Zambian Choir Boy

A young boy in Zambia hopes to come to America for education and opportunity. What he got was a different kind of education.

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GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT from PRX and NPR, the "Trust Me" episode. My name is Glynn Washington. And today, we're exploring situations where someone, for some reason or another has to extend the hand of trust. For our next piece, we're sailing clear across the planet to Zambia where a little boy was looking for someone that he could believe in.

ANNA SUSSMAN, BYLINE: In a little town called Kalingalinga, on the edge of Zambia's capital, life was tough for a little boy Given Kachepa. He was one of six kids. The town was poor. But when lost both his parents by the age of 9, that's when he was forced to grow up really quickly.

GIVEN KACHEPA: I was just trying to think about what my life was going to be like without having my parents around - where am I going to get my next meal? Or how am I going to be able to buy books so I can go back to school? Education was something that I've always wanted for myself. And I don't know where that came from, but I just - I've always had the need to have an education.

SUSSMAN: But school wasn't an option. So what he did was he walked to a nearby quarry, a place where he knew he could eke out a living crushing rocks into gravel.

KACHEPA: So a lot of people do that as a way to make a living. So I started crushing rocks. Most of the times, it's really, really, really hard. You're just out there all by yourself with a hammer and trying to take off, you know, the little pieces. And then you take those little pieces. You put them in a wheelbarrow. You take it to the side of the street. And then when you're selling it, you're only selling it for maybe $5, when you've done two weeks worth of work. And this wasn't unique to just me. There were so many other kids that were going through the same thing.

SUSSMAN: There was joy though. And mostly, it came when Given was singing in his church's boys choir.

KACHEPA: Yeah, singing in church gave me a happiness because it gave me something to look forward to on a daily basis. All of that was just really uplifting to myself at the time.

SUSSMAN: And suddenly, when he was only 11 years old, his singing skills offered him an opportunity to change his life.

KACHEPA: I had been singing with the choir for two years. There was a ministry from the United States, and they were looking for singers to come to the United States. The missionaries came to my community, and they said, you know, we need 12 boys.

SUSSMAN: Not only would Given get an education in the U.S., but the money raised from the choir's performances would be used to build a school in Zambia. Sixty-four boys from the community auditioned for 12 spots.

KACHEPA: I was singing, you know, as loud as I can so my voice could be heard. I was trying to be as good a person as I could because when I went home, I looked at, you know, my younger sister. She didn't have anything. My older brothers didn't have anything. And this very simple fact that we were going to be coming to the United States gave you an extra motivation to do everything that you can so that you can help out your siblings. They lined us up, and then they said we have these names that we're going to call out.

SUSSMAN: Given was the youngest boy accepted into the choir.

KACHEPA: I was jumping up and down. I just - and this was a perfect thing to happen to me at the time. When you're living in a third world country and then when you're watching, you know, for example, you're watching "The Cosby Show," the only image that you have of this place is that it's a wonderful place and nothing bad can possibly come out of it.

SUSSMAN: The boys arrived in America and began to sing. And in concert after concert, audiences across the country were moved.

SANDY SHEPHERD: Oh, their voices were angelic. They sang beautifully. Their harmony was just incredible.

SUSSMAN: Sandy Shepherd was so moved by the boys' singing that she began to volunteer for the ministry. She hosted the boys in her home when they visited her church. And people like Sandy were giving money, a lot of money.

KACHEPA: Because when we were singing, we would be asking for live offerings. If somebody was wanting to sponsor a kid in Africa, then they could fill out a form and leave the check right there.

SHEPHERD: They were taking in lots and lots of money with the sales of CDs and love offerings.

SUSSMAN: The boys watched the money come in, but they were never paid. And they weren't going to school like they had been promised. So they wondered if a school was actually being built in Zambia.

KACHEPA: Yeah, I started to realize that things were not as perfect as had been promised - I think it was three months after we'd been in the United States. So that's when we began to, you know, to ask more questions, you know, like when are you going to start paying us? Or when are you going to start telling us about the progress that you're making back home in Zambia, about the schools that you said you were going to be building?

SUSSMAN: Given says the boys were forced to sing up to seven different concerts a day, and that they sometimes went without food.

KACHEPA: If we complained, they threatened us with deportation back home to our country. And if we told anybody about anything that we were going through, they also threatened us with deportations. So we were told to remain as silent as we could about anything that was taking place.

SUSSMAN: But even if they had wanted to escape, he says they couldn't. The ministry made sure of it.

KACHEPA: Our passports were kept by the ministry. I mean, so you were really, really limited in trying to escape.

SUSSMAN: He watched as all of their letters were opened and censored. He says he wasn't even allowed to make phone calls.

KACHEPA: I think the hardest part for me was staying away from my family. We were not allowed to go back home to Zambia to see how things were.

SUSSMAN: Denied his freedom and forced to work without pay, there was a word for this scenario.

KACHEPA: There's so many different forms of slavery. But I think the basic definition would be the exploitation of somebody to gain from their work and deceiving that person. We know that we raised money, and none of the choir members benefited from that money. Where that money went, nobody knows really. So I think, yeah, that fits the definition very well.

SUSSMAN: So the boys decided that the only option was to free themselves.

KACHEPA: We started planning on ways that we could try to get away from them.

SUSSMAN: They started to rebel. They made demands, and they refused to sing if the demands weren't met. And the ministry threatened to send four boys home.

KACHEPA: They involved the INS, and then an INS agent was dispatched to Sherman, Texas. We became very afraid. And he picked up those four boys in handcuffs. But on the way to the airport, you know, he started talking to the boys, and he learned that there were two sides to the story.

SUSSMAN: The INS agent did not deport the boys. Instead, he turned around and took the boys to a safe place.

KACHEPA: He found homes for them in Dallas. And they started going to school. And so the INS agent that came, then came back and picked us up. And that's how we were rescued.

SUSSMAN: The ministry was investigated by the Bureau of Labor and found liable for $900,000 in back wages and fines. Given was placed with a foster family, Sandy Shepherd and her husband Deetz. Back when Sandy had hosted some of the boys from the choir in her home, she had noticed that they were tired and scared. And she began to ask them questions. She found out that the ministry was not what it seemed. Eventually, she called the authorities.

SHEPHERD: It was very deceiving because I had been closely involved with volunteering and trying to help. But at the point at which I finally made the decision to call the FBI, it was certainly was out of my comfort zone. But I believed that I was standing up for the kids and for the right reasons.

SUSSMAN: She also called the Zambian ambassador.

SHEPHERD: And I said your boys are being exploited.

SUSSMAN: Two years later, Sandy got a call from her church.

SHEPHERD: And they said, we have seven boys that have been picked up. Can you come up to the church and help us find homes for them to stay in? Otherwise, they're going to have to be put in jail. And I said, you know, Given, if you'd like to stay here, we'd love to have you. And we'll see what we can do to help you.

KACHEPA: They took us in, into their home and provided all the stuff that we needed at the time.

SUSSMAN: But he was nervous. He didn't feel safe.

KACHEPA: When you've been in that kind of situation for so long, so it takes a long time for you to build the trust that, you know, I want to trust this person. So it took me a long, long, long time. I mean, even to this day, I'm very, very not trusting of people.

SUSSMAN: Given lived with Sandy and Deetz Shepherd for over a decade. But he always had trouble calling them mom and dad.

KACHEPA: To me, it's just very, very hard to bring out those words. I don't know why.

SUSSMAN: Still, Given had a safe home. He was able to contact his family in Zambia and even go back and visit. And he finally got to go to school in Texas.

KACHEPA: I started out actually in the eighth grade. I'd promised myself when I was a little kid that I wanted to get a certain amount of years in school. That until I got, then I wasn't going to quit.

SUSSMAN: He went from middle school to high school to college to graduate school. But he'd always wanted an education for his brothers and sisters, the ones still in Zambia. And the school that the ministry had promised was never built, not until a new group stepped in to make it happen.

KACHEPA: Well, yeah, my - well, yeah. Here I go again. I guess I'm going to use those words. My mom and dad, Sandy and Deetz, have been raising money for schools back home in my community.

SHEPHERD: His trust has developed through the years because he's seen and lived the amount of work we've done to try to help raise money to help the children in his community have a better life by getting their education.

KACHEPA: And they've been sponsoring that school for the last 14, 15 years.

SHEPHERD: He's had such a challenge knowing who to trust.

KACHEPA: It happens in life that there are good people and there're bad people. I mean, I come from nothing. And the only way that I've gone this far is because of the help that I've gotten from so many different people.

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Given Kachepa and Sandy Shepherd for talking with the SNAP. If you want to find out more about modern-day slavery, get some information on our website snapjudgment.org. And of course, that story was produced by none other than our own Anna Sussman.

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