Rhema Makamba (19), born in the DRC, began his journey of dealing with rejection at an early age. He tells us how he began to love himself again.
“I remember the first years of my life as being the best. My parents were married – my mom was my dad’s second wife – and I had an older stepbrother whom I never met.
We lived in Kinshasa, the capital city. My mom worked in the market by selling food and my dad used to work in the military, but when I was young he moved to work in a bank. I lived with my family for four years. I have good memories of the place. I felt at home, safe, accepted and protected.”
Rhema’s parents decided to send their son to South Africa to have access to more opportunities.
“Nobody told me what was going to happen next. One day my parents brought me to the airport and gave me to the protection of a close family friend. She was young (18 years) and they said goodbye. We got on a plane and that was it, I never saw my family again.
“I remember experiencing an overwhelming fear during the entire trip. We flew to Johannesburg and took a bus to Cape Town.”
Rhema was sent to stay with his uncle and his family.
“I arrived in South Africa to live with my uncle. He had five children (13, 10, eight, seven, and four years old). I and the family friend who brought me here (Carine) joined them. At first, I was scared. They were strangers to me. I only felt comfortable with Carine. She was like my protector.
“My uncle was a painter and my aunt had a shop at Green Market Square, she was the main breadwinner. We stayed in Mandalay until I was six.
“We spoke mainly Lingala and French at home. I know my uncle and aunt tried their best, but it was difficult to adapt. It was clear to me that my cousin – their son – who was the same age as me, was their favourite. He had a more fragile nature than I did and always got special treatment. In the first years, I felt like an outsider.
“Even though I was unable to understand why my parents made such a decision, in African culture, children don’t question adults. It was not an option, I just accepted what was happening to me. I was six or seven years old the first time I talked to my parents on the phone. It felt strange. So many years had passed that I did not know what to talk about.
“When I was six, we moved to live in Mitchells Plain for a year and then finally settled down in Salt River. I was eight years old by then. I remained in the same school and used to travel long distances by train to get to school.
“In Grade 4, when I was 10, my uncle found a school in Salt River. There were not a lot of foreign students in that school. My English was still not too good and I was the darkest one.
The move to the new school proved to be another dramatic episode in Rhema’s life.
“For the first few weeks, things looked ok but afterwards the kids began to bully me. It started with verbal abuse, ‘You are stinky. You are smelly. You are sick.’ Everyone ignored me as if I was not human like they were. I used to stay behind in the class alone, no one would come close, no one ever touched me or hugged me. I would sit alone during breaks. The few times anyone talked to me they would hold their noses.
“I felt like a ghost. I was extremely quiet and I felt out of place. I did not belong – not at home, not at school. I would cry every day on my way home, I felt a deep sadness. I did not tell anyone what was happening, I kept silent.”
At the age of 11, Rhema transformed unexpectedly.
“In Grade 5, they became physical with me. They would kick balls against me every time I was walking by. I began feeling so much anger and would continue crying a lot on my way home, but it was a different cry. It was a cry of rage.
“So one day, I exploded. I hit them badly. Even though I explained that they had made fun of me, I was suspended for a few days. I stopped caring and that became my modus operandi.
“Each time someone confronted me, I just blacked out. I would hit them, I never felt in control, I just hit them. Three or four people ended up in the hospital.
“I became the black sheep at school. In that one year alone, I was suspended for more than 30 days. People began to be fearful of me, but for the first time, I had some boys become closer to me. They wanted me to protect them.
“I was smart, so I kept passing even though I missed many school days. In Grade 6, the school got sick of me (I was always out of class) and at the end of the year they expelled me.”
At home, Rhema’s family was also facing challenges.
“We kept moving. We were 10 people living in a two-bedroom flat. My uncle used to tell us to hide so that the landlords and neighbours didn’t notice us. Between being overcrowded being asked to leave, and trying to find a cheap rental, we kept moving. I have lost count of how many times we moved – more than 15 times for sure. We have lived all over Cape Town.
After being expelled, Rhema’s uncle found another school for him.
“In Grade 7, I moved to a school in Retreat. My mindset was that I needed to guard myself and I could only trust myself. I developed the belief that to avoid being hurt, I needed to hurt first. This did not only happen at school – I also began hitting my cousin at home.
“My uncle noticed, but I think he thought it was normal. It was part of growing up and finding oneself. He did not think it was something to be very worried about. However, he didn’t condone it and he used to hit me to discipline me.”
Rhema managed to successfully finish primary school but was now faced with another challenge.
“Even though my marks were very good, no high school wanted to accept me due to my violent track record. The only high school that accepted me was in Factreton – gangster’s paradise.
“As soon as I entered the school, it became very clear to me that under no circumstances could I lose my mind. The majority of kids were affiliated with gangs. I knew that if I did not manage my anger issues I would die.
“As much as I could, I tried to become a shadow and just observe. Almost every day, there were fights. A lot of fights broke out between racial groups that belonged to different gangs. During the break, they would target a child. One member would pick a fight and shortly afterwards the whole group would be around the victim. We would hear and see people being shot in front of the school. It was crazy.
“When school was over, we would walk with our belts in our hands for protection and run to the train station.
“In my second year, I lost it with a student. He called me ‘the K word’* and I punched him so badly that he landed on the floor. When I was exiting the school, he was waiting with his group of friends. He was carrying a kitchen knife in his hands.
“I was lucky that older kids interfered and I had the possibility to run as fast as I could. When I ran away, they threw a brick at my shoulder, but I did not stop. I kept running until I reached the station.
“When I arrived home I did not tell anyone. I did not trust them, I felt I was living with strangers. I didn’t belong here. My uncle had threatened me a few times about sending me back home. But I was not sure where home was any longer. So, why bother?”
Rhema survived the next few years by avoiding any confrontations. But inside, his anger was killing him.
“I got a few friends who were the outcasts at school. They did not belong anywhere. We kept together and away from all the politics around.
“But inside I was not coping well. Sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to breathe and I would shake uncontrollably. I thought my body was going to explode.
“In Grade 11, when I was waiting at the station for the next train, a group of kids was smoking weed and offered it to me. I said yes. With the first puffs, my anger disappeared, my doubts about myself, all my worries – everything disappeared. I became someone completely different.
“The feeling was amazing and I began smoking often. I would buy weed at school and smoke at school. Everyone was doing it.
“In Grade 12, I was smoking every day – at school and at home. When I was home, I used to go up to the roof in the building and smoke. The addiction became so strong that sometimes I would even smoke in my bedroom.
“One day my aunt smelled it and she organised a family meeting to discuss what was going on. I told them what was happening. They blamed me for my choices and told me I should stop. I came out of that meeting, once again, feeling misunderstood and that everything was my fault.
“For the first time in my school career, I was barely scraping by. My marks in Grade 12 were terrible. As the end of the year approached, I stopped smoking on and off for a few weeks in order to write the finals. It was not as regular as it was before. I managed to pass Matric but not with a good pass.”
It was also in his Matric year that Rhema met someone who would assist him on the road to recovery.
“The school selected me to represent them in an inclusivity summit. Different schools were present and at the summit, I met this girl. She looked different. She felt positive, light. We found out that we lived up the road from each other in Observatory.
“We began hanging out a lot, it seemed like we shared something with each other. I suppose we were both wearing masks.
“She had found poetry as something that helped her. And she assisted me to express my emotions in that manner. Not bottling my emotions any longer, but to write poems where my emotions could live. It made me feel lighter.
“I visited her home and they would invite me to stay for dinner. She lived with her mom, and her mom was wonderful. She taught me to stop hating myself. I hated myself a lot. She taught me that before I can love someone I needed to love myself.
“Every time I was with them, there was warmth. They accepted me and I began to accept myself.
“In the beginning, when I would arrive home, I would feel anxious again. But with time, negative emotions disappeared regardless of where I was. Finishing high school also lifted a weight from my shoulders. I no longer needed to return to that warzone, and I was able to stop smoking weed.”
When asked about his final remarks, Rhema says, “When my family sent me to South Africa, I buried the happy and peaceful four-year-old child who I was. All the experiences I encountered along the way kept burying him even deeper. And I became someone different, I forgot who I really was. The kindness, love and acceptance of two strangers brought him back to life. Never underestimate what an act of kindness can do. It can change a life.”
Rhema is a Life Choices Academy participant
* ‘The K word’ – a derogative term used in South Africa towards black people.
A wise man once said “don’t judge a person by the car they drive”
Then why do you judge me for the car I drive
Think about it, it’s just a misconception that we made to believe
that our physical form truly define who we are
And if we not what society paints us to be
Then we taught to hate ourselves
This coat I wear holds my true essence
Yet I ask you again I am truly defined by what you physically see
Then why do you fear this dark brown skin of mine
That surrounds me
That covers me
That shields me from the Winterly weather
and shades me from the harsh summer
This is my temple
But as you stare I feel your presence
Your bloodshot eyes pierce through me
I sense the fear you have for me
I have nothing but just love for you
I’m overcome by terrifying tremors
My heart skips a beat
My chest rips open
My heart is gouged out and Shattered to a million pieces
My emotions suddenly fade as I see
What you have become of me through your eyes
A demon I say
Stained by blood
I’m branded as a brute for the colour of my skin