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In conversation with Dr Emmanuel Taban, author of ‘The boy who never gave up: a refugee’s journey to triumph’


“Determination is what defined me,” Dr Emmanuel Taban, author of The Boy Who Never Gave Up: A Refugee’s Journey to Triumph said. 

Speaking to GIBS faculty member Dr Frank Magwegwe during an online Flash Forum, Taban said: “When you make a decision and are determined, you will be surprised what help appears.” 

In his book, Taban tells the story of how he left war-torn Sudan as a 16-year-old in 1994 after he had been tortured at the hands of government forces who falsely accused him of spying for the rebels. Over the months that followed, he made the harrowing journey across the continent to South Africa, travelling through Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mostly by bus and on foot. 

Relying on the generosity of strangers, he often spent weeks on the streets. When Taban reached Johannesburg 18 months later at the age of 17 with only five years of education behind him, he was determined to continue his studies. He managed to complete his schooling with the help of Catholic missionaries and entered medical school, qualifying as a doctor, and eventually specialising in pulmonology. 

On Developing Resilience 
Resilience is the process of adapting positively to trauma and challenges, Magwegwe explained. It is an essential skill to develop in the post-pandemic world of high stress and anxiety. 

“Everything happens because of what we set our minds to, not by chance. I set my mind on coming to South Africa, to get an education and on becoming a doctor. Most of us tend to choose our futures based on the influence of others, whereas we should always be inclined to choose our own path,” Taban said. “When I came to South Africa, I had no family. I was responsible for my own food and my own happiness. It was a lesson I had to learn from childhood.”

After escaping Sudan, Taban initially found himself in neighbouring Eritrea and was offered a place in a United Nations refugee camp. However, waiting for a period of five years before a possible settlement in the United States meant he wouldn’t be able to continue with his education. 

“I realised I would be a labourer for the rest of my life, so I chose the streets. We tend to rely heavily on others, whereas we should rely on our own inner strength,” Taban said. “I didn’t have a Plan B and was alone in the world. I had to move forward and had nothing to lose. Develop and trust your instincts, and make your own decisions,” he advised. 

On his arrival in South Africa, Catholic missionaries assumed the role of parents in Taban’s life: “They taught me invaluable lessons, such as hard work and productivity. I learnt the lesson of focusing on running my own race, not to compare myself to others.” 
The lowest point in his epic journey was when he lived as a street child in Kenya: “I was in survival mode. But in that moment I became mentally strong, as I was no longer afraid because of the hardship I went through. I used to be a nobody, and learnt that you can become anything, but you have to learn to take the road that nobody walks.” 

Having grown up reading both the Bible and the Koran, Taban believes “God only works when you work harder, when you do your part. The result depends on the amount of work that you put in. God equipped us with the ability to make decisions and you need to work hard to change your mindset if you want to change your circumstances.” 

Our Duty as Africans 
On the topic of rich countries whose citizens live in poverty, Taban said: “Africans have not been productive enough. We have failed to change the continent and to create a conducive environment for the young. We are too comfortable with the role of victimhood and need to realise the world doesn’t owe us anything.” 

“Whether in South Sudan, Diepsloot or Orange Farm, it is an African problem that we think someone did us wrong. The reason Africa is poor has nothing to do with God, or the system works against you.”

Taban said the continent’s plight was due to “our mindset and leadership, as leadership reflects the mindset of the people. We have to take responsibility and accept our failures if we want to move forward.

“We must ask ourselves, have we done enough in South Africa and Africa to make it a better place? We can’t be happy in Sandton and close our eyes and forget the child in Diepsloot. It is our duty as Africans and our responsibility to make a difference. Then our leaders can listen to us.” 

He warned people not to get stuck in a comfort zone: “If you are young, between the ages of 20 and 50 years old, and you are comfortable, it is a problem. Africa needs you to do great things, to be productive and change the lives of other human beings.” 

Taban concluded: “Life is a journey, and every journey must have a purpose. You will encounter hardship, but it is there to make you stronger and to reinforce your beliefs. Never, ever give up.” 



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