In his own words, Tindyebwa (Tindy) Agaba has seen “the very depths of hell.” As soon as they emerge from his mouth, the words jar. It feels incongruous to hear such scenes of “misery” and “gloom” evoked by this cheery young man who sits wrapped in a cosy fleece, against the backdrop of his tranquil, warmly-lit familial home, his eyes glinting with ambition and whose cheeky chortles are the commas and full stops to his remarks.
Oscillating between war-scarred lands and the material comforts of London life, it’s a juxtaposition with which the Exeter alumnus and human rights lawyer is well acquainted. “One moment, I’m surrounded by starvation, dodging flying bullets and diving for shelter and the next, I’m saying ‘hello’ to my family, tucking into some lovely fruits and vegetables. There’s nothing more bizarre,” he says of his recent return from South Sudan. But here, the “hell” Tindy recalls is not one witnessed as a humanitarian observer on the conflict-ravaged landscapes of Liberia, Burma and Palestine, amongst others, but the inferno he lived as a Rwandan child.
Tindy’s childhood was brutally stolen from him; firstly, by the AIDS that took his father when he was nine, then by the rife-wielding militiamen who kidnapped him aged 12, forcefully marching him through forest and bush into a cold new life of combat, weapons training and, crushingly, in which he would never see his mother or sisters again.
Later detained on suspicion of fighting against the country, he was bailed out with the help of an aid agency then brought to the UK to find refuge, but bureaucratic struggles awaited. Having unknowingly missed his asylum application deadline, Tindy was left homeless at 16; the concrete bed of Trafalgar Square was his ‘asylum’ and the steady stream of tourist footsteps his only company.
While Tindy’s tale gives one of the most devastating atrocities a human can face, his demeanour betrays no trace of hurt or horror. Tindy’s Rwandan lilt is light and jovial and his vocabulary is instead peppered with talk of “delight”, “immense privilege” and being “a lucky bastard”, he quips.
Indeed, it was luck that united him with his adoptive mother, actress Emma Thompson, who he met at a Refugee Council Christmas Party in 2003. Despite Tindy’s little English at the time, the pair’s instant magnetism ensured that a close relationship quickly sprouted “organically”, according to Thompson. “Family is a protective environment that quite clearly at that time [Tindy] needed. We all need somewhere we feel safe, and a friend isn’t quite enough,” she opined in a World Refugee Day video.
Having recuperated the comfort, security and love of a family unit after having it brutally snatched away, it is no wonder that his Cairo-based refugee charity, Muryango, takes its name from the Rwandan word for ‘family’.
Tindyebwa Agaba has seen “the very depths of hell”
“Cairo has a lot of refugees and asylum seekers – Ethiopians, Somalis, people from diverse places seeking a better life – who arrive with no support whatsoever. They end up in poorer communities, as it’s all they can afford, left vulnerable to racism, misogyny and abuse. This daily culture of harassment and frustrations with the UN system prompted me to say enough was enough.” As a result, the charity-come-social club was born. With free legal advice, interview preparation assistance and the opportunity to partake in performance arts (comedy, dance, poetry), Muryango helps refugees build confidence, facilitating their insertion into community life. “It’s all about social cohesiveness and ensuring they feel ready for the pivotal final stage of the UN High Commission assessing their claim.”
But set-up was in 2011, while the embers of the January 25 Egyptian Revolution were still burning white hot, stoked by upset over the 800 dead and 6,000 injured in violent clashes between citizen and state.
Tindy had journeyed to Egypt just three weeks prior to the uprising, experiencing first-hand the electric Tahrir Square atmosphere where protestors flouted the government-imposed curfew to decry unemployment, police brutality and corruption. “It was like a rock concert – like a camp at Reading”, he reminisces. “People were happy, playing music and chanting, just waiting to see what would happen. It was as if they were sitting waiting for a musician to play, except these people were in the middle of something of epic historical proportions.”
Unfortunately, the toppling of President Mubarak in the subsequent weeks did not bring a “fresh, exciting new beginning”, but its own set of “trials and difficulties” – a largely euphemistic description of the harsh reality that faced his fledgling charity: harassment and callous beatings against both Tindy and his staff “almost daily”. Navigating this “sea of violence” in a country suffering “a complete breakdown of law” did not erode the team’s spirits, however.
“After we’d been attacked for the third time and most of our work was destroyed, we said: ‘let’s build for the last time’. Thankfully, no one has touched us since then. Seeing the charity on its feet, able to pay its rent and fully sustainable – that is my proudest moment. “My hopes now are to grow it into satellite communities throughout the city. Cairo is the second largest city in Africa, and there are so many more people we can help.”
Not one to dwell on his achievements, he’s already onto his next challenge: protective work in the harsh terrains of “what I fondly call ‘Camp Dreadful’” in the North of South Sudan. The fruit of an optimistic referendum, the new country remained violence-free for just two years until an alleged government coup dragged up ageold ethnic conflicts between the Dinka and Nuer tribes, plunging the whole country into violence in 2013. Amid reports of cannibalism, rape and torture, 2 million people have fled their homes, while the threat of famine looms for 4.6 million.
“If I’ve inspired some people, that’s lovely, but this is not about me”
The scale naturally draws comparison with the Syrian refugee crisis, but why, then, have we heard so little about it in the UK? It is only now that Tindy’s contagious smile falters, recounting how he arrived home to find South Sudan erased from the news agenda. “I’ve spoken to journalists and cabinet MPs about this. It was in the news a little, but then the EU crisis and Paris attacks took presidency because we want to know about what’s close to us. But the war has not relented. Aid workers have died in disgusting proportions. Aid workers from an organisation I know very well there died a few days ago, and not a single highlight in our media in the West. Nothing.”
It’s a bleak picture, but the context is one to which he can personally relate – and maybe even inject a little colour into. “It’s a gloomy, miserable situation – but when I was a young man, I remember having laughter even inside the most grim places… my life has defined me to overcome things in this way, and I want to inspire people with this positivity too.”
Despite his apparent gift for human rights work, a political career was originally order of the day, having “fallen in love with UK political debate.” “In my country, we settled things by taking up arms so seeing people actually agreeing to disagree – even laugh about their differences – was absolutely amazing,” he enthuses. This led him to a BA in Politics and International Relations – a course he describes as “quite good for getting the basics in politics and philosophy” but “lacking in stimulation” – at the University of Exeter, which he chose as he was “in awe at the beauty of Devon”.
To his dismay, he was “the only African in the entire politics department”, encountering racism within his first year, leading Emma Thompson to describe Exeter as a fitting home for BNP leader Nick Griffin. However, Tindy was thus able to open dialogue with Vice Chancellor Sir Steve Smith, who pledged “promising” new initiatives to counteract the University’s notorious whiteness. So when I evoke the results of Exeposé’s investigation into racial diversity, which found that recruitment of BME students had fallen yearly since 2012, he is “fantastically dispirited.” “This betrays the work we did in 2009 and the excitement and positivity of how the university received our thoughts about more engagement with students from minority backgrounds,” he laments, stressing that he “will demand answers.”
His guiding inspirations? Labour stalwarts John Reid, a former minister with working class roots, Tony Benn, (“I love the veracity of his character; he was born into privilege and actively rejected it”), and the blind former Home Secretary David Blunkett, of whom he speaks most fondly (“Although he was dishing out legislation that affected me as a young asylum seeker, I couldn’t believe how he had reached such high office with such disability, remaining so articulate and charismatic.”)
I suggest, perhaps, he might himself inspire others with his own tale of triumph over adversity. “If I’ve inspired some people, that’s lovely, but this is not about me. It’s about shared experiences, coming together as human beings, being mesmerised by others, having moral fortitude and lots and lots of laughter.”
There it is again, gleaming, in a nutshell. A way of life to trump all hardship, all pain: “The ‘Philosophy of Tindy’? Laughter, of course! Absolutely!”