Salumu Djabir has not had an easy path to his music career. He was forced to live at a refugee camp after his father was killed. He shares his story with BRIAN GUSERWA
Most people don’t know you. Tell us a bit about your background
I’m a musician who was born in North Kivu, Congo, but I grew up at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana. I come from a family of 6 kids; 4 boys and 2 girls. My parents were businessmen. My father dealt in gold and diamonds, and sometimes he would also buy and sell timber. My mother sold firewood. In 2006, when I was around 10 years old, there were conflicts in the country.
The armies of the former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba and President Joseph Kabila clashed, after the election. We heard that soldiers were going around attacking people. A family friend called my father and asked him if he had heard about the unrest, urging him not to leave as it was not safe. This man, we later learnt, is the one who sent soldiers to our home.
What? That was inhuman. What exactly transpired?
The soldiers showed up at the middle of the night. They were many and heavily armed. They demanded for money. My father tried to tell them that we did not have any, which angered them. They claimed they had not come to our home by accident. They knew my father traded in gold and diamond, and they wanted that money.
They grabbed one of my older brothers and my mother, and tried to force him to have sex with her. My brother completely refused to do it. This prompted a wave of brutal beatings. They beat him up so badly that my mother started crying, telling them that they were going to kill him. Some of the other soldiers then grabbed my elder sister and forced themselves on her.
There was nothing we could do; they outnumbered us and they had weapons. So we just watched as they took turns raping her. When they were done, one of them took a knife and stabbed her.
What about your father? Didn’t he try to stop them?
He was angry and he got up as if to charge at them. One of the men turned to him and shot him right in the head. I don’t remember any of the others, but I can never forget the face of the man who killed my father.
What about yourself?
I remember trying to get up, and being hit in the face by the butt of a gun. I blacked out and woke up in the hospital the next day with my sister and younger brother. Our mother and other siblings were nowhere to be seen. I later came to learn that my mother had tricked the men into letting her go with the children into thebedroom to look for the money, and then escaped with them through the window. Little did we know the drama that was awaiting us.
What do you mean?
After being discharged, we went home only to be greeted by my father’s angry relatives who claimed my mother had planned to kill him to secure his property. They chased us away. Luckily, one of neighbours offered to take us in for the night, but he was attacked for being a sympathizer. We were forced to flee. We went out into the streets, the three of us; my sister, my younger brother and I, and began living as street children. My sister had to go into prostitution to support us.
For how long were you in the streets?
A few months later, the neighbor who had taken us in came looking for us. He said that he was heartbroken. He took us with him to his upcountry home where we lied for fie years. But, he died shortly after, and his family kicked us out of the home. We managed to find a small place to live nearby. My sister would sell commodities in the local market, and we would scrape by.
How did you get to Kenya?
We decided to relocate to Rwanda, where we hoped we could trace our aunt, who we had heard lived there. We bought temporary business passes at the border and crossed into Rwanda. My sister approached a group of truckers and explained our situation to them. They were sympathetic, but they told us that it would be impossible to move around the country without proper documentation. But they promised to help us find refuge.
They hid us behind the seats in their trucks and drove with us out of Rwanda, through Uganda and into Kenya. We had no idea where we were going, but they had assured us they would take us to safety, so we did not object. They left us at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Turkana. We arrived in September 2011, and we have lived there for around 6 years.
What was life like at the refugee camp?
Life at the refugee camp was not easy. Imagine being given 20 litres of water to use between 6 people. Bathing was often out of the question. We would go for six months without seeing a drop of water.
How did you get started in show business?
The camp had some training programmes for different things like music and art. Slowly, I got into music. I was informed of a talent search event in Nairobi, and I decided to travel there and try my luck. I made it to the final three, but I was disqualified since I was not Kenyan. Luckily, I had a friend who referred me to a local studio that was also scouting artistes.
I recorded a few songs with them. I would travel from the camp to Nairobi any chance I got. Eventually, I got absorbed by the studio. I have released four songs, two of them with videos on YouTube. I have my own place in Umoja, where I have my own studio and live with fellow musicians. I know it is only through the grace of God that I have made it this far.
Would you ever go back home?
I can never go back to Congo, even with a gun to my head. I do not consider it home; all the memories I have of it are painful. I have lived in Kenya for 6 years now; this is now my home.