Trust Matsilele says writing for FORBES AFRICA changed his life. The most remarkable and harrowing story of the lot is his own.
His crisp declamatory picturesque articles, told with conviction over the last two years, were born of years of struggle, pain and disappointment from birth.
At just eight months old, his mother abandoned Matsilele and his twin brother at the door of Harare Central Police Station in Zimbabwe with nothing but a tiny bag of clothing. Luckily, within 24 hours, they were adopted by their aunt, who had just moved back to Zimbabwe, after years studying in the United States.
“My aunt had no kids, but all of a sudden, she had this heavy burden to carry,” says Matsilele.
The twins moved to their new home, a mission school in Mwenezi, a small district in southern Zimbabwe, with their new parent. They lived a middle-class life and almost forgot they had been abandoned. In 1992, their guardian moved to South Africa to work. The twins moved in with their grandmother in the village. This meant goodbye to bread and butter for lunch at school.
“My grandmother tried to make sure we had good lunchboxes when we went away for sports at school but on a day-to-day basis we struggled to carry lunch to school. We walked 10 kilometers barefoot to school and herded cattle after school,” he says.
It was a struggle until their aunt started making a bit of money in South Africa. In 1996, she sent the boys to boarding school where Matsilele traveled in a bus for the first time.
“I was in the drama club and we went in a bus to Masvingo and I was so happy. School was OK but I couldn’t afford somethings like freezit (sweet ice) so I washed clothes for kids from urban areas, who came from better backgrounds, to make money. It was hard. I could see my poverty clearly. I remember my brother and I at some point wishing we went to a poorer high school, with kids like us, but my aunt had done the best she could so we were grateful.”
Matsilele left high school to set foot in his capital, Harare, a bustling city, for the first time. It was a painful reminder of a place where his mother abandoned him, but also a chance to study journalism; paid for by his brother.
Here, 19-year-old Matsilele saw a traffic light for the first time.
“As much as I was aware of their existence, I had never seen them. It was all shocking for me. My brother struggled to pay my fees so I had to work during the day and take classes at night. It was hard to make ends meet. Even money for a taxi to work was hard to get. I remember one of my classmates religiously brought a pie for me. Sometimes even if I was struggling to go to school, I would remember the pie I would get and I would make my way there.”
Hard work, on a pie a day, earned Matsilele a diploma in journalism. He moved to South Africa thinking it would be easy to get a job. It wasn’t. South Africa has a 25.5% unemployment rate and with 2.2 million immigrants looking for work.
No job, no money, no food and no roof, Matsilele hit rock bottom in a country he thought was paved with gold; to find home was a dumpsite. He lived there for four months picking up scrap metal and bricks to sell.
“We used some rags and plastics to cover ourselves if it was raining or cold. Police came to harass us at any time of the day. I remember it rained one night and my passport was in my pocket and it got defaced,” he says.
Life on the harsh streets of South Africa was dangerous, so Matsilele moved to a squatter camp to live with his cousin.
“We would walk for about two hours to look for jobs on the streets. Any jobs, like cutting lawns or general work. I did that for two years just to have a bit of money.”
Matsilele’s nephew, who worked for The Zimbabwean newspaper, based in Johannesburg, showed him a glimmer of hope and invited him to his office to talk about a job.
“When I got there he had gone for a conference and the people at the office refused me entry. I think I was too scruffy or dirty and looked like a street kid,” he says.
A week later, he went back and the nephew employed him.
“To get meaningful money for someone staying in a squatter camp, about R1,000 ($70) a month, was hard but I was writing about 40 articles a month at R40 (less than $3) a story.”
This resilience marked his entry to the world of journalism.
“I moved to a small place with a friend of mine and together we bought our first bed. This was a huge adjustment coming out of a squatter camp. We had never owned a bed,” he says.
Another friend offered to help pay for Matsilele’s honours degree in journalism, at the University of the Witwatersrand, to better his chances in life.
His honours supervisor recruited him for a job at CNBC Africa, the sister company to FORBES AFRICA, as an online journalist. Here, he met Chris Bishop, Managing Editor of FORBES AFRICA, and he says this changed his life.
“Bishop is one of the best people I have ever met. He has stayed a bit in Zimbabwe so when he heard I was Zimbabwean, we immediately connected… I asked if I could write for FORBES AFRICA and he said ‘yes’… I couldn’t believe it. A man like me who was abandoned by his mother and stayed on the streets being allowed to write for such a publication? Who would have ever thought? It was even beyond my wildest dreams.”
Working here opened doors for Matsilele, one of them— speaking at a conference at the University of Southern California in the United States in 2015.
Three years later, Matsilele walks upright, looks people in the eye and debates with conviction. He says working for this publication has helped him shake off his terrible feeling of being a nobody in a rural village who became a street kid in a foreign land.
Just over a decade after he slept under the stars in the rubbish tip, Matsilele is now studying classics in Vancouver, Canada, for the next three years.
A few months after leaving South Africa, Matsilele has been invited to give talks about his work for FORBES AFRICA.
“My presentations are based on my work at FORBES AFRICA and with Chris Bishop. It was like learning journalism from scratch even though I had written more than 300 stories. If there is anything FORBES AFRICA should be grateful for its having changed the life of a journalist,” he says.
Matsilele is living proof that hard work in Africa, sprinkled with a bit of FORBES AFRICA, can change your life.