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May 3rd, 2006

Surreal Slave Song

A young man's struggle to free himself from a Texas church choir

 
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Growing up in rural Zambia, Given Kachepa saw a future containing the possibility of a dollar a day job, if he was lucky to find one, while avoiding the ever-present plagues of HIV and tuberculosis. Orphaned at age 11, Kachepa saw his faith as a way out of the hardships of his life.

Encouraged by his cousins to join the church choir after his parents died, Kachepa viewed choir singing as a refuge from the harsh life he was living. He saw it as a way to get closer to God and to his faith.

“I used to go to church every Sunday, with Bible study and there would be days that I would pray for hours and hours,” he said. “I was excited, I will never forget the day that I received Jesus Christ. There were things that I did where I could see God working in my life.”

A Better Life

Kachepa thought his faith would lead him to a better life in the United States. When has was 13 he was approached by TTT Partners in Education, a church ministry group from Texas to participate in a choir with eleven other Zambians that would travel the United States singing in malls, churches and schools. After passing the audition, Kachepa left on what he thought would be a two-year adventure that would provide him with an American education, a salary, money for his family and the chance to raise money to build schools in Zambia. “To have someone tell you that they could provide what you are missing, you think it is a gift from God,” Kachepa said about the opportunity.

Kachepa’s choir succeeded several previous choirs of Zambian students, who were promised the same thing. Unfortunately, he did not have the chance to talk to previous participants before coming to the U.S.

His American dream soon turned into a nightmare as he found himself having little sleep, no money, close scrutiny, daily threats and the fear of returning to Zambia in disgrace. Kachepa had become a victim of human trafficking. “The threats were the biggest thing. In returning back they would tell your family and they would say you had no respect and respect is a big thing in Zambia,” Kachepa said. “It was hard to ask anything. It came to the point where if you asked anything, they said you would be sent back.” Deportation would have been viewed as a sign that a choir member had been disrespectful to their American elders; any choir member who had been deported would have been viewed as an outcast in Zambia.

Statistics on Modern Slavery

I questioned God so many times. After everything I went through in Zambia, after things were supposed to be good, it turned out worse. Did God exist? How could I end up like this?

The United States government estimates that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, with 800,000 being trafficked worldwide each year. A study released, this year, by the U.S. Department of Justice pinpoints the East Asia/Pacific region as being the largest source of individuals who are trafficked into the United States.

A breakdown provided by the nonprofit advocacy group, Free the Slaves, states that 46-percent of victims are forced to work in prostitution, 27-perecent are in domestic servitude, 10-percent work in agriculture, five percent work in factories, and the remaining 12-percent work in miscellaneous categories, including food service and consumer goods.

“Trafficking is a hidden phenomenon,” said Martha Newton, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “It can be forced labor in a Chinese buffet restaurant or strip mall in your neighborhood. It is not your stereotype of sex labor.”

In the United States Kachepa would find himself being forced to work 18-hour days with little sleep. He would spend weeks at a time on tour forced into the back of a crowded van. The other singers–also from his village in Zambia–all found problems with their work situation. While on tour he had to clean his own clothes, set and dismantle the equipment and live on little sleep. Very little free time was built into the choir’s time on the road, with the only recreational activities being walking around the malls they performed in.

Constant Threats

Kachepa and his fellow choir members were threatened into not saying anything about their plight to the host families they lived with while on the road. Anything given to them by a host family had to be rejected. If a gift made it into a choir member’s luggage, it was promptly seized by ministry officials.

Kachepa was constantly threatened with deportation if he did not live by ministry rules, which at one point included hand digging a swimming pool under the hot Texas sun.

“I questioned God so many times. Why would this be happening to me?” Kachepa said. “After everything I went through in Zambia, after things were supposed to be good, it turned out worse. Did God exist? How could I end up like this?”

Ministry officials regularly used scripture readings to reinforce their rules. The scriptures reinforced the ministry’s desire to have the choir members respect them and their rules. Combined with the traditions from Zambia regarding respecting elders, Kachepa said he and the other choir members were conflicted about what they wanted to do. “We were hoping that God would liberate us from our situation.”

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The Author : John Celock
John Celock is a New York based writer. He has written on politics, education, religion, business and public policy for a variety of regional and national publications.
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