New to the Parish: From homeless Zambian child to Dublin dad

Micheal Chanda spent much of his childhood on the streets of Lusaka with his twin brother, before education and theatre transformed their lives

Michael Chanda grew up on the streets of Lusaka, Zambia. He moved to Ireland in 2013 where he is married and has a baby daughter. He gives theatre workshops in schools and works part time with Irish Aid. Video: Bryan O'Brien

 

Micheal Chanda: arrived from Zambia, 2013

Micheal Chanda and his identical twin brother, John, never left one another’s side during the two years they spent living rough in Lusaka in Zambia. Life on the streets was better than in the home of their aunt, where they had stayed after their parents died.

“She mistreated us, sending us to go and sell things on the street,” says Chanda. “We had a rough growing-up, because after the death of our parents there was nobody to take care of us. We were free on the street. If we went home, we didn’t have anything.”

The 12-year-olds were sometimes helped by local NGOs, which offered them food and support. Fountain of Hope, a community-outreach group that supports children on the streets of Zambia’s capital, invited the boys to their centre to wash and eat. Due to a lack of space in the centre, the boys were forced to roam the streets at night. They begged in restaurants and bars.

“At night, life is tough. You don’t know where you are going to eat, where you are going to sleep, how you are going to survive the night. It was a nightmare,” Chanda says. “One of our friends was run over by a bus on the street. He was begging in a cafe, and this security guard was chasing him with a dog, and he didn’t see the bus on the highway. That’s how he died.”

More than two decades later, Chanda sits in a Dublin coffee shop reflecting on the path that brought him to Ireland. His voice rises and falls as he jumps from describing his love of theatre and music to his memories of childhood poverty.

After the brothers’ friend was killed, the director of Fountain of Hope invited them to live at the centre. They began taking drama classes and went back to school. Chanda recalls how friends from the streets mocked the boys’ determination to build a better life.

“They laughed at us, saying, ‘You’re going back to education with no money’. They went back to begging; they didn’t see the point of it,” he says.

The brothers threw themselves in to their artistic development and focused on completing their studies.

“When we were doing drama, we found laughter. We found peace within our hearts, among our friends. We were able to talk about different issues through drama, talk about issues affecting our lives and our communities. You feel your heart has become free.”

Educational workshops

In their mid-teens, a school in Norway began sending money to fund the boys’ education and living costs. When they completed their school exams, they were invited to visit their Scandinavian sponsors.

“They said, ‘We need to see these boys; maybe we are sending money to ghosts’. They had only seen pictures. That’s why they sent the air tickets and we went to Norway.”

After they finished school, the Chanda brothers set up Barefeet Theatre Company with a group of friends. The performance troupe aimed to work with Zambia’s street children through performance and educational workshops.

“We did workshops with vulnerable children: those who are at risk of going on the streets and those who are on the streets already. We did acting, dancing, singing and acrobatics. We were a good example to them, because we changed. It is possible,” he says.

In 2008 the theatre company toured Europe. Two years later the Chanda brothers were awarded a scholarship to study theatre in Liverpool for six months.

In 2012 Chanda met Anna Barbu, who had come to Zambia as part of an exchange between Barefeet Theatre Company and Development Perspectives, a development education NGO based in Drogheda. Barbu, who is from Romania, had lived in Ireland nearly a decade when the couple met.

They fell in love and were married in summer 2013. The following Christmas, Chanda arrived in Dublin, ready to begin a new life in Ireland.

“It was difficult at first,” he says. “I moved in December, and it was freezing. I had nothing to do. I attended different auditions looking for theatre to do but I didn’t get through. I think it was because I was not Irish.”

In January 2013 Barbu gave birth to a baby girl, Lina. Chanda’s priorities completely changed the day his daughter was born.

“A daughter is a precious thing in somebody’s life. It feels so good. I’m very happy. Everything I do makes me think of her face. You just want to work so hard so you can create a better life for her,” he says.

Over the past year Chanda has started giving theatre workshops in schools and he works part time with Irish Aid. However, he has struggled to find full-time employment.

“People here are really friendly but it’s difficult for them to offer you a job. They’re looking for experience, but where am I going to get the experience if they don’t give me a job? Even for a cleaning job they look for experience,” he says. “Maybe in the future I’m going to go with what my heart is telling me to do but at the moment I’m just looking for any job.”

Social activities

Last year he joined Discovery Gospel Choir, where he collaborates with like-minded artists and musicians. “Music can change somebody’s life. When I moved to Ireland, I didn’t have any social activities to do. Then I joined the choir in January, and the welcome I received, how they relate to each other, it felt good. I felt at home.”

Chanda tries to keep busy through theatre, dance and music, but he often misses his brother. Having described his life story up until moving to Ireland using the plural “we”, the singular “I” sounds bare.

“It’s the longest time we’ve been away from each other. I don’t miss him as much as the early days since I moved here. It’s easier now. We Skype nearly every day,” he says, before pulling out his phone and flicking through photos of the brothers posing together in matching outfits.

Now that the two of them are married with children, it looks as if they will continue to be separated for the foreseeable future.

“I’ve lived in Zambia since I was born, so it’s nice to change and have a different life. The main reason for moving to Ireland was love. That’s what love can do to people,” he says.

  • We would like to hear from people who have moved to Ireland in the past five years. To get involved, email newtotheparish@irishtimes.com
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