‘I feel she was abandoned’: The life and terrible death of Belly Mujinga | Society

It is maybe three metres from the concourse in Victoria station to the ticket office. As Belly Mujinga ran, she would have been scared. It was 21 March, a Saturday, late in the morning. Victoria was a ghost of its former self. Hardly anyone was around to see Belly as she dashed for the ticket office, her breath shaky and uncontrolled, her hand reaching out to wipe the spittle from her face.

There are facts in the story of Belly – and there is a version of events that is disputed. Then there is the symbol that Belly has become to so many people – people who never met her or heard the sound of her voice, but who know her name and the story of what happened to her in those fear-filled days at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in Britain.

The facts: Belly Mujinga and her colleague Nadia (not her real name) were working on the concourse that morning when a 57-year-old man approached them. They talked briefly, then CCTV shows Belly recoiling. The man walked away, and Belly and Nadia made for the ticket office. Belly became ill with Covid-19 and died just over two weeks later, on 5 April. After a public outcry, a man was interviewed by the British Transport Police (BTP), but he was later released without charge after producing a negative antibody test, indicating that he had not had the virus.

Victoria station in London on 19 March, after the lockdown was announced.



Victoria station in London on 19 March, after the lockdown was announced. Photograph: Isabel Infantes/AFP/Getty Images

The version that is disputed: Belly and Nadia were on the concourse when a 57-year-old man approached them. The man yelled at Belly and Nadia: “What are you doing here?” Belly responded: “Can’t you see we’re working? We’re wearing a uniform.” The man yelled again: “You can’t be here. I’ve got Covid – I’ll give it to you.”

This next bit is the most disputed, and most difficult, part of the story. In Nadia’s account of the event – which was relayed to me by a third party – spit flew out of the man’s mouth as he shouted. Some of it landed on the women. It was as if he had no teeth, according to Nadia’s description. According to Belly, who told the story to her husband, Lusamba Gode Katalay, and her cousin Agnes Ntumba, the man spat at them intentionally.

The symbol that Belly has become: a mother, dead at 47, leaving behind an 11-year-old daughter. A frontline worker assaulted while doing her job. A black woman whose death went uninvestigated until a global anti-racism campaign forced the British authorities to take note. A petition calling for Justice for Belly has been signed by 2 million people and counting. “It’s murder, plain and simple,” writes one signatory.

Was Belly, whose health issues meant she should not have been in close contact with the public, murdered by the man she met on the concourse that day? Almost certainly not. The threshold for murder is high and, besides, the man did not have Covid-19. Was she assaulted that day? Based on Nadia’s story and from what Belly told her family before she died, it seems possible, although it is not proved. Did the commuter intentionally spit at the women? We do not know.

But does it matter? The result was the same. Nadia fell ill, but has since recovered. Belly is dead, Ingrid is motherless and Lusamba is widowed.

***

Belly was born in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Her family was large – she was the youngest of four brothers and three sisters. They were not exactly well-off, but not poor, either. Belly studied journalism at the University of Kinshasa and got a job working for RNTC, the national broadcaster. She was RNTC’s first female sports reporter, but journalists in the DRC are badly paid and the industry is nepotistic. “Journalists in the Congo always have to beg,” says Lusamba, 61. “You have to know the right people. It’s difficult to survive.”

In 2001, as the security situation in the DRC grew more unstable – the president, Laurent Kabila, was assassinated by his bodyguard in January and the UN-monitored ceasefire between rebels and the government was precarious – Belly moved to the UK. She worked at a post office in Edgware, north London, which is where Agnes, a 46-year-old healthcare assistant, met her in 2005. Agnes was posting a parcel home when Belly looked at the label and asked Agnes if she was from the DRC, too. Agnes said yes and the two women became friendly.

Another time when Agnes was posting a parcel, Belly asked her: how do you know this person? Agnes explained that he was her cousin. Belly told her that the man was her cousin also – meaning they were related. The women were overjoyed. “I didn’t know anyone in London,” says Agnes. “Belly became my family.” She used to call her Sissy, for sister.

In 2011, Belly married Lusamba, who is also Congolese. They met at a church in Hackney in 2006. “When I arrived,” Lusamba says, “I saw her.” Lusamba proposed straight away, but Belly said no. Lusamba kept asking and still she said no. “She led me on for five years!” Lusamba says. “I was getting discouraged.” He had almost given up hope when Belly relented. “The day I decided I wanted to stop seeing her, she said yes,” he says, incredulously. “I didn’t believe her.”

‘Belly poured all of her love and devotion into her daughter …’ Lusamba and Ingrid.



‘Belly poured all of her love and devotion into her daughter …’ Lusamba and Ingrid. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Ingrid was their only child. Belly poured all of her love and devotion into her daughter, although she could also be strict, especially when it came to homework. “Everything revolved around Ingrid,” says Lusamba. “She always worried about her.” But it was a loving discipline, not a harsh regime. “Ingrid and Belly were friends,” says Lusamba. “They were really friends.”

Belly was not an angel. “She used to interfere, especially with my two daughters,” says Agnes. “I’d be telling them off, and she’d say: ‘No, no, no. You need to speak to them. Treat them like your friends!’ I’d say: ‘We didn’t grow up like that, Sissy. Please don’t interfere.’” Belly was a traditionalist: she insisted that Ingrid learn to cook, because she was a girl. When Ingrid was little, Lusamba would help her out, but Belly would stop him. “She’d say: ‘No, she’s a girl,’” Lusamba remembers. “‘She has to do it.’” Belly would sometimes chastise Agnes for asking her husband to set the table or help in the kitchen. “She preferred things the old way,” Agnes observes. “You call your husband to the table, and he comes and eats.”

Looking back at the last months of Belly’s life, Lusamba feels that his wife was trying to say goodbye. In February, she was uncharacteristically insistent that the family go on holiday, to Bath. Lusamba protested – they did not have the money. “She said: ‘No, we must go,’” Lusamba remembers. Belly was always good at finding deals online, but, when they arrived in Bath, the hotel was not as nice as it looked in the photos. Belly seemed strangely affected by this, as if it were more important than usual that every detail of the holiday was perfect. “It was as if she felt that these were our last days, and she wanted us to spend them together,” Lusamba says.

***

If, before 21 March, you had found yourself lost and friendless at Victoria station – perhaps if your wallet had been stolen or your phone had died – there would have been no one in the world better for you to meet than Belly. She befriended the waifs and strays of the London transport network, fed them and helped them on their way. She was Saint Christopher in a polyester uniform and rubber-soled shoes. “She was a good person,” says Lusamba. “I am not just saying that because she was my wife.”

Once, Belly found an Argentinian woman in Victoria station in a state of distress. She was waiting for some money to come into her bank account, but it was delayed, and she had nowhere to go. Belly brought her home. “She spent two days in our house,” Lusamba says. “She ate what we ate, we organised her transport, and we didn’t ask her for any money.” Another time, Belly picked up a young man who had become separated from his friends after watching a Chelsea game. He had lost his phone and wallet or they had been stolen; Lusamba isn’t sure. Belly bought him a bus ticket home. Later, his mother called to thank her.

The family spent last Christmas with a French family whom Belly had befriended in the station. They did not realise that London was essentially shut on Christmas Day. So Belly said: “Come to my house.” Afterwards, Belly paid for the family’s taxi back to their hotel. “There are loads of stories of people being in a bad state and Belly would bring them home and sort them out,” says Lusamba, sounding tired. “You’ll probably have more people contacting you after the article is published.”

Protesters hold a banner during the Black Lives Matter protest at Hyde Park in June.



Protesters hold a banner during the Black Lives Matter protest at Hyde Park in June. Photograph: Dave Rushen/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

Belly started working for Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) in 2011, first on the ticket gates and then as a ticket office clerk, the role in which she was employed when she died. It was a public-facing job and Belly often came into contact with antagonistic passengers, particularly during the conductors’ strike of 2016, when many trains were cancelled or delayed. “We would get abuse every single day,” remembers one of Belly’s colleagues from that period, who prefers not to be named. He says Belly always volunteered for overtime – she was supporting her mother back home in Kinshasa – and often helped elderly passengers with their bags. “She was well known at Victoria station,” he says. “Everyone liked her.”

Towards the end of her life, Belly was not having a good time at work. She felt that she was being bullied by a manager. “Whenever she came home, she complained about that person,” says Lusamba. In September 2019, things came to a head. Lusamba says Belly told him that she had mistakenly left some cash on the desk in the ticket office when clocking out of her shift. This was a common mistake, and usually the person on the next shift would lock away the money for their absent-minded colleague. Belly, however, was suspended for three months.

“That was the worst period of her life,” Lusamba says. “She was in a really bad state. We tried to be there for her, to keep her chin up, but it was terrible.” In December, Belly was allowed back. According to Lusamba, after Belly returned to work, she saw a colleague make the same mistake she had made and leave some money on the ticket desk. They were not sanctioned.

***

Things got frightening and strange for London’s transport workers on 16 March. Boris Johnson advised the public to work from home and Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, echoed his request. Overnight, commuter traffic plummeted. On 17 March, Belly was sent to work on the concourse, directing passengers through the station. She recorded herself.

“Hello,” says Belly in the video, panning the camera around. “Just to show you Victoria. One of the biggest stations in London! There’s no people. People are afraid.” The station is as empty as it would be on Christmas Eve, only without the cheerful stragglers and workaholics bearing gifts, belatedly making their way home. “People are at home, afraid of going outside,” Belly goes on. You can hear announcements over the public address system. “Stay home and stay safe,” she concludes. She is not wearing personal protective equipment (PPE). At the time, there was no government guidance requiring face coverings to be worn by railway workers. In May, the guidance changed, at which point GTR issued workers with masks.

Belly’s union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), argues that she should not have been on the concourse at all that day. “Belly was a ticket office clerk,” says the TSSA, which represents transport workers. “All of her primary duties should have been in the ticket office building.” (GTR says that it was routine for ticket office clerks to work on the concourse when required.) Moreover, Belly had an underlying respiratory condition: she had had surgery on her throat in 2016, which her employers may have been aware of, because she had to go for frequent checkups at the Royal Free hospital in north London.

Belly was not on the shielding register. A few days after the alleged spitting incident, Belly’s doctor called GTR and told them that Belly should not be at work, but shielding at home. But by then it was too late. Belly already had Covid-19.

On 21 March, Belly was working an early shift. At some point that morning, she was sent to work on the concourse, where she met the 57-year-old man. Words were spoken. The disputed incident took place. The man walked away. There was a panicked scramble back to the safety of the ticket office. According to her union representative, Belly – scared for her safety – begged not to be sent back out on to the concourse, but she was sent out to finish her shift. (GTR did not comment on this claim.) No one notified the BTP. This month, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced that it had reviewed a subsequent BTP investigation and concluded that the evidence was “insufficiently clear” to show an attack.

The following day was Agnes’s birthday. She went to Costco with her daughters, but they were acting oddly and kept her at the store longer than expected. When Agnes got home, Belly was waiting to surprise her. She had cooked a birthday spread – chicken, rice, plantain, two types of fish – and bought a cake. But she seemed distracted, preoccupied. She told Agnes that a “mad person” had spat at her at work and that he said he had Covid-19. Agnes was taken aback, but did not press her further.

“If you look at pictures from that day, she is just sitting there, staring, like she’s not really there,” says Agnes. “Like she was thinking. Like there was something in her head, disturbing her.” Belly did not say much, only speaking if she was spoken to. Before she left, Belly gave Agnes her card. It read: “I always wanted to have a little sister and I found my little sister in London. I’ll always be there for you.” Agnes says: “She was amazing. It doesn’t feel right for her to go now. She had a lot to give.”

A picture of Belly, taken by Agnes.

A picture of Belly, taken by Agnes. Photograph: PA

Belly fell ill on 29 March. By 30 March, her breathing was laboured. Lying beside her in bed, Lusamba was anxious. “When she breathed in, you couldn’t tell when she was going to breathe out again,” he says. They knew she needed a doctor, but they were scared to go to hospital, convinced from what they had seen on TV and social media that she was more likely to get ill there than to be cured. By 2 April, Belly could not breathe, so she called an ambulance. When it arrived, Belly walked down the stairs from her second-floor flat as Ingrid and Lusamba watched. “She just waved,” he says. “That’s the last image I have of her, waving goodbye.”

At Barnet hospital, Belly refused to go on a ventilator. “She didn’t want that,” Lusamba says. “Because before she went into hospital, on all the social media, they kept talking about ventilators.” Later, Belly and Lusamba talked on the phone. “She said: ‘I have got to get out of here.’ I said: ‘It’s impossible – I can’t get to you because I don’t know where you are – and they wouldn’t let me come in anyway.’”

On 4 April, Belly called Agnes. “She says to me: ‘Agnes, please look after Ingrid,’” Agnes remembers. “I say: ‘Sissy, I don’t want to hear that. You are not going anywhere. We are all praying for you.’” Later that evening, Belly video-called Lusamba, but would not turn on her camera. “I said: ‘Why don’t you want me to see you?’” Lusamba remembers. “She said that she didn’t want Ingrid to see her in this state.” But she seemed a little better – she was speaking clearly – and Lusamba was pleased. He told Agnes that Belly sounded stronger. That evening, they slept soundly, thinking that Belly was on the mend.

Lusamba received a call from the hospital early the next morning. He did not understand the call exactly – his first language is French – so he phoned Agnes and asked her to speak to the doctor. “She called and got the news,” says Lusamba. He cries and wipes his face with a towel. There is a long silence.

“I feel, in a way, that our dead were abandoned,” Lusamba says. “In my head, it’s like that. When you are scared, you want to touch a person who is there. We left them there to die, and then we just disposed of them. It’s really bad. There’s this person you shared time with and you weren’t there to see them die. I wasn’t abroad. I was here. Nobody was with her when she died. Nobody.”

***

Lusamba does not like to think about Belly’s funeral. It was not the funeral she would have wanted or the funeral she deserved. “We were only allowed 10 people at the funeral,” he says. “We have a large family and community. Not everyone could be there.”

Worse than the funeral, which was held on 29 April, was the fact that Lusamba was not allowed to see Belly’s body after she died, not even if he wore PPE. Not seeing his wife’s body means that Lusamba struggles to accept that she is gone. “When they brought the coffin, I didn’t know what was inside,” he says. “Was it really her? That is the question that haunts me.” It will be Ingrid’s 12th birthday in September. “When the other girls call for their mothers, she thinks about her mother,” says Lusamba. “You can see. That’s when it’s tough. But she plays.”

It was at the funeral that Lusamba realised that he should not drop Belly’s case. Two of her colleagues came to lay flowers on the grave. Lusamba noticed them, but did not think much of it. A few days later, he received a phone call from a friend who also knew one of the colleagues. The friend asked: “Are you ready to hear the full story of what happened that day?” Lusamba was ready.

***

The Press Association broke the story on 12 May. By 13 May, Belly was on the cover of the Guardian, the Metro and the Daily Mail. “This seems to me to be a murder,” Piers Morgan thundered on Good Morning Britain. On the same day, Johnson referenced Belly in prime minister’s questions. “Yesterday, this house learned of the tragic death of Belly Mujinga,” said Johnson. “The fact that she was abused for doing her job is utterly appalling.” A GoFundMe appeal to cover Belly’s funeral costs raised more than £230,000. The BTP launched an investigation, as did GTR and the Office of Rail and Road’s Railway Inspectorate.

By this point, Covid-19’s impact on black people was becoming increasingly clear. Data from the Office for National Statistics showed that black people were four times more likely to die of Covid-19 than white people. “You started to see the visual imagery of who was dying of Covid,” says Yvonne Field, an anti-racism campaigner from the Ubele Initiative. “You couldn’t dispute that BAME people were dying, because the images being projected into our living rooms and our print media showed that. Covid brought race back on to the agenda. You couldn’t turn a blind eye to the racial dimension of what was happening.”

Belly with Lusamba.



Belly with Lusamba. Photograph: Belly Mujinga/PA

Belly’s story was enraging because it was a familiar one: a story of contempt for black people, especially black women. “We know that black women work night and day to support their families,” says Field. “They are the black family’s backbone. The way she was disrespected makes me shudder.”

Public anger was at boiling point, but it had nowhere to go. “There was a moment of stillness during this pandemic,” says the Labour MP Dawn Butler. “People became more heightened to injustice.” And then, on 25 May, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis and everything erupted. Anti-racism campaigners took to the streets in the US and the UK. On 29 May, the BTP concluded its investigation. Detectives told the press that the 57-year-old man they identified from CCTV had produced a negative antibody test, showing he did not have the virus, and was not responsible for Belly’s death. Detectives visited Lusamba to give him the news. “I don’t like to use the word racism,” says Lusamba. “But on the day the police told me they were stopping the inquiry, inside myself I felt it was racist.”

In response to Lusamba’s claims, the BTP referred me to a public statement, which stated that the BTP had “comprehensively reviewed all the available evidence and have not identified any offences or behaviour that meets the threshold for prosecution”.

It all seemed too convenient; too neat. The public was angry, and so they did what people do when they feel that justice has not been served. They took to the streets.

***

An 18-year-old student, Aima, from London, doesn’t know how many Justice for Belly Mujinga posters, placards and banners she saw at the Black Lives Matter protest in Hyde Park on 3 June. “Oh my gosh,” she says softly. “There were hundreds.” Aima is new to activism: her organisation, All Black Lives UK, was formed in the wake of Floyd’s death by a collective of 12 organisers, some of them in their teens. “It was crazy,” Aima says of the protest. “The amount of people who came.”

Belly is one of the reasons Aima went out that day. “After what happened to Belly,” she says. “I thought: ‘We’ve had enough. We can’t be silent.’” I ask Aima why Belly’s death means so much to her. “If a white person was spat on, would we be in this situation?” she asks. “Would Belly’s death be so overlooked? Would the person be out there on the streets, living his best life? No … It just breaks my heart.”

Lusamba was at the protest, too. “It was one of the days that I will never forget until my death,” he says. “It was a very good day. To see so many white and black people together … I could see Belly on that day.” He is gratified by the public outcry around her death. “When the public talks about it, I feel justice is being made,” says Lusamba. “In a way it’s kind of reparations.”

Most of the public anger is directed at Belly’s assailant. But the story is bigger than that. “I can understand the excitement of a criminal case about someone assaulting someone else,” says the TSSA. “And that possibly being how she caught the virus. But that was never really the story for us, although it has caught people’s imaginations. The real story is, why was she out there?”

“Belly was a dedicated and much-loved colleague at Victoria station and we are heartbroken by her passing,” says Chris Fowler, the customer service director for Southern (part of GTR). “She worked with us for nine years, and was a very friendly and well-liked member of our team whom we miss sorely. While the BTP’s investigation and CPS’s independent review have concluded that Belly’s tragic death was not caused by this alleged incident, it does not detract from the tragic loss of our colleague from coronavirus. It has shaken us all and is a painful reminder of how deadly this virus is.”

Almost every aspect of the Belly Mujinga story is upsetting. Layers of injustice are buried inside each other, like Russian dolls. There is the alleged assault, which is straightforwardly contemptible. Then there is the question of why a woman with underlying health conditions was working in a public-facing role in the midst of a pandemic, rather than remaining within the relative safety of the ticket office. Why wasn’t she listened to, if, as her union representative says, Belly told her supervisor she had been assaulted, and did not want to go back out to work? Why wasn’t a report made to the police immediately? The list goes on.

The pandemic has shown that racial inequality is a healthcare issue. “The virus isn’t racist,” says Butler, “but society sometimes is. Unless we eliminate racism from society, we have an issue.” Butler talks about Grenfell, about Windrush. “So many of the injustices we’ve seen happen over the last few years involve people not being listened to. Why aren’t certain people being listened to?”

Belly’s story is confronting. There is no other word for it. “It was almost like a stab, when you read about it,” says Field. “It pricked your conscience. We were in a space where we were kind of comfortable with race in the UK. We were desensitised to it. And then Belly came along, and it was a wake-up call.” A planned memorial to the 54 transport workers who died of Covid-19 will be located at Victoria station, in honour of Belly.

Belly Mujinga has become a symbol. No one can bear the weight of decades of institutional racism, apathy, and contempt towards low-paid workers, and emerge with their personhood fully intact. Their edges get smoothed out. To her family and her friends, though, she is still the Belly they knew. Someone who worked overtime to send money home, someone who loved to find a bargain online, someone who would meddle, because she thought she knew best. Someone who would reach out a helping hand under the fluorescent chill of the station lights, in the hurried capital she had made her home: London, a place where hardly anyone ever stops to assist a stranger in need.

If you were to find yourself lost and friendless in Victoria station today, there would be no Belly to help you.

Source: The Guardian

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