Emmanuel Kabuya, informally known as “Bena,” was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a township named Buzimai. His parents saw little hope for their family’s future in the DRC because of the state of the country, and limited job opportunities due to the country being heavily populated. Therefore, Bena’s father saved his money and took a solo bus trip to Southern Africa to establish a better life for his family. He eventually found himself in Durban doing church missionary work. Months later, Bena’s mother, Julie, led the rest of the family to follow her husband’s path, hoping to never return to Buzimai.
Once they were boarding the bus that would take them across the border of the DRC, Bena’s mother realized they were one ticket shy. There was no other choice – one of them would have to sneak on the bus. Bena says, “my mom grabbed me and pulled me behind her as she smiled and handed the ticket to
the bus driver.” Bena was just a wide-eyed boy at this point, willing to go along for whatever ride life took him on. On the way out of the DRC they stopped in unimaginable places, gazing at a variety of landscapes through the lens of bus windows.
Since Bena’s father had arrived in Durban, he had been staying in a pastor’s house with a few dozen people. When the rest of the family arrived, they moved into a one-room home until they could get established. His dad worked multiple jobs, as a car guard (security guard for cars on the street) and as a pastor in the church, to name a few. This enabled Bena and his siblings to switch schools and attend Addington Primary School where they would get a higher quality education, rather than their neighborhood school which wasn’t well maintained.
As Bena recalls, while attending Addington, it wasn’t easy to navigate through the streets. The path to school often felt like a walk of hopscotch or walking on hot rocks through surrounding turmoil. Addington is located in the infamous “Point” area close to South Beach. At the intersection of Point road and Saint George street, there are “all sorts of drugs, gang activity and street kids (young children engaging in crime),” Bena says. Even with his transition from primary school, there were a variety of temptations at an early age. Bena recalls primary school kids drinking alcohol due to peer pressure and because that’s what surrounded them as they walked out of the house.
Around this time, South Africa was fresh off the heels of apartheid. Non-white South Africans remained cut off from important resources. Certain behaviors arose from decades of people being systematically denied healthier paths toward opportunity and prosperity. Let alone being a black foreigner in South Africa, a country where xenophobia tends to show, especially amongst black South Africans and black foreigners from across the continent.
Luckily, Bena doesn’t recall many bad experiences with xenophobia. Bena credits his role model and big brother, Elize, for setting the example in not succumbing to the temptation and negativity that surrounded him. Elize says, “It was never cool for me to follow the crowd, and I tried to instill that within my little brother.” When Bena reached Grade 4 at Addington Primary School, he met Scott Lunga, who soon became his best friend. They met while playing basketball on Addington’s PeacePlayers squad. They both had people around them who taught them to be strong-minded young men who didn’t give in to peer pressure. Scott is still Bena’s best basketball running mate today. They credit PeacePlayers for “the majority of the friends” they have today.
Bena says, “I didn’t know what PeacePlayers, particularly, was at the time. All I knew was that I had found a sport I grew to love.” It wasn’t until winning PeacePlayers’ City-Wide championship against Highbury Preparatory in Grade 6 that it all clicked. A competitive, but also unifying spirit was born through an experience at Hoy Park that connected him with participants from other communities.
The City-Wide Tournament in the following year, Grade 7, was the event that brought him out of his shell. He was forced to grow out of his comfort zone and engage in dialogue with peers from different communities. Bena was typically nonchalant, and he didn’t care for forced friendships. This came from the many changes in his environment as a kid. At this City-Wide Tournament, he learned the value of forming friendships with participants from different communities, giving him a different outlook on life. He began to understand how similar or different his experiences were from others, which gave him a heightened perspective. Bena reflects on his numerous City- Wide Tournament experiences and says that “even if you didn’t know someone on a name-to-name basis, you knew their face through playing at the City-Wide Tournament.” Connecting with people within a safe space such as the City-Wide Tournament was important for a quiet kid like Bena.
In Grade 7, Bena and his brother religiously applied to private schools for scholarships. Finally, they applied to Durban High School (DHS). There had been several PeacePlayers Primary School Program alumni from Addington who had gone on to find success in basketball at DHS. Bena simply wanted to follow in their footsteps since he saw them as role models.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t accepted into the school and had to attend Sparks Estate in Overport. Every day, Bena would have to take a 45-minute walk, which included a “massive hill” to Sparks Estate, while passing DHS on the way. Bena describes Sparks Estate as a nightmare, “Kids would gamble, drink, and skip class. There were holes in the walls where kids would walk in and out throughout the day.” Bena thought this was normal, and he started to gamble because it was so ubiquitous. At Sparks Estate, he wasn’t focused much on school, but he got by and focused on basketball. A teacher once told him that he’d be a high school dropout. Scott, Bena’s friend from Addington, recalled Bena mentioning that he didn’t belong at Sparks Estate and would find a way out.
While at Sparks Estate, Bena rarely had the money for lunch and often went throughout the day not eating. His parents made enormous sacrifices for him, and he wouldn’t dare burden them with complaints. On some nights, Bena says, “I’d come home from school with no food on the table, so I played basketball at Albert Park until the court’s lights went out to sweat the hunger away.” Elize and Bena grew accustomed to not eating sometimes because, as Bena states, “there was more to worry about than eating – we wanted a better life for ourselves, and complaints didn’t solve anything. If we had food, we were happy; if not, it’s all good.” Their parents went from job to job to do what they had to do. Therefore, working hard, watching basketball, shooting videos on YouTube, and getting good enough to play with his DHS mentors was the only goal on his mind.
The love for basketball grew deeper as Bena battled it out on the pavement at Albert Park while playing for a local community team with PeacePlayers. Bena credits PeacePlayers coaches Mandla Sibulawa and Thobani Khumalo for playing a big role on his PeacePlayers journey. Mandla used to give basketball tips around Bena’s shot and provide shoes and shirts when he had the means. Thobani Khumalo always came to the park to make sure the guys were improving on their games. One day, Thobani came to Albert Park and provided some great news to Bena.
Northwood High School wanted him to come to play basketball on a full scholarship! Northwood is a semi-private school in Durban North which is rated one of the best schools in the country. Northwood is a competitor of DHS in sports and academics. He didn’t have to apply, the coaches knew who he was, how we played, and they understood the value he could add to their current team.
Bena moved on to Northwood in January 2020, just before COVID made its mark on the world. As a Grade 11 learner new to the environment at Northwood, it was a change of pace adapting to Northwood and calling his elders “sir/mam.” During his first game at Northwood, it was clear that Bena was the best player on the court. Bena scored a whopping 38 points against Hilton, despite his team losing by one point. His leadership throughout was also indicative in their short 7-game season, where they won 4 games and lost 3.
Bena’s dad passed away in March of 2020 – never getting the opportunity to see his son play in his new Northwood kit (uniform). Although his dad never saw him play at Northwood, he was always proud of him, and he was ultimately the bridge that led Bena to be in that position, in South Africa, and with a more positive image of how bright his future would be.
Regardless of the ups and downs, he has humbly trodden onward and upward, withstanding any environment. He has adapted and grown from each experience and met some lifelong friends and mentors through PeacePlayers. Today, Bena proudly notes that the teacher who said he would not make it to high school was wrong. Instead, he made it much further – Bena received multiple scholarship offers to play basketball at the University level.
While Bena has achieved a lot, he quickly slows down the applause because there is still “a lot left to accomplish, and my brother always taught me to be humble” he adds. Although Bena did not fully understand it at the time, he is grateful that his parents made the bold move from the DRC in his adolescence because he met friends, built relationships, and was introduced to PeacePlayers – the organization which placed a basketball in his hands, and taught him life skills to overcome the adversity he has faced in his life.