Why woman was lost in Africa still a mystery

For 23 days in August, the family and friends of Natasha Smalls ’02 prayed she would resurface after disappearing in South Africa. When she did, they rejoiced.

But since her homecoming Aug. 26, questions, confusion and accusations have ruled the day.

At a homecoming news conference and through their congressman, the Smalls, who are black, have charged that Yale and the State Department failed to take all the necessary steps to find their daughter, even accusing the Bush Administration of racism.

Yale officials say they tried their best to investigate the situation and brought in the government. The State Department and South African police defend their efforts and say they have not been able to confirm key parts of what Smalls told her mother.

Smalls, who is from Far Rockaway, N.Y., went to a hospital in New York shortly after returning and has been undergoing psychiatric treatment. She has not returned to Yale.

And until she talks, no one seems to know — or is willing to say — exactly what happened to Natasha Smalls in South Africa.

Few of the circumstances surrounding the past two months of Smalls’ life are certain. Smalls, an African Studies major, spent last summer in South Africa on a Fulbright grant. She returned to the University of Natal in Durban for the spring semester of her junior year.

She apparently enjoyed the program, even refusing to leave when, her mother said, she was assaulted in March.

Glory Smalls said she contacted Yale about the incident and got no response. University officials said they knew little about what happened.

“We couldn’t violate any confidentiality about the incident in March, although we didn’t know much about it at all,” Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said.

When her term at the University of Natal ended in late June, Smalls stayed in Africa to sightsee and attend the U.N. conference on racism now being held in Durban.

In July, Smalls called her mother from what she said was a mental institution in Zimbabwe. She said she had been injected with drugs and held against her will.

State Department spokesman Christopher Lamora said embassy officials have been unable to confirm that Smalls was in a mental hospital in Zimbabwe, because no hospital exists under the name Smalls gave her mother.

The spokeswoman of the Smalls’ congressman, Gregory Meeks, said the kind of assault Smalls has described is common in South Africa, but a police spokesman in Durban told the New Haven Register there is no record of Smalls or any other person being injected in such a manner.

Days later, Smalls called again, this time saying that she would be on a flight home Aug. 1. On July 30, Smalls made preparations in Durban to return to America — withdrawing cash and readying to check out of her dorm. But when her parents went to the airport in New York to meet her flight, she wasn’t on the plane.

A week later, Glory Smalls reported her daughter missing to Yale and the State Department.

Yale and American and South African officials began looking for Smalls. Whether this effort was thorough or half-hearted, however, depends on who’s doing the talking.

Feeling ignored, the Smalls contacted Meeks, a Democrat, whose assistance increased the visibility of the search.

Smalls finally resurfaced Aug. 23, apparently independently of this multinational effort, when she called her mother from a pay phone in Johannesburg.

With the aid of a family friend, who said Smalls acted disturbed and seemed as incoherent as a toddler, Smalls flew from Johannesburg back to Durban. There she met Sandra Sanneh, a senior lector in Yale’s African Studies program, who escorted her back to the United States.

Sanneh said she was in South Africa for two months directing a Fulbright program in Zulu.

“The program had ended when I learned that Natasha’s mother was concerned about not having heard from her,” Sanneh said. “When contact was re-established, I was asked if I would accompany her back to the U.S., which I did.”

She declined to comment further, citing a concern for Smalls’ privacy.

On the morning of Smalls’ return, Glory and Robert Smalls sharply criticized the State Department.

“The U.S. State Department was very unhelpful,” Glory Smalls said. “If I was white they would have reached out more. As far as my rights, I feel they were violated all over.”

But Lamora said State Department officials were in contact with Glory Smalls on an almost daily basis and kept her up to date.

“Any allegation or assertion to the contrary is completely baseless,” he said.

The Smalls also said Yale had been slow to get involved and exercised inadequate supervision of students in study-abroad programs, which are not run by Yale itself.

University Secretary Linda Lorimer said Yale officials made an “aggressive effort” to locate Smalls.

“One has to respect Glory Smalls’ opinion as someone under stress, but I’m very proud of the way Yale responded,” Lorimer said.

Had Smalls not reappeared, Lorimer also said, the University was on the brink of hiring a private detective.

With Smalls unable or unwilling to provide further details of her time in South Africa, the State Department said any further investigation into the matter will difficult.

“If and when Natasha does contact us, we’d be happy to do what we can to find out what we can and investigate,” Lamora said.

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