlocks stands on a windy beach
Image: Brian Teeling

(Content warning: Sanctuary In Solitude contains mention of sexual assault.) 

I had never heard of Bull Island when Brian emailed me about the location of the shoot. So the first thing I did was to Google it. After learning about the island’s location, I spent a few minutes wondering if I should suggest a different one. 

I had told Brian that I am most happy, free and safe when alone in nature, which is why he chose the location for background shots. What I hadn’t told him is which parts of the world gave rise to me finding sanctuary in solitude. And not too far from Bull Island is Sutton Cross, one of my many sites of trauma. 

When I returned to Dublin in September of 2016, I had about €24 left in my bank account after buying a one-way plane ticket from Cape Town. I had two big suitcases filled with all of my clothes and a backpack which I still carry everywhere I go today. I asked two of my friends, who were renting single beds in the city, to look after my suitcases. They barely had space in the room. One of my friends shared a room with two other people. He slept in a bunk bed, so there was no asking if I could crash there for a while. 

The bridge near Foxrock Church on the Stillorgan Road seemed better than the inner city and became my home for a week. I spent days searching for work and had job interviews during the second week I stayed under the bridge. I got the first job and accepted it immediately, doing door-to-door fundraising for an NGO. I did not last a week there, a few days into it, I received another call for a job interview in a clothing retail store. They offered me the position and I was delighted. The biggest trouble was saving money to rent a place in Dublin. That took a while. 

I had friends in Ireland and abroad who were happy to help me get somewhere to sleep, either on someone’s couch or hostel hopping until my first paycheque. I started dating and life seemed to be getting better. One of the men I had a thing with stayed in a hotel in Sutton for two weeks and another two weeks at home in the UK for work (this is what he told me). I stayed with him when he was in Ireland and he helped with hostel bookings when he was gone. He’d have wine and dinner ready when I got back from work. Then I’d throw myself on the bed to receive a back massage after a shower or hot bath. He was a gentleman, or so I thought. 

One night, he suggested that we dine in the restaurant downstairs. Staff knew him because of his extended stays in the hotel. It was his home away from home. We stayed in the bar drinking after dinner. I don’t know how many shots of Kahlua mixed with Baileys I had that night. All I remember is my companion saying “come on, have one more.” I have very few memories of that night.

There was unusual silence in the car as he drove towards Dublin harbour the next morning. I wondered if I had done something to upset him. It took a few seconds of staring at his face to start having flashbacks of what happened that evening. I was properly drunk when I got up from the chair in the bar. None of my friends or family have ever seen me drunk. But that night, I held onto my companion as we walked up to his hotel room. I threw myself on the bed with clothes on and that was lights out for me. The next time I see him in my messed up memory, he is standing next to the bed, naked, and taking my clothes off. I mumbled something about sleep and he responded with “what you are not going to do is fall asleep”. I closed my eyes and the next time I opened them my legs were in the air as he was pleasuring himself with my barely awake body. I had no energy to push him off or do anything. 

At this point I got angry in the car. I had no idea what to do with my rage though. So I stared at Dublin Bay as he drove. He dropped me off in Clontarf where I got a bus into town and he went to work in the Harbour. I contemplated what course of action I should take and decided on none. I made excuses for him. I told myself that I’d have had sex with him anyway if I was sober. But I wasn’t sober. This is why I like ordering tea in a pub today after having one drink. 

loved him though I never told him that. He reinforced my long held Hobbesian outlook on life. When I lived in South Africa, I knew that any one of the people around me could harm me and I was always aware of this. I had seen far too many people harmed by trusted friends, lovers and family. I too would have experienced some of this. The journey to Ireland was to find peace. I’d learn the hard way that with humanity, peace does not last long. Some amongst us have to constantly keep moving in search of that peace. 

While I might walk free on the streets of Dublin without looking over my shoulder fearing that I’ll be stoned, stabbed, beaten, burnt or shot to death because of my sexual orientation, I remain deeply suspicious of anyone who claims to love me. The many physical and psychological scars my body bears were given to me by people who once told me that they loved me. This has me expecting much worse from the people who do not love me; hence I am pleasantly surprised whenever I meet a kind and compassionate soul. I long for the day when humanity ceases to be the source of misery to others. 

If you have been affected by Sanctuary In Solitude, please contact the Rape Crisis Centre National Helpline at 1800 77 8888, or the National LGBT Helpline at 1890 929 539.

Sanctuary In Solitude originally appeared in GCN Issue 365. 

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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