A journey of fear, deprivation, humiliation and razor-sharp risks has ended for a 17-year-old native South African who has adopted the District as his "spiritual" home.
Lebohang Morake, a junior at the Ellington School of the Arts, has, been "adopted" by a community of church members who attend Anacostia's Union Temple Baptist Church at 2002 14th St. SE. Their knowledge of his hairbreadth escapes from South African police, his isolation and segregation from the privileged white South African community and the enforced second-class status given blacks in South Africa have endeared him to the church community.
"We are one blood, one spirit." said the church's pastor, the Rev. Willie Wilson, at whose home Morake now stays. "Lee-bo," as he is called by his friends, has been independent since age 3 when he became a street singer in the South African town of Soweto to help supplement the small family income of his parents, two brothers and a sister. Morake switched vocations from street singer to coal dealer, newspaper boy, and cabaret performer, grabbing whatever job opportunities he could find to help his family survive.
Two events--one recreational, one political-- eventually shaped his life, and caused Lebohang, then 11 years old, to view his life in his home country as intolerable.
"American blacks were free, I could tell this by the movies. They smoked cigars, drove big cars, and they were the equal of whites--I could tell this by the movies we were allowed to see. . . . I had to experience this," he said. "I felt that compared to the movies I saw, I wasn't living."
A real-life situation in his homeland motivated him even more. In 1976, teen-agers in Soweto rebelled and rioted in protest against the forced teaching of the Afrikaans language as a substitute for English.
"This was the final indignity," recalled Morake. "With Afrikaans in your head, you cannot express yourself with outsiders."
After seeing South African police shoot tear gas into classrooms and unleash police dogs on students, and after experiencing the eeriness of walking by anti-riot tanks parked inside the school's gates, Morake joined a protest strike, refused to attend classes, and said he became a marked man.
"My friends began disappearing . . . the police would take them away and they would never return. When a neighbor told me they had been to my house looking for me, I knew I had to make my move in haste."
Morake vanished on the underground railroad to Lesotho, a land-locked sovereign state within South Africa that grants asylum to refugees fleeing South Africa's apartheid policies. Here he met fellow refugee Vernon Moleffe, and the two of them joined up as performers and composers. They played a Lesotho nightclub circuit they said was fraught with night kidnapings and murders by South African secret police.
Morake said that bounty hunters were a regular challenge. One night, he said, he had to pull Moleffe from a moving car to save him from police, while a crowd of Lesothans surrounded the car and kept pace with the vehicle to help protect them.
"If there had not been a crowd of people surrounding the car," Morake recalls, "the South Africans would have used their guns."
The two youngsters made their way back to the refugee center run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Frantic, they pigeonholed and badgered anyone they considered remotely powerful and well enough connected to help them escape. Their agonized persistence paid off, first with a UN commissioner and, most importantly, with a senior official of the Lesotho government. The commissioner arranged UN passports but the government official, completely taken with the boys' plight, went the extra mile: He arranged, through a friend, for housing, schooling and support in the United States.
With these assurances, Morake and Vernon were granted student visas in 1979. The UN picked up the tab for air transportation and supplied the teen-agers with UN passports, which must be renewed annually and stipulate that the holders must remain in school and have a means of support. Under the visa restrictions, regular employment is denied them and summer employment must first be approved by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"It's a box, but it's a free box," said Morake.
After about a year, the Lesotho official's friend found it difficult to feed and clothe two growing boys in Syracuse, N.Y. Once again, the Lesotho government officer, by this time stationed in the United States, was able to help the youths by offering them lodging at his home. In addition, he paid their tuition at the Ellington School of the Arts at 35th and R streets NW.
"They were human beings who had talent, courage, a will to survive. . . . I had to help them in every way," said the offical, who asked not to be identified.
Moleffe returned to Syracuse in 1981, but Morake elected to stay and explore. His wanderings led him to Anacostia, to the front-porchiness of the city across the river, to the down-home, committed, and activist portals of the Union Temple Baptist Church.
"I came home when I came here . . . these people look and act like my uncle . . . my aunt back home . . . they are my spiritual connection . . . they are wonderful," said Morake.
He was invited to perform one of his original compositions, "Wakhai' Umama", in the Zulu tongue at one of the church's Sunday services recently, and he was a hit. Morake was invited to stay at the home of church members anxious to help him. Their invitations came none too soon, Morake knew, for his upkeep was beginning to cause a financial strain in the household of the Lesothan official.
"When he became a part of my church and my neighborhood, he became a part of me," explained Money Helton, who was among the first to invite Morake to share his home.
Morake stayed at the homes of four Union Temple members before moving in with the Rev. Willie Wilson, his wife and two daughters. "I am his unofficial guardian," said Wilson, "Leebo is persevering and strong-willed. He is an asset to our community."
Morake, who wears jeans and a Kings Dominion T-shirt alternately with his dashikis, speaks in the classic African manner. Drawing up his 5-foot-5-inch, 135-pound frame, with both feet squarely planted on the floor, and eye contact a matter of course, he appreciates his acceptance here with a stout-hearted explanation: "God brought me and put me in America."
He calls his family regularly. He misses them. He misses his country. "But the more I miss it, the stronger I get."
On June 24 he will appear in concert at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium for a special benefit to raise money for the black South African Consciousness Movement founded by his martyred countryman, Steve Biko.
"This is what they can say Leebo contributed--my talent, my participation, my spirit--so that my people in South Africa may one day be free," he said.