From a remote settlement in the north-east of what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo to an English seaside town is in many ways an incredible journey. A warm and engaging, yet unassuming man, one could never guess that Alex Ntung had such a story to tell. As reporter Hannah Collisson discovered, nothing could be further from the truth.
UNTIL now, few have known about the “other” life of Hastings Borough Council’s community cohesion officer, but the forthcoming publication of his book Not My Worst Day: A personal journey through violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa is set to change all that.
The book tells the incredible story of a boy born into a traditional cattle-herding community, who pursued an education against all odds, survived extreme poverty, violence on a terrifying scale during which 11 members of his family have been killed, and who became a man who has conversed with policy makers, chieftains and warlords, determined to sow the seeds of change where there are human rights abuses.
That is on top of a full-time job, and his role as a husband and father of two young daughters.
And Alex is just 38 years-old.
He is incredibly modest when speaking of his achievements, though says that when he stops and thinks about where he has come from he cannot quite believe it.
When I ask if he ever considered back then that this would become his reality, sitting in a seaside cafe in England discussing his life story, he replies: “It is as if it was a different person doing those things. To think that I would know the world outside was impossible to imagine.
“I’m nervous as to how the book will be received. It is the first time I have spoken of some of these events. For me, writing the book was a bit like therapy.”
Alex was born into the Banyamulenge tribe, a semi-nomadic community of cattle herders, descended from Tutsi people, who moved mainly from what is now Rwanda, and settled in an area of South Kivu, in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The Banyamulenge have long been viewed as outsiders and faced discrimination, and it was into an environment where racially motivated violence was commonplace that Alex was born.
In a place with no communication with the outside world, no roads, motor vehicles, or access to healthcare, education was almost non-existent, and for Alex and his siblings, the traditional way of living was encouraged.
There was little or no material wealth in the modern sense, though status was held in cattle.
Alex’s determination to get an education saw a constant struggle to raise the school fees needed, and eventually do the unthinkable by swapping the mountains for the city of Uvira to become the first person from his tribe attend his secondary school.
He was inspired by stories his friends told of the outside world, and of struggles beyond his own community.
He battled extreme poverty (at one point having no alternative but to eat dog food to survive), homelessness, and escalating racial violence, while at the same time speaking of his problems to no one at school and continuing his studies as best he could.
The conflict across the border, which resulted in the genocide of 300,000 Tutsi in Burundi in 1993 and up to 1,000,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates in Rwanda in 1994, spilled over into the DRC, and the persecution of Congolese Tutsi, including the Banyamulenge, Alex’s tribe, intensified.
Many of Alex’s contemporaries signed up to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and went off to fight for the rights of the Tutsi people, while Alex took on a more strategic role within the RPF movement.
He eventually moved to Rwanda and enrolled at university, before leaving his studies desperate to do something practical to help the victims of the conflict, including child soldiers and orphans.
His humanitarian work with NGOs eventually led to his decision to leave Africa entirely in 2000, aged 26.
Alex told me: “It’s rare people put faces to the numbers. There are individuals there. It’s real life.
“The issues affecting you make you realise you want to make a change
“The journey to leave Africa was very difficult for me. It was like travelling many hundreds of years into the future.”
Alex arrived at Gatwick airport as an asylum seeker speaking very little English (it is his fifth language, after Kinyamulenge, Lingala, Swahili, and French), and for three months was housed in a hotel in Warrior Square with around 300 others in a similar predicament, before being given a work permit.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do when I arrived in England. My only prayer at that time was that they didn’t send me back,” he said.
He went on to learn English at Hastings College, gained a masters degree in Anthropology of Conflict, Violence and Conciliation from the University of Sussex, and has worked in Hastings ever since, for the last four years at the borough council.
Now settled in Hastings, and a British passport-holder, Alex is married to Esther, whom he first met in 1996 after she was smuggled over the Congolese border to a Rwandan refugee camp amid escalating violence against Tutsi people, aged 13, and in such a hurry she was wearing only the bathrobe she had put on as she came out of the shower.
“I knew her family, but more her brother. We come from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences.”
Nine years later after Alex met her again on a trip to Uganda in 2005, they were married, and now have two children, Abigail, 4, and two-year-old Keziah.
Esther is now a youth worker in Bexhill, and they live a peaceful life in complete contrast to what they both experienced in their formative years.
Alex said: “When I travel to London people ask me ‘why Hastings?’. I say, ‘why not?’.
“I’m very defensive about Hastings, because it is the first place I have known in England. It is the place I have learned English, married, and had children.”
“The thing I most enjoy here is safety because I know another world.
“I hope my daughters won’t look over their shoulder fearing for things that I have experienced.”
The girls’ childhood so far could not have been more different to his own. To illustrate this, he tells me that Abigail, his eldest, comes home from nursery and asks him to tell her stories and sing songs that he knows nothing about.
Instead, Alex tells her the tales of his own rural upbringing and makes up his own based on his cattle herding experiences.
“She asks me why all the stories are about cows,” he laughs.
His parents, now elderly, still live in the traditional way in the DRC. Because of the continuing unrest, Alex has been unable to visit his homeland for 15 years, though has twice arranged for his parents to travel to Rwanda. He has not seen them in two years, and has no way of keeping in touch.
One of his younger brothers is still a cattle herder, but many of his close family members have now moved abroad to safety.
Alex truly belongs to two very different worlds; the old and the new. I have to remind myself that Alex is not an old man reflecting on many decades of life lived, but someone less than 40 years of age, who has been on a journey of a magnitude that most would not experience in an entire lifetime.
His is an inspirational story and one that begs the question: what can we in the West do to help? Alex says that while Rwandan society has been rebuilt following the genocide (“it is beautiful to see the country has been transformed”), in the DRC, nothing has changed, and the violence continues.
He is of the view that policy makers should take the time to listen to the real issues before responding, instead of reducing Africa to a primitive land of warring tribes.
“A lot of things have been written about Africa, but not about African people.
“You plant a seed. You may not have results now but you change the minds of people. Especially when you are bringing those in conflict together.
“I always feel fortunate to be alive, and why shouldn’t I use that opportunity to do something?”
Alex is keen to point out that he keeps his day job as the council’s community cohesion officer entirely separate from his international advocacy work, to the extent that few have had any idea that since moving to the UK he has carried out peace-building work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is an international speaker and researcher on matters relating to human rights and political violence.
“I always try not to make judgements based on my previous experiences,” he said, referring to his work promoting equality in Hastings, not only between cultural groups, but with those sections of the community that have become disengaged for socioeconomic reasons.
“A person’s idea of challenge is based on what you know.”
The final words of Not My Worst Day are food for thought: “Recently, while preparing this book, I asked a friend to get certain details from my father about the horrific experiences he has endured.
“My father was surprised. “There is no point in going over all of that!” he said.
“In this I disagree with him: the world should know and this book is my testament to some of the suffering of my community.”
Not My Worst Day: A personal journey through violence in the Great Lakes Region of Africa by Alex Mvuka Ntung, published by EARS Press, is available online now from Amazon, and will be available at Waterstones, Hastings, under local interest books.
The official launch is on April 16 at the University of Brighton in Hastings Havelock Road campus, in the lecture theatre at 4.30pm.