IT WAS only six years ago that Jamala Safari fled the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although, having survived childhood in a country whose history is characterised by violence, genocide and corruption, he was relatively accustomed to the atrocities of civil war, two particular incidents convinced the young man — then an environmental management student barely out of his teens — to flee for places unknown.
One day, while Safari was visiting his uncle, a skirmish broke out between militia and government forces, who were bunkered on either side of the house. For days, Safari and about eight members of the family were trapped between the opposing sides. They lay on the broken glass strewn across the floor of the house to avoid the bullets and grenades.
They listened to the screams of neighbours as they either tried to escape the missiles or were rounded up by soldiers to be tortured or killed, or both.
After the ordeal, Safari left town to study at a research centre in the country, which was allegedly safer. It wasn’t long, though, before bands of soldiers began regularly emerging from a nearby mountain range to raid the facility. He realised then that if he were to avoid violence and conscription to the army or rebel forces, and get the education he wanted, he’d have to leave the Congo.
Without lingering to bid his parents, four brothers and five sisters farewell, Safari headed for Tanzania. When he arrived there, however, he discovered the country, which has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in Africa for decades, was, at the time, repatriating asylum seekers from the Congo. So he boarded a train for Mozambique.
After various stages of travel by train, truck, car and sometimes foot, Safari — who fell violently ill shortly after leaving Tanzania, which compelled him to entrust his life to two Congolese boys even younger than him and with even fewer resources — arrived at a refugee camp in Mozambique.
"I didn’t stay long," he says. "The hopelessness of life in the camp reminded me why I needed to head on and further my education. That was my focus."
Eventually, after several other adventures along the way — including being held hostage by a taxi driver in Durban until a Congolese security guard tracked down an acquaintance from Safari’s hometown of Bukavu (who was a student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and urged him to pay the taxi driver-kidnapper R500 to release Safari — he arrived in Cape Town. It was 2006. He was penniless, spoke no English and, initially, was obliged to rely on the generosity of other refugees for food, shelter and guidance in the strange land.
Today, Safari works as a corporate social investment practitioner for the HCI Foundation, which is the Cape Town-based social investment arm of Hosken Consolidated Investments. In 2010, he graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a degree in biotechnology, which he is keen to follow with an MBA.
He published an anthology of English poetry, called Tam Tam Sings, in 2008 and his poem, Voices From Our Valley, won first prize for adult poetry in English at the 2010 Franschhoek Literary Festival.
What’s more, Safari’s novel, The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods (Umazi), which tells the story of the innocence and brutality of life in the Congo through the eyes of a 15-year-old boy, Risto, was published in August.
But, although it incorporates many of the author’s experiences during his journey to SA — including that of the refugee camp in Mozambique — the book is not autobiographical.
"My journey through East and Southern Africa was not an easy one, but there are many who survived much worse experiences."
Safari dedicates the book to his cousin, Willy-wa-Bene Kagayo, who was kidnapped from his home in Bukavu by the militia.
"I wanted to acknowledge this in the book. I wanted to tell the stories of the young men who are forced to become soldiers and the terrible, unpredictable situations they and those men, women and children who flee their homes find themselves in. Risto’s journey is a journey of many refugees — including me — who are forced to run away to unknown and sometimes inhospitable countries."
Safari laughs frequently while recounting the story of his journey and early life as a refugee in SA. But he hasn’t always laughed as easily. While holding down several jobs in Franschhoek to put himself through university some months after arriving in SA, he fell ill, lost his appetite and suffered debilitating headaches. After visiting several doctors, he was finally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"The doctor recommended various things and finally asked me how I best expressed myself. I told her that I’d begun writing poetry in my early teens but hadn’t done much after leaving the Congo. She encouraged me to start again. I did — in English, because, then, I was trying to learn the language. The result was Tam Tam Sings. The poetry was my therapy."
So, from teen on the run through Africa to university graduate (he became a member of the Golden Key Society after his first year because of his exceptional results), successful executive and poet, and becoming a published author in six short years is a notable series of accomplishments by anyone’s standards. The toughest part of it, he insists, was learning English. But, particularly when it came to writing English, many might argue he couldn’t have been in a better place than Franschhoek. Among the many people he thanks for their help during the writing of the book is author and literary director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, Jenny Hobbs.
It took Safari three years to complete The Great Agony and Pure Laughter of the Gods. He worked closely with editors Karen Jennings and Helen Moffett: "Helen taught me to choose my idioms. In my culture, parents acknowledge children as adults by communicating with them in idioms. It’s how we express ourselves. My first draft of the novel was full of idioms. Helen said, ‘Choose an idiom – you can’t use them all.’ I found that difficult. There were so many that were appropriate. But I’m proud of the outcome and hope that people will buy and read the book and judge it on its merits, and not only because they sympathise with my story."
Unlike Risto in his novel, Safari has not yet returned to the Congo. He sent a copy of the book to his family — "They asked me to send the French version" — and dreams of following it with a visit. He’s ambitious about playing an important role in the healing of the Congo and believes it is possible to begin the process from SA.
"I’d to like encourage transparent investment in the Congo. It’s a country full of possibility, provided corruption is done away with and companies are honest and professional in their dealings. I’d like to be part of achieving that for the country so that all my countrymen and women can share in the wealth of the Congo and live in peace."