Between the war and a hard place: how young foreigners make a new life in Jo'burg

Abigail Javier

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To some foreigners from around the continent, South Africa is what America is to many: the land of opportunities. According to the 2011 census, about 2.2 million foreigners are living here and 71% of them come from other African countries. These are some of their stories on what it’s like being young in a foreign country. […]

Gold necklace with Africa pendant Photo by Abigail Javier

To some foreigners from around the continent, South Africa is what America is to many: the land of opportunities. According to the 2011 census, about 2.2 million foreigners are living here and 71% of them come from other African countries. These are some of their stories on what it’s like being young in a foreign country.

Albertina Txitxi (Angola)

Angolan flag, girl with baby. Frame on the wall. Photo by Abigail Javier

Albertina Txitxi was three when her city Soyo was attacked in the Angolan Civil War in the 90s. Caught in the crossfire, Albertina and her family were captured. Her mother was severely beaten up. “We then escaped from that province into Kabinda on a small boat,” she says. Kabinda is a town situated in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They then relocated back to Angola, this time in Luanda. But when rumours of an attack on the capital began spreading, Albertina’s father decided they needed to leave the country. “Everything was going bad in Angola and my dad did not want us to go through the same experience again.”

This was when Albertina, who was 11 then, came to South Africa in 2001. She says schooling was a difficult time for her here. “In school, we were always named makwerekwere by other pupils,” she says. During the 2008 riots, her fellow classmates would laugh at her. “They would say to us, ‘See what you guys have done? Now we are chasing you away, you must go back!’”

Albertina is currently finishing her National Diploma in Interior Design at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). Last year, she married a Congolese man, Alain Mubenesha, who she met at the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM) Church in Sunnyside, Pretoria in 2005. “I’m not an open person, I don’t really have many friends, but he was the only person I would really open up to,” she says. They have a 3-month-old son together, Alain Joshua. Albertina sometimes wishes she could go back to Angola. “Angola is home,” she says.

Sam Mubenesha (DRC)

DRC flag, man holding a guitar Photo by Abigail JavierSam Mubenesha’s father was a very influential doctor when the DRC was still called Zaire. Not wanting to adhere to dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko’s corrupt regime, the 27-year-old’s family soon became a target. “They (Sésé Seko’s supporters) tried to kill us a couple of times but they didn’t succeed,” he says. At one point, his brother was almost kidnapped.This was when Sam and his family decided to leave Zaire and move to Zambia in 1995, a year before the First Congo War began. In 2007, he moved to South Africa with his family and he started studying chemical engineering at TUT. He finished his degree in 2012 but is struggling to find a job in his field. “I don’t have a green ID book, that has been one of main reasons why. They prefer South Africans,” says Sam.

Last year he found a job as a salesman at Aloe Learning Centre. He’s also a part-time guitarist and keyboard player. “Music helps me forget my frustrations of trying to find the job I desire.”

Compared to the DRC, he says he is living a better life in South Africa. “People living there are really struggling to survive.” The DRC remains a vulnerable country that is still recovering from the many conflicts it has faced, according to the World Bank.

Milo Lunga (DRC)

DRC flag, iphone with picture of friends Photo by Abigail Javier

Milo Lunga is from a family of 24 siblings in the capital of DRC, Kinshasa. Twenty-one of them are from her father’s side. The 24-year-old says her worst memory living there was when her father publicly declared that he had only seven children, excluding her and the rest of her siblings. “The most difficult part was seeing my mom being taken for granted,” she says. Her mother was not seen as a wife by her father. She left for South Africa in 2012 to pursue a career as a financial accountant at Boston College in Pretoria.

When Milo moved out of DRC, she thought that everything would be better as she would be away from all the family politics. But things changed when her father stopped helping her financially. “Even for the smallest issues, he couldn’t help me, he kept giving me excuses,” says Milo. She had to put her studies off until she could get enough money for her university tuition. She began stressing a lot and fell ill. “At this age I take medication for blood pressure,” she says.

Things changed when some of her friends offered to help her pay for her studies. “They’ve been supporting me in everything, encouraging me to push.”

Danisa Mlambo (Zimbabwe)

Zimbabwean flag, taekwondo medal Photo by Abigail Javier

Danisa Mlambo’s mom passed away when he was young and having not known who his father was, he went to live with his grandmother and aunt.

For the 24-year-old Zimbabwean, life was a struggle. “I saw my granny and my aunt struggling to provide for me,” he says. Zimbabwe suffers from a high unemployment and increasing poverty. According to African Independent, people live on less than R15 per day on average. “We didn’t know where the next meal would come from.”

After high school, Danisa decided to come to South Africa to work, as he did not have enough funding to study further. He is currently a waiter at Mugg & Bean restaurant in Menlyn, Pretoria. He arrived in South Africa in April this year as xenophobia attacks reached their peak. “I had to stay indoors for the rest of the time before I could get asylum status and then get a job,” says Danisa.

Danisa holds a black belt in Taekwondo. He won a gold medal at the African Taekwondo Championships in South Africa this year. “By God’s grace, they have asked me to be part of the team to go to the international championships in Budapest, Hungary,” he says. He is planning to open up his own dojo in Sunnyside. “At least in South Africa, you have the chance to pursue you dreams.”

Hermann Fotsing (Cameroon)

Cameroon flag, balevang shoe, Braamfontein Photo by Abigail Javier

According to CountryReports, Cameroon’s road infrastructure is extremely unsafe. During the rainy season, roads are impassable, even for four-wheel drive vehicles. Hermann Fotsing, who grew up in Douala, says that traveling to school was tough. “We had accidents every week,” says the 21-year-old who is currently working at Balevang clothing shop as a manager and stylist in Braamfontein. “When I was still little, my mom would carry me on her back just so I could go to school.”

Hermann arrived in South Africa in 2007. His reason for leaving Cameroon was to get a better education so that he can help his family back home with a better job. Before coming to South Africa, he studied to become a mechanic at the state university. But he soon realised that there were many mechanics in the field, and to avoid facing unemployment, he decided to change his career.

He is also studying travel and tourism at the University of Johannesburg. But his main ambition in life is to simply be someone who inspires. “I want to be a role model to people,” he says.

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