The girl who paid the price for dad’s debt

A four-year-old girl from Limpopo was kidnapped and held hostage in Zimbabwe for seven months – because her parents could not settle a R1 550 debt.

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After months of trying to get the police involved, the girl’s neighbours came together and paid a local security guard R2 500 to cross the border and bring her home.

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Today, little Lufuno*, who turned five during her ordeal, is being cared for – with her pregnant mother and two siblings – by the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme.

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The man who snatched Lufuno from her 24-year-old mother Dakalo’s arms in the streets of Khubvi village eight months ago is still at large.

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The kidnapper dropped Lufuno off with his family in Rukangare, a village in Zimbabwe’s Chipinge district, then returned to South Africa.

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He did all of this to force Lufuno’s father,

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40-year-old Fhatuwani, to pay him R1 550 after they baked bricks together. Dakalo said she’d recognised the man who took her child “because he worked with my husband”.

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Dakalo’s husband was not in the village when City Press visited this week because he was away working.

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Dakalo opened a case with the police – but claims nothing was done for months.

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On December 24, the Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme, the SA National Civic Organisation (Sanco), the local community policing forum and the Khubvi Business Forum heard about the kidnapping and immediately organised a residents’ meeting.

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“We and the whole community decided we should search for the girl and bring her back,” said Sanco chairperson Anna Netshishivhe.

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School teacher Masera Mashonelo donated R2 500 and Tendai Moyo* – an illegal Zimbabwean immigrant who works as a security guard at a lodge – volunteered to fetch Lufuno.

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Christian Ramulifho – the village’s community policing forum chair – said police had told him they were tracing the suspect through a cellphone network. They then allegedly said they weren’t allowed to go to another country to look for the girl.

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Once Moyo had offered to find and bring Lufuno home, Ramulifho said he asked the police to pick the child up at the border post.

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“They failed to do so. In fact, they said if we went to Zimbabwe it was at our own risk.”

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Two weeks ago, the plucky security guard brought Lufuno home (see sidebar).

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She no longer speaks her mother tongue, Tshivenda, because her kidnapper’s family spoke Shona. There is no physical evidence of sexual assault, but the girl has marks all over her body that suggest she was whipped. Her feet are swollen and her skin is peeling off.

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On the surface, she seems like a normal, happy child. When City Press visited, she and little sister Joy* (3) were enjoying pap and chicken and she was eating heartily.

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But Thohoyandou Victim Empowerment Programme director Fiona Nicholson said the girl was “highly traumatised” and only sessions with a psychologist would finally confirm Lufuno wasn’t sexually assaulted or raped.

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Nicholson said she was disappointed in the police service.

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“Hopefully they will make an arrest, as the community becomes frustrated every day. The classification of the crime is apparently complex … whether it’s a case of trafficking or kidnapping,” Nicholson said.

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“Either way, child abuse is definite. On the positive side, the way the community has united in their response to this horrible crime is heartwarming and the bravery of the young man who rescued her is commendable.”

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Dakalo said: “I’m happy she’s back, but I’m scared [her abductor] might come back because he’s not been paid.”

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Mashonelo, the teacher who donated money to pay Moyo’s way through Zimbabwe, said he hoped the community could raise the R1 550 to repay the family’s debt so Lufuno would be safe.

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Limpopo police spokesperson Colonel Ronel Otto said police were still investigating the case and denied they had dragged their feet.

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“The community must give us information if he is around. We did not know the community sent someone to Zimbabwe.”

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* Names have been changed to protect identities – City Press