Have you ever felt like there was nothing to your story? Like your life wasn’t anything worth sharing? Or like it would set you further apart from others?
Meet Rojé Ndayambaje. He didn’t enjoy sharing his life for a long time and he’d often divert the conversation when asked about his past. “It just felt weird,” he said. Since moving from a refugee camp in Africa to Australia as a young child, not knowing English and looking different to everyone around him, he always felt like an outcast. “When you grow up there, you know nothing else. Now I’m here and I realise it was full-on. But growing up, that was life. Things were difficult, but things had always been difficult for everyone.”
As he grew older, he became interested in poetry. Language helped shape the difficult and painful things in his past and became a place he felt comfortable sharing his story. “God has put me in a position to speak what my eyes have seen. Now I love writing and I hope my story can give hope to others.”
Growing up in Africa
Right after the Rwandan Genocide, a war broke out in Rojé’s village in Congo. His mother and father fled with Rojé, a baby at the time, strapped to their back. They found safety at a refugee camp in Uganda, where they lived for the next 10 years and where his sister and two brothers were born.
They were allocated a small area to grow food and every now and then, the Red Cross would bring in basics like flour and oil. But people lived at the mercy of the season. If it didn’t rain one season, crops didn’t grow. If you didn’t save your grains or beans, you’d likely go hungry or get sick. The hospital in the camp couldn’t do much and medications and supplies were sparse. If you were ill or injured, you had to wake up before sunrise and walk for hours to the nearest hospital. Even if you made it, it wasn’t guaranteed you’d be able to see someone.
As a result, Rojé’s father and sister passed away, leaving his mother to look after three young boys. “It’s a lot harder when you’re in a refugee camp and there are no men in the house because it’s harder for women to find jobs,” Rojé said. “But my mum did all she could and was very good at growing food and providing for us.”
Each day, they ate the same thing. They never had breakfast. Around midday, they would have a small drink-like porridge made from sorghum or maize. For dinner, it was ugali and stew made from vegetables and beans. A lot changed when his family moved to Australia, but one thing that never changed was the food they ate. Step into their home today and you’ll still find them eating the same. “Now, we have the luxury of having a lot more. But we never skipped a meal in Africa because of our own choosing.”
Rojé had seen that people in Africa trusted God and could endure things because of their faith. He remembers his parents praying when they didn’t have money or food. Their prayers weren’t always answered instantly, but something always happened, and God always sustained them.
When Rojé was 12 years old, his family was one of the first to get chosen to go to Australia. For most people, relocating to a new country is a big deal, even when they know where they’re going. But Rojé didn’t even realise there was a world outside Africa. He couldn’t have told you what Australia was, let alone where it was. He always thought the white people who came into the camps were people from another part of Africa who, for some reason, looked different.
“I was so scared to go,” Rojé said. “People were saying all these things that weren’t true.”
Some said they would be looking after animals when they arrived. Others said white people had a lot of guns and warned them they would be stepping into a war zone. He panicked when he heard they’d be getting on a plane and travelling in the sky, not fathoming how something so big would hold him and his family in thin air. But Rojé’s mother, strong in her faith, said, “If this is what God wants, then we need to go.”
Navigating a new way of life
The first few months in Australia were particularly challenging as they blindly navigated a new way of life. They lived between the tension of excitement and uncertainty, gratitude and longing. Upon arriving, they were placed in the city of Newcastle on the tenth floor of a building that they didn’t know how to use the elevator for. They couldn’t believe their home had a stove and a tap and that they would no longer have to walk kilometres for firewood and water. The first time they cooked in their kitchen, they almost burnt it down after taking a pot from the stove and placing it on the ground. Shortly after, they heard fireworks going off, thought the country was being attacked and dialled triple zero, which they were told to do if they were ever in danger. They had to learn how to buy groceries, pay bills, use public transport and much more. In the transition, they craved a sense of normalcy and missed everyone in Uganda more and more as they longed for people to talk to.
They attended church every Saturday in Australia, even though they couldn’t understand the service, because they were thankful to God for how He had provided. The hymns reminded Rojé of home. But he missed the African music and the energy they had when they worshipped.
“People were happier even though they had less,” he said. “I remember they sang the most transcendent melodies. Sometimes it made me feel like Jesus was coming.”
Finding the words
When Rojé went to school, he was placed straight into Grade 7, despite never learning to read or write and not knowing English. This wasn’t just his first day of school in Australia . . . it was his first day of school, period. Growing up, he was sent to herd goats or stayed home to look after his siblings while his mother worked to provide food for the family.
Though he always appreciated good music and lyrics, he didn’t get into poetry until high school when his English teacher had everyone write a poem. Lacking confidence in his ability to write and hoping he could get out of it, Rojé went to his teacher, who responded, “Just write something close to your heart.”
When it came time, he got up and shared a poem about his dad. His teacher liked it so much that he asked if Rojé would share it with the whole school in assembly.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Rojé said. “People were crying. They really liked it. I never thought of myself as a good writer.”
After that, he and his teacher started hosting poetry events at lunchtime, where students would come and share what they had written. Rojé began to hunt out and participate in other open-mic events. Poetry quickly became a way in which he could share his story and his faith. To this day, he performs in various locations, from schools to stages to pubs. “When you share from the heart, you’re not arguing with or preaching to anybody. You’re just sharing your experience, which seems to resonate with people,” he said.
Poetry is an art form and mode of therapy that has been around for centuries. For Rojé, poetry has helped him use the nuance of language to express some of his most difficult feelings and experiences. But it has also helped him understand other people’s stories, pay attention and ask more questions. Before getting into it, Rojé didn’t know much about what his mum went through to keep him alive when fleeing Congo. Through writing, he had to step inside her shoes and he learnt what she went through to protect him.
A new future
For much of his life, Rojé avoided sharing his story due to feeling like an outcast because, as he said, “I was different. I am different.”
Though now he feels as Australian as can be, he knows his upbringing was different and that when he steps into his mum’s house for a meal of the same simple ugali and stew he ate as a boy, it’s still different. As he looks back over his life, he can see he didn’t do anything special to deserve the life he has. It doesn’t make sense to him why God chose his family and not another. Yet He has been able to see God’s generous, guiding hand over his life.
In a poem called I Write, he said, “I’ve got a home and so many other things I never thought I’d ever have. And sometimes it feels like an illusion. I write to remind myself. I write to flex my brain muscle. I write because I’ve got questions. I write for my brothers and sisters in Africa who have never held a pen. I write for Nyirakamanzi Dativa Mukandekezi, my mother. My father. I write for Rwanda, Uganda and Congo, who’s marked by my own footsteps. This pen right here in my blistered hands is my shovel. So I plant words for my people around the globe in the struggle.”
Today Rojé works as a nurse and enjoys jujutsu. You can follow his poetry here.