May this dear human being rest in peace
re posted from GROUND UP
The life and death of an immigrant dog whisperer
The dogs he walked would anticipate his arrival and recognise him when he arrived at the gate. One dog would “do backflips,” her owner remembers. Others barked and raced around, wagging their tails.
The name on his refugee permit was Kevin Ilunga Nkongolo. Many residents of Milnerton knew him as Kevin. He was 20 years old, with an athletic build and a smile that stuck in the memories of people who met him.
But what people remembered most of all was the strange and wonderful sight of him walking as many as ten dogs at once, leashes bunched in each hand, through the suburbs and along the footpath at Milnerton lagoon. Kevin would throw sticks for the dogs and allow them to swim. The dogs seemed, incredibly, to obey him always.
Within just a few months, Kevin became a fixture of the neighborhood, and even people who had never met him felt some familiarity with his routine. Joggers stopped and took photographs. Commuting drivers would pass him and wave.
One Wednesday last June, as South Africa’s first lockdowns began to ease, Kevin rang the doorbell of a man in Milnerton and offered his services as a dog walker. The man owned a muscular and spirited Boerboel named Muffin. She was difficult to handle, the owner warned Kevin. Kevin proposed taking her around the block to demonstrate his ability. They set off, the dog bounding and yanking at the leash, and returned minutes later with Muffin walking calmly at heel.
“My jaw literally dropped,” the man recalled recently.
That was one of the last times anyone saw Kevin in Milnerton. The following morning, 4 June, he turned up in Sea Point. In a quiet cul-de-sac he removed his cap and fashioned a noose from a dog leash, which he hitched to a fence post and placed around his neck. Kevin the dog walker was dead within minutes.
Reverend Natalie Angela Barnard, a Presbyterian church minister, was at home that day on Monastery Road in Sea Point when she heard a commotion outside. A security van had pulled up and it appeared as if a man was leaning against the gate. The man’s head was tilted and one knee was bent.
Forensic pathologists arrived to take down the body.
Barnard had never laid eyes on the man. He was a perfect stranger. His expression struck her as peaceful, but he was thin and poorly dressed for winter. He had no jacket. The previous night’s temperature had dropped below 13 degrees.
On the tarmac beside him lay a backpack containing his refugee permit, a notebook, a mobile phone, a C.V. and a bible. There was no food or money. “He looked completely alone,” Barnard said.
Were it not for the documents, as well as the remarkable efforts of Barnard and a friend to investigate them, the man’s story might have ended there — one of South Africa’s many thousands of anonymous dead. But Kevin had a name that would soon reach a massive audience, becoming something close to a parable: the dog whisperer who took his own life. His suicide became an indictment of the treatment of immigrants in a country that routinely shuns and exploits its African neighbours. And during the pandemic, which thrust to the surface so many broken aspects of South African society, Kevin’s story became emblematic of a widening and terrible inequality.
Barnard was long accustomed with the brutal realities of life on Cape Town’s margins. Her congregation is at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Green Point, surrounded by gleaming office blocks and hotels, yet caters mostly to African immigrants. Within 24 hours of the first lockdown, about two-thirds of her congregation had lost their income, she said. Barnard also knew what it meant to encounter the dead, having been called on several times, in her 18 years as a minister, to help identify bodies. But something about the man outside her home affected her more deeply than she expected. She felt a responsibility, she said, to honour his life.
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