Constable: From horrific childhood in Africa to 'American Idol'
Bu Burt Constable
Out of thousands of musicians nationwide who auditioned, 2015 Wheaton North High School graduate Ephraim Bugumba says he is "humbled" to survive the cut and become one of the top 50 contestants still in the running on this season's "American Idol."
"Every second of it just seems so surreal," says Bugumba, 22, who lives in DeKalb now. "I couldn't believe I'm auditioning in front of Katy Perry. Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. It was insane."
But that moment in the bright spotlight can't compare to the dark insanity of his entire childhood as a refugee from Zaire, the African nation torn apart by violence as it became the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"I left as a toddler during the war," says Bugumba, whose family was uprooted at the end of the 20th Century. "We survived the 1999 Makobola Massacre."
According to news reports at the time, his small village of Makobola was overrun by soldiers in the final days of 1999. The soldiers set homes on fire, gunned down many trying to flee, threw people still alive into mass graves and hacked others to death with machetes, according to survivors. The 500 slain included priests, pastors, Red Cross workers and some of Bugumba's relatives.
"They killed my grandfather," Bugumba says, noting his grandfather was the village chief and his father was chief prince. "My father doesn't like talking about it."
Constantan and Veronique Bugumba, their four sons and three daughters fled on foot across the savanna. Ephraim Bugumba, 3, had to walk long distances and drink water that had pooled in animal tracks and tire ruts.
"We would go days without food," he says.
The family moved from refugee camp to refugee camp, from Tanzania to Malawi, from Mozambique to Zimbabwe.
"In those 10 years, we moved every other month," Bugumba says. "My father was wanted by the rebels, so we had to run. Our life growing up was just war and running away. You didn't know who to trust."
Some refugees were murdered by rebels and soldiers. A few were killed by lions, crocodiles and other wild animals. Some died of sickness. One of Bugumba's earliest memories is of being in a small boat, crossing a crocodile-infested river with his family and other refugees.
"I remember that visual. I remember crossing the river and thinking this is probably how it's going to end," Bugumba says. "The boat was so full, any foul movement and we would be in the water as crocodiles' dinner."
His father, whose "No. 1 goal was to get us as far away from that madness as he could," finally made it to South Africa and moved his family into a five-story office building abandoned after apartheid ended and run by people who violated health and safety rules to let refugees live in single rooms.
"We slept on the floor. That room was our kitchen, our bedroom and we had a bucket," he says, noting that a hundred people on their floor shared one bathroom, and it was too dangerous to make that trip.
"Every morning in the hallway, you could see blood. You'd hear people at night screaming," he recalls. "It was just insane. It was definitely not a place to grow up."
The "Red Ants," men who wore red overalls, would periodically clear the buildings.
"They would flood the building, take your belongs, and toss them out," Bugumba remembers. "I was terrified for my life."
Every day, at 8 p.m., the family would pray together and sing.
"At times, I was saying, 'Why are we still praying? Does God even care?'" Bugumba says. "But He finally delivered us."
An Italian charity helped the Bugumba children attend school, and they also went to a French church, where Bugumba, who preferred break-dancing, was talked into auditioning for the choir directed by an older brother. Bugumba speaks Swahili, Zulu, French, English and a smattering of Portuguese and Chichewa.
A Catholic charity helped the family relocate from South Africa to Mobile, Alabama, after the family was granted refugee visas. Bugumba had a bed for the first time at age 16.
"To me that was everything," he says.
The family moved to Carol Stream in 2014. His parents both worked at McDonald's, and now they work at the Target Distribution Center in DeKalb, where they bought a house. Bugumba's sisters live with their parents a short drive from the house purchased by the Bugumba brothers.
Happy with his new life in America, Bugumba still carries the memories and scars.
"When I was 3 years old, I was put into a pot of boiling porridge by some very cruel people," he says, rolling up his pant leg to reveal the fading scars.
He got so weak and sick that his siblings stood around him because they had never seen a person die up close, Bugumba says. The comatose toddler was sent to his other grandfather's house.
"He had a radio," Bugumba says. "The music started playing and I started moving my head."
Music and faith are constants in his life. Family members still gather every night to pray and sing together.
"We've done it for so long, it's in our DNA," Bugumba says. "If we don't do it, I feel sick."
Hoping to make a living with his guitar and voice, Bugumba is called "Storyteller" on "American Idol" for the way his voice conveys messages of pain and faith.
"I tell stories about people I meet, places I've been and how I've felt," Bugumba says. "If anybody was ever nice to me, I'd write a song about it."
Regardless of how long he survives on "American Idol," Bugumba says he will continue to work hard to make a career as a musician, and help his family.
"I believe that God didn't just give me this gift for nothing," Bugumba says, holding a photograph of his family. "I look at a younger me and say, 'I'll make you proud someday.'"