This true-life story is a repost from our sister site, Our Life Logs®
The Sound of Hope
Image Credit: Nolis Anderson
For 13 years, silence was suspicious and peace was a trap. You see, the Democratic Republic of Congo, my birthplace, was in the midst of an ethnic conflict in the 1990s when rebels were terrorizing the country.
I’m one of seven kids, born in 1996 to an aristocratic family. We lived in a Congolese village, although, I don’t remember it much because our family left when I was three. That year, there was a massacre in an eastern village. Nearly 600 were killed with sprays of bullets and machetes.
Moments before the invasion, my dad heard about what was to happen to us. Knowing he was of royal lineage and would be targeted, he decided that our family had to flee if we wanted to stay alive.
Quickly, he devised a plan. My dad and older brothers would leave the country for a refugee camp, while my mom, sisters, and I would escape separately. We quickly said our goodbyes and held each other tight. I cannot say what it was like at that moment. It was as if we were clinging to the hope that we’d meet again on the other side.
The rebels were kidnapping boys out of their homes and murdering them or taking them to be child soldiers. So, my mom disguised me as a little girl and rushed me and my sisters to the border. From there, we escaped to a refugee camp in Tanzania.
Again, I was so young, so I only remember flashes of the camp. I remember feeling the cool walls of our family’s mud hut. I remember the inhumane conditions. We did not live there, we only just survived.
After a little while, we reunited briefly with two of my brothers who had crazy stories to tell. Squatting in caves, narrowly escaping death—it was scary and a little exciting. They said that our dad had gone before us to the next safe place, and that he would send word as soon as he could.
Soon came a letter from Dad, advising us to hitchhike to Malawi and cross the border disguised as cargo. We had to take every precaution. There were still rebels who would murder anyone of royal lineage. He said that he was headed to South Africa, but again, he would send word when it was safe for us to come to him. And so, we did as Dad said.
We made our way through the forests and finally arrived in Malawi. At another refugee camp, we awaited Dad’s next letter while we got by off small rations and farming food. My mom would split her rations with us and sell the rest to obtain money. Although we were away from the Congo, we were never completely safe.
If not for my mom’s strong spirit, we may have never kept our hope alive. Each night, whether we had been walking through the wilderness or we were settled at a camp, she’d gather us kids around the fire every single evening. While her face shone in the flames, she would tell us Bible stories, like that of Moses and his band of refugees. Other times, she told us stories of myth or of lore. One was of a man sent on a quest to return to his town and fight the monster who killed his people. He fought hard and slit the belly of the beast and out poured all the people. She told us that we were on a quest of our own and maybe one day, we’d be able to return and kill the beast that had taken our people.
When she did not tell stories, she sang, and us kids sang too. Music became our safe space where our hunger and fear disappeared. And if we could just make it to tomorrow, we knew that at 8 PM, we’d sing again.
We didn’t hear from our dad for a while. And then, news broke that a group traveling from Malawi to South Africa had been attacked and eaten by lions. For two years we played the silent guessing game of our dad’s survival. My mom soothed our concerns, but we could see how her eyes reflected our own fears.
But then, we finally received a letter. On Dad’s trip to South Africa, he had gotten imprisoned in Zimbabwe but was finally free and safe. He told us to go through Mozambique at a border with less security.
We didn’t really take in the news of our dad’s safety like we probably should have. We reacted to his command, and before long, we were passing through Mozambique. That’s how it was growing up. Emotions created snags in our efficiency. And honestly, when everyone around you is going through the same thing, there is a sense of, “why bring it up?” You might be traumatized, but so is the person next to you. Everyone carried the same horror and exhaustion like a shadow.
To reach the rest of our family, we were to take a tiny boat that would take us across the crocodile-infested waters of the Zambezi River to reach the lowlands of Mozambique. I’m sure my mother would have preferred a safer escape. I’m sure we all would have. In fact, before we took off, the man set to row us across glanced at my mom and said, “We may not make it across; the crocodiles are vicious. It’s not too late to turn back.” But what other choice did we have?
As we piled in the metal husk, my mom prayed over us. I just stared into the murky waters, looking for my own reflection. We did not see any crocodiles as we floated along, but we felt their vibrations slosh below us. We were all so afraid of the water on that trip—but why wouldn’t we be? The river had teeth.
When we reached the other side, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. From there, we journeyed through tobacco fields to reach the refugee camp. Now, of all the refugee camps we stayed in, this was the worst. We were crowded together under shelters that did little to ward off the searing heat. And with so many of us packed together, it did not feel any safer than when we were crossing the borders. We were like one big target.
Yet at night, just like in Malawi, we would light a fire and sing, and sing, and sing the sounds of hope.
To enter South Africa, we hid in the back of a truck as our coyote (a person you pay to help you get from one country to the next) spoke to (or, more likely, bribed) the border patrol. The coyote returned and drove through no problem, and just like that, we’d made it to Johannesburg, South Africa, finally, after three years of retreat.
My dad somehow found us in the big city, and we ran to him and clung to each other for dear life, embracing and praising God that we were reunited at last.
The next few years in South Africa were hard, but at least we were safe; an attitude granted by a childhood of perspective. All nine of us stayed in a single-room apartment in Johannesburg, although, we had to move many times because we kept running out of money. My dad washed cars at the mall and was only paid in tips, and my mom became a street vendor. My parents couldn’t afford to send us to school, but later an organization sponsored us in 2004, and I was blessed with a private school education.
Some days were good, and others frustrating; such is life. Through it all, every evening at 8 PM, we sang hymns, told stories, and laughed—but now, all together. We remembered how far we’d come and gave thanks.
Unfortunately, the peace didn’t last long. Rebels who wanted the land that had been owned by our family discovered us in South Africa and began threatening us. My dad sent our case to Australia and Canada to apply for refugee status.
Not long after, one of my older brothers was discovered in the streets. The rebels had beaten him to death and left his body in the sun.
Sometime after, dad received a response about our case. He opened the letter only to find that both countries had denied us asylum. His shoulders dropped. His mask cracked. I saw him cry for the first time in my life.
I grew angry at God. How could we deserve this? And yet, every night we sent our prayers to him. I wondered if they dissolved like steam before they reached him. Even if they didn’t, what was the point? He doesn’t care. No one does.
Life was like this for 10 years. Without any hope of asylum, even our minds were held captive. My parents wore their worry. They were afraid to work, to send us to school—and each one of us were hated by the South African people who thought we were there to steal their jobs. Not only did we fear Congolese rebels, but now our very neighbors tried to hunt us.
Desperate, my dad reached out to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) telling them just how dangerous it had gotten, nearly as dangerous as our home country.
In 2011, we finally received the news. The United States of America was opening their doors to us. My dad cried then too but this time, tears of joy!
After filing all the proper paperwork and conducting all the medical checkups, we said goodbye to South Africa in 2012. The plane ride to the US was like a dream. I watched as the clouds swallowed South Africa from my window.
We landed in Chicago, Illinois, and were taken to a small, secure home in swampy Mobile, Alabama. Although South Africa is westernized, we still encountered variations of culture shock. For one, we couldn’t believe how bountiful everything was here. We went from having soda maybe once in a blue moon to being able to buy a 24-pack at Walmart. Our case worker gave each of us kids $20 and took us to Best Buy. I’d never handled so much money.
There, I spotted a $60 guitar with a lessons CD attached. I begged my siblings to share their money with me, promising this and that and, finally, I brought the guitar to the counter and laid the bills down. It was mine.
As I learned the chords, I’d write songs about our experience. Some were good, others not. But each time, my older brother would challenge me to keep writing better songs until I became pretty good.
I fell into life in America quickly, getting a girlfriend, thriving in high school, and even obtaining a college scholarship to play soccer. However, when I thought of my future, I realized it wasn’t what I wanted. I still harbored bitterness from living a life of looking over my shoulder and hiding my emotions. I wanted a better outlet.
I’ve been living in the US for almost seven years and sometimes it doesn’t seem real, but I’m beyond grateful that it is—that I can wake up and no longer worry if I’m going to have to run again. I can stay and I can live. What I’ve discovered from my years of hardship is that things will get better in time, they always do. As long as air is in your lungs, there’s hope. Always hope.
This is the story of Ephraim Bugumba
Ephraim currently resides in DeKalb, Illinois, where he pursues a music career. Coming from a royal family during ethnic turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ephraim and his family were forced to flee for safety among various refugee camps in Africa before settling in South Africa for 10 years. Yet, even there, they couldn’t escape danger. Once they were given asylum in America, Ephraim could finally stop looking over his shoulder and truly live. In doing so, he fell into music, something that had gotten his family through their rough years of running from danger. He also had to learn how to talk about his emotions after years of suppressing them. His girlfriend has been very helpful in getting him to open up. They have been together since 2018.
Ephraim has found success within his music career including making it to the top 50 contestants on American Idol’s 16th season and honorable mention on NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest. When he’s not playing music, he likes to play soccer and spend time with his family. He hopes his music and story can help others see that no matter what happens, life can get better.
Writers: Kristen Petronio, Colleen Walker