Life & Style | People

Hannah Fitt recalls the pain of losing her twin sister

Hannah Fitt recalls the pain of losing her twin sister Lucy, the director of charity, in a car accident while on a project to promote women’s rights in Zambia

  • As told to Emily Januszewski
  • Published: 11:29 January 31, 2013
  • Friday

Lucy Fitt
  • Image Credit: Suppliewd picture
  • Lucy (left) with Hannah. The twins were inseparable and even worked together at the Safe Foundation.
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Watching as my identical twin sister packed her rucksack, I felt a mix of emotions. It was 1998 and while I was preparing to go to art college at the University of Glamorgan, Lucy was heading to Uganda for a nine-month stint as a volunteer for the Right Hand Trust, a Christian charity she heard about through a friend. Based in Welshpool, it gives young people from the UK an opportunity to live and work for eight months in a rural African community. Lucy planned to go to university when she returned to the UK, though she was undecided about what she would study.

We were 18 and we were going to be separated for the first time. It was extremely difficult. Growing up in Barry, South Wales, only Mum could reliably tell us apart. At school we wore name badges so teachers and friends would know who we were. We both loved our family life and we were all close – there was Mum, Glen, Dad, Mark, as well as our older sisters Louise, a massage therapist and make-up artist, and Danielle, a learning support assistant.

None of us were surprised that Lucy was flying the nest. She had finished her A-levels in English literature, history and theatre studies, and it had always been a matter of waiting until she was old enough to leave Wales and go abroad. We’d both done a lot of volunteer work and she was very adventurous, volunteering at music festivals, going on an archeological dig in Barcelona and doing work experience with the United Nations. Her nickname was Indy, short for Indiana Jones.

Waving her off at the airport, I felt so proud of her even though I’d miss her so much it hurt. Lucy was based in an orphanage in a rural area, roughly three hours from Kampala, the capital of Uganda. In those less technological times, we relied on letters and the occasional phone call to keep in touch. She was fulfilling a lifelong dream but, unbeknown to us, civil unrest was brewing in the East African country and Westerners were being killed. Even Lucy had no idea of the danger she was in.

A terrifyingly close call

While on a visit to Kampala in March 1999, Lucy opted not to join a group of eight tourists and four Ugandans on a trip to watch rare gorillas at Bwindi National Park, a popular attraction, because she had an early start at work the following day. During the day trip, the group was massacred, apparently by Rwandan Hutu rebels. An extremely shaken Lucy was told by the charity workers to keep a low profile and stay in her hotel.

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She did as instructed but was dragged out by rebels and was forced to watch as a Ugandan man was murdered in front of her. She didn’t speak the language and didn’t know what was going on. She thought they were going to kill her. Immediately after, she went to the British Embassy and was flown home.

Back in Wales, traumatised and scared, she told us what had happened. At the time, I don’t think any of us really appreciated the true extent of what she had been through. Struggling to come to terms with the experience, every day was a challenge. Eventually she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and obsessive-compulsive disorder. There was a lot going on in her head – for example she began to believe that she was to blame for anything bad that happened to anyone, even a total stranger in the street.

These thoughts manifested themselves in rituals she developed, for instance washing her hands frequently. Seeing my twin going through this deeply emotional and frightening time was heart-wrenching. As a family we did everything we could for her, and with additional counselling and therapy she made good progress.

It took two years before she was ready to get her life back on track and Lucy didn’t want to let what had happened in Uganda stop her from doing anything. She continued to do charity work in the UK and studied for a degree in world religion and international development. She also began travelling again, visiting Mongolia on a solo trip.

Getting back on her feet

Music was a big part of her life and helped the healing process. Together we formed a band, The Amber Hour. It was a folk band and both of us sang and played guitar. We played at festivals and gigs around the world. As she became stronger, she knew she had to do something to help the poverty-stricken communities she’d left behind in Africa.

Over the years, she’d seen how, even with the best efforts and intentions, help doesn’t always filter down to the people who need it the most. She thought she could make a difference and this culminated in her starting her own charity in 2006.

The Safe Foundation (Support Aid Fun Education), based in Cardiff, South Wales, aimed to bring sustainable development to very small communities in the developing world. She wanted to empower communities through education and health initiatives with a focus on projects that asked the foundation for help because their ability to access mainstream aid was limited by such factors as their size, their remote or isolated location, or their status in political, social or cultural arenas.

Both excited and daunted by the venture, she knew she was only scratching the surface and that more always needed to be done, but she also knew she had to start somewhere. Lucy didn’t run the foundation single-handedly, a lot of people worked very hard. There were four executive directors including Lucy and myself, four trustees, plus a membership base of almost 800 people. But Lucy was the driving force behind it.

She was the managing director and ran the foundation full-time. She worked up to 60 hours a week putting projects in place and securing funding from grants and fund-raising. Seeing her energy, enthusiasm and the fulfilment she got from her work, I also became involved, becoming corporate events and communications director. The charity went from strength to strength, and in the space of five years it facilitated ten projects in nine different countries including Cambodia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, Ghana, India, Nepal and the UK.

Projects varied from health programmes like tackling HIV in Ghana to education programmes in Sierra Leone, where the Safe Foundation helped turn a school drop-out rate of 40 per cent into 100 per cent attendance. In December 2011 we took a group of disadvantaged Welsh youth to Sierra Leone where they ran workshops on nutrition and health, HIV/Aids and life skills. They also engaged in football sessions with local youth.

Lucy and I had travelled the world. We visited Vietnam, India, Ghana, Sierra Leone among many other places. But when she visited Africa she was always accompanied by either myself or another family member. And she never returned to East Africa, the scene of her gap-year trauma. She did a lot of reflecting on everything she’d been through and decided she was ready to tackle some of her demons.

Lucy didn’t want to return to Uganda but she accepted a place on a Welsh government-funded programme in Zambia, working through advocacy to promote women’s land rights. In July, she headed off for three months, intending to stay for an additional two weeks to do some sightseeing. We were, of course, worried about her, but we knew this was something she had to do.

Staying in touch with daily Skype calls, texts, Facebook messages and phone calls, we followed her journey closely. She gave giddy reports of her life there, saying she loved Zambia and wanted us all to go and live there. She wrote on her blog that, 14 years after the incident in Uganda, she’d finally made peace with the world. I was so happy for her, now there would be no stopping her. Who knew what she could achieve?

A double tragedy

On August 20, 2012 our 92-year-old maternal grandma passed away. I was out in India with a group of Safe volunteers but would be home in a few days. I spoke to Mum and Dad, and Lucy. She was at Lake Kariba, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe with her boss and his wife, and she was in a quandary about whether to come home for the funeral. I reassured her that Gran would want her to stay where she was.

Exhausted and emotional, I flew back to Heathrow a couple of days later. As we waited in line at customs, a security guard dragged me out of the queue. Thinking I was being arrested for some reason, I told the rest of the group to catch the bus without me. I followed the guard, trying not to panic. When he offered to carry my bag for me, I couldn’t understand why he was being so nice. Then I walked into a room to find my whole family waiting for me.

“Just tell me what’s happened,” I gasped, my heart beating out of my chest and my legs buckling. They told me the worst news possible. Lucy was dead, my identical twin was gone forever. She died on the same day as our Gran, when a tyre burst on the pick-up she was travelling in. The driver, her boss, lost control and Lucy, who was sitting in the back, was thrown out of the truck.

Doctors battled to save her, but she died within half an hour of reaching hospital. The incident was investigated but no charges were brought against the driver. It was a horrific, freak accident that left my twin dead at 32. Words cannot describe the grief that my family and I felt. There will always be a part of us missing. Our whole community mourned her loss. She’d touched so many people’s lives. Her body was brought home quickly and we buried her on September 6 at Cardiff and Vale Natural Burial ground. Over 600 people came to pay their respects.

Afterwards we held a huge party in Romilly Park, opposite Mum and Dad’s house. There were yurts and marquees; it was like a mini festival. The atmosphere was incredible. There was sadness, but also so much love. Lucy was an inspiration to countless people. The experience Lucy had in Uganda when she was 18 shaped her whole life and ultimately resulted in the Safe Foundation.

So I, and the rest of the team, intend to carry on the work of charity. Lucy may have been taken from us, but we are going to keep her vision alive. Our work will be her lasting legacy.

From Lucy’s blog:

On 11 August, nine days before she died, Lucy wrote in her blog, The Universe According to Lucy: “A person who I knew in Uganda, who I lost contact with as soon as I left, but who I had a good relationship with and who was possibly the only person in the whole world who could give me some perspective on this, emailed me. “After 13 years. “So randomly and out of the  blue – he emailed me at exactly the time I was thinking about him and I was able to spill out  my stories of all the things that happened and the real reason I left Uganda early and didn’t  come back. And you know what he said? He said, That was a long time ago and you’re still alive.

“Nothing more than that. He listened to me and he understood perfectly about fear. “He told me about things he’d been through, which were ten times worse, but about my story he said all he could say in a sentence. He couldn’t turn back time, he couldn’t bring back any dead people and he couldn’t change anything. So all he could really say was, ‘Sorry about that, that’s horrible, but move on now, yeah?’. And my head changed. It was a light-bulb moment. Everything just clicked into place and I changed. It really feels different now.”

Hannah Fitt, 32, lives in Barry, South Wales

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