My Story: Peter Mutabazi
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Peter MutabaziPeter Mutabazi is an entrepreneur, an international advocate for children, and the founder of Now I Am Known, a corporation that supplies resources that encourage and affirm children. A single father of one son and foster dad to many, Mutabazi is a former street kid who has worked for World Vision and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and has appeared on media outlets such as the BBC and the TODAY show. A passionate and popular speaker, he currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina...more
After a childhood of abuse, Peter Mutabazi ran away from home to survive by theft on the streets of Kampala, Uganda. Then one day, someone asked his name.
My Story: Peter Mutabazi
Peter: I think, for all of these years, I thought I was less of a human being because I didn’t have a name; I wasn’t referred to as a human being. You know, we refer to people by their names and “What’s going on?” But for all those years, no one/no one ever took the initiative, in some way, to say, “He’s a human being.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today.
Dave: I think every young boy and girl goes on a journey to find out who they are. You know, my dad walked out of my life when I was seven years old. I didn’t realize, in that moment; but I would spend the next 20 years trying to discover: “Who am I?” I didn’t have that foundation. I think every person has that journey, and I thought my journey was remarkable.
We’ve got a guy in the studio today: you talk about a remarkable journey and story of finding identity.
Ann: Didn’t you feel like you were/like watching a movie?
Dave: Yes, just reading his book.
Ann: Yes, it’s amazing.
Dave: Let me see if I can say his name right: Peter Mutabazi.
Peter: Yes, you said it right: Peter Mutabazi.
Dave: Yes; well, your story—and it’s in your book we have sitting right here—Now I Am Know: How a Street Kid Turned Foster Dad Found Acceptance and True Worth. I am so excited for our listeners to hear your story.
But you’ve never been here, so welcome to FamilyLife Today!
Peter: Thank you. It’s a beautiful facility and beautiful people—so kind that they welcomed us and showed us around—so we love this place.
Dave: And we had a pretty good meal.
Peter: Yes; oh, yes!
Dave: So tell the world what you do; and of course, we want to get your story. But you’re an entrepreneur; you've got all kinds of things going on. I’ve already mentioned, in your subtitle, that you’re a foster dad; but don’t go there yet.
Dave: Start at the beginning; tell us where your life all began.
Peter: Oh, my life—where it began—I might need about a week to finish that/to go through my life. [Laughter] But really, I come from a small little town or small village called Kabale; it’s at the border of Uganda and Rwanda. During my time when I was born, life was different; you know, life was miserable in every shape/form you could imagine.
Actually, I did not have a name until I was two years old. Reasons are—because for every 100 children who were born, 60 would die before the age of 2—so moms were afraid to give kids names, because they weren’t sure they will make it. Once I made it at two, my mom named me Haberermana [spelling uncertain]; which means, “a gift given to me by God”; so that’s what it means. That’s the kind of world I come from—that from birth—you didn’t know if you’d make it; you know.
Dave: I mean, do you/do you remember not having a name or you’re too young?
Peter: I was too young; I don’t remember.
Dave: But you were told they waited until you were two years old.
Peter: Two years old. People asked me: “What did they call you?” Well, I was called “the boy.” You can imagine, for every mother in that community/for every mother in that village, to be pregnant—but you can’t tell people—because you’re not sure: “Will they survive? Will they make it?”—and that was me.
And then, of course, I think I began to realize life was different at the age of three/four; because at three and four, I would go and fetch water about three miles away. You know think about—at age four years old, with other little four-year-olds and five-year-olds—you’d trek through the village to go get water; because your family didn’t have clean water. And you did this every day. So think about: I never had a childhood, because your childhood was spent looking for those small family needs that you had to meet at the age of four. I’d go get water, and that was for drinking; but then, the rest would use for clothes; washing utensils; would use water that animals drink from, cows and anything else. So at the age of four, I could do all that.
But also, my dad wasn’t there—because sometimes/I think, in some tribes, you know, men don’t get to participate in today’s life of a family. Or he was working somewhere else so he wasn’t at home in so many ways. My life as a kid—you know, that’s all I can remember is just misery—when it came to food, we never had enough food to eat. You know, we could not have beans and potatoes because that was too much food. We would eat beans today and, then, eat potatoes the next day; so we can spread the little we have for a little longer. That was really my life.
I had my mom and my dad, but they never told me to dream. No one ever said: “Peter, one day you be a teacher,” or “Dream to be something”; because there was nothing around us that’d really give us the glimpse of hope.
Ann: You were just surviving every day.
Peter: Absolutely, and it wasn’t just my family; it was everyone around you. You’re surrounded by hopelessness—but all you think is that—there’s nothing else you could imagine.
You know, I think at age four, you begin to realize: “My dad is different from other dads.” I’d visit other families, and I’d see like their dads are different from my dad. Here’s the reason why: my dad was the meanest human being that I knew. My dad was mean in every shape/form you could think of towards me, as a son, but also, to my mother as well. I saw the worst rage you could think of.
As kids, we work so hard to please our parents: you go fetch water; you bring it and you hope your dad is going to say, “That was good job.” For me, I never had one kind word from my dad. This is what I had from my dad every day: “You’ll never amount to anything,” “You’re good for nothing,” “You’re stupid,” “There’s no hope for you,” and “I wish you were never born, so I never had to feed you.”
Ann: Ahh, Peter, like those are just death words/curse words. They’re just—
Dave: —every day.
Ann and Peter: —every day.
Dave: He said that to your siblings too?
Peter: —and to my mother as well.
Dave: —every day?
Peter: —every day. Think about: you’re age of four, and that’s all you hear from your father: “How do you dream?” “How do you hope there’s tomorrow for you when someone says, ‘I wish you were never born, so I don’t have to feed you’?” So that meant the food we had, sometimes, was out of his mercy: he chooses to buy that food.
As a kid, there’s no way I could hope. There’s no way I could dream to have tomorrow, because today was worse enough that I did not want to go through the next day. But you knew: “It’s going to be the next day, the next week, the next month.”
Dave: Every single day just repeat, repeat, repeat.
Ann: So you must have thought nothing of yourself.
Peter: I think, in my head, I trained myself to not even be hopeful—like you didn’t want to dream or think that it could be a better life for you—"For me, no; not at all.”
Ann: Was your mom loving?
Peter: Yes! Our mom was the most loving human being that I know. She did the best she could. But when you’re getting abused every day—but your mom gets the same thing—you know, it’s hard to protect your little ones when you cannot protect yourself.
To this day, I can remember that our mom spent more time in our room; because she was hiding from my dad, so I know that she loved us. I know that she did everything she could so we could make it in life. But at the same time, I think, as the oldest kids, we go through that—we want to protect our mother, but we’re too tiny; we’re too small to do so—and with my dad’s anger, you just didn’t know when?—what time? It was any time/any day.
Ann: What did you feel about him?—did you hate him?—did you resent him? Or was that just normal, because you knew nothing different?
Peter: No, I hated him.
Peter: But as I think, as a little boy, “What do you do?” To me, he seemed like a giant in every shape/form. And there was nothing I can do, but I hated him in every shape/form you could imagine.
Dave: So what happened? I mean, this sounds like this is a horrible story that’s never going to get any better.
Peter: Oh, no! And of course, I think, as we get older, we get to understand abuse even deeper. As I got eight/as I got nine, I understood that: “Hey, this man is likely to take my life one day.” You’re just waiting: “When would that happen?” But at ten, one day I think I woke up, and I said, “Look, to give my dad an opportunity to kill me is not fair to me,”—that I’d rather give it to someone else. To me, I’d rather die in the hands of another stranger than my own dad; because today, my dad [killing] me is getting joy; so I am not going to do that.
So one day, I woke up; and I went to the bus station. I’d never been 20 miles away from my village. I went to the bus station; and I asked the lady/I say, “Which bus goes the farthest?” This is like three in the morning. The reason why I asked which one, I wanted to make sure that I go as far away as I could;—
Dave: —far away; yes.
Peter: —so he could never get to me.
I got on that bus, and I was so worried that my dad was going to come. So every car that passed by, I would hold onto the bus so hard and hide. It took about 16 hours, and I ended up in Kampala. But every hour, I always thought: “He’s right here; he’s going to find me,” and “He’s going to kill me.” But I made it to Kampala, 500 miles away.
Dave: And you’re still thinking he’s going to find you.
Peter: Yes, that’s the fear: you know, when our abusers instill that in our mind and body, that even when they’re not there.
Dave: Did your mom know you were going to leave?
Peter: No, I did not tell anyone.
Ann: So now, you’ve run away; you’re in a new city you’ve never been to before.
Dave: —ten years old.
Ann: Yes; how are you going to survive?
Peter: Exactly, and I don’t speak the language.
Peter: They speak a different language; you know. [Laughter] So I’m in this city—I’m where the bus stops—in Africa, the bus stops all in one spot; so you have hundreds of people. I saw other kids, who looked like me: they were cleaning up; they were gathering things. I thought, “You know, it’s better maybe to introduce myself,” or “…get to know these people.” One of them, for some reason, he saw me; and he just said, “Hey, come over. Hang out with us.” And right there, and then, I knew I had found family. You know, they were dirty—they were/they spoke different languages—but we would communicate in some ways.
Ann: Did they have parents?
Peter: No, they were also street kids. That’s when I realized, “Oh, okay; my life is going to be a street kid”; and that’s when I became a street kid.
Ann: But it was better than your beatings
Peter: Oh! I mean, it was hard and harsher—at home, I was dreaming of you know having another day—on the streets, you’re dreaming: “Will I have the next hour?”; because you have to survive, hour by hour.
Dave: So what happens? I mean, here we are—you’re on the streets; you’re ten years old—there’s still evil going on in your life.
Peter: Absolutely, yes. On the streets—this time, I think I had resigned of life—I think, in some way, “If I die today, I don’t care”; you know? But as street kids, we learned how to survive: we knew to be productive; we knew how to really make ourselves useful in some way. Our job was to always help people, who needed help—or who are lifting things that were heavy, especially food—because it was easier to steal a banana and a potato while you’re helping someone than take it.
They knew: “Hey, I give you cheap labor; I get a reward,”—but—“If you’re not rewarding me, I’ll reward myself; I’m going to steal one.” And that’s how we survived—by really, stealing—and we had a system: I steal bananas; the next street kid steals potatoes; the next one steals yams; or the other one cassavas. At the end of the day, we would have enough food to eat under the bridge. We would not take food to cook—only food we can roast—because we would burn trash. In that way, that’s how we would make our meals at night.
That became my life. I’d been in the streets for one year and a half. On the streets, you know, I think I was seen more like a stray animal; you know, I was garbage boy. No one ever called me by name, ever. No one—for four and a half years I lived in the streets—no one ever asked me: “What’s your name?”
Peter: I was a dog; that’s how they referred to us most of the time, so I think I believed it—that that’s who I was—in a sense. You know, for four and a half years, life was just miserable every day. I think I slept, an average of, an hour every 24 hours.
Peter: Because it was safer to be awake than be asleep. Most kids would die while they are sleeping. If you sleep under the car—if they drive away, and you’re under it—then it’s the end of your life. If someone was to harm you, it was always if you’re sleeping. Or sometimes, people would pour acid or fire—or anything that was on fire—they would throw it on you. In order to be safe from it, you had to be alert at all times. That was really my life—to be alert and to be sleeping just an hour—that’s all you could have.
Ann: So here you are—14½ years old—no one calls you by name. You’re surviving one day at a time, not even sleeping; and then, what happened?
Peter: One day, I get to see one gentleman, wearing glasses, khaki, and spoke English. As a street kid, I was like: “There’s my target.” So I was like, “I’m getting food, either he wants or not.”
Ann: Could you speak any English?
Peter: Yes, I could; you know, as street kids, we learned how to learn other languages; and English was one of them. I follow him as he buys bananas. As soon as he bought, I say, “Can I carry these to your car?” He said, “Stop.” He said, “What is your name?”
That rattled me, like, “Wait a minute; you want to know my name? Why would you want to know my name?” Because for all of these years, no one had ever asked me my name. But also, it scared me; because for anyone, who was kind, always it came with abuse after. In some way, him asking me my name made me more alert: “More danger,” “Danger,” “Run; run!”
Ann: Interesting; yes.
Peter: But before I could take it, he gave me something to eat; and he left. He came back the next week; he did the same.
I think, for me, what made me even always look for him or anticipate his coming was because he called me by my name; you know?
Dave: He remembered your name?
Peter: Yes! And it was the only thing that really I looked towards for every Monday there.
Dave: —just to hear your name?
Peter: He’s a stranger who would call me by my name; because for all these years, no one called me by my name.
Dave: What did that mean to you?—you’re somebody?
Peter: Ahh; [big sigh] I don’t know how to explain that you know. [Emotion in voice] When all life has been stripped of you; and in the midst of that, someone calls you by your name—[emotion in voice]—I think, for all of these years, I had thought I was less of a human being; because I didn’t have a name; or I wasn’t referred to as a human being. We refer to people by their names and “What’s going on?”
I was called Peter—and that’s who I was known by for all those years—and no one/no one ever took the initiative, in some way, to say: “He’s a human being.”
Ann: —to acknowledge you as a human being
Peter: —as a human being, yes. [Emotion in voice] That’s all I looked for on every Monday, between six and eight in the evening; for someone to say, “Hey, Peter,”—that’s all.
Dave: You had dignity: “I see you,”—all that in a name.
Peter: —in a name.
Ann: [Emotion in voice]—which makes me—like I know this is—it makes me think of people, who are living on the streets, whom we don’t look at them; we don’t acknowledge them. We pretend they are invisible in some ways. You probably felt invisible in a lot of ways.
Peter: Yes; I can guarantee you: for any of that street person—if you ever say, “Say, what’s your name?”—see the reaction they’ll give you, because no one ever—
Ann: I’m going to do that.
Peter: —bothers to ask them their name: “What’s your name?”
Ann: So what happened—
Dave: So this man ends up—what happened?
Peter: He feeds me for one year and a half; because you know, I think, the fourth week, I knew where he drives, what kind of car he drives when he parks his car, [Laughter] what time he comes, what he buys. I knew, to the “T,” what he does. I’ll be waiting every Monday; he fed me for one year and a half—
Dave: Did he do that with many of your friends or just you?
Peter: It was me. But he would give me enough to share; you know, he’d give me extra.
Ann: What did he give you?
Peter: He’d give me bananas; or he’d give me cooked rice; or he’d give me roasted cassava/it’s an African root that we love to eat; or he’d give me nuts—roasted G nuts—we call them ground nuts. That’s what he’d give me every time he came. And so he did that for a year and a half.
One day, he’d—I don’t know; I was sitting, waiting for him, to give me something to eat—and he was like, “Hey, Peter if you have an opportunity to go to school, would you love to go? Would you like to go to school?” And I’m sitting there, laughing, like, “What an idiot,”— [Laughter]—sorry to say that; but I’m kind of like: “I’m a street kid; I’m stealing things,”—
Dave: “That’s never going to happen.”
Peter: —like: “Why would you think of that?”
Think about: when you’ve been reduced to nothing/to below humanity; and someone offers you a school, it’s beyond what—you know, in my mind—it was like: “Wait a minute.” To Americans, this is what I would say to both of you: “Would you like to go to the moon?”—because they are about the same—people would say, “Would you like to go?” [Laughter] But you’re laughing; you know why?
Dave: “It’s not going to happen.”
Peter: It's not like it’s not going to happen; it’s not something you go to bed, dreaming about. You don’t work for NASA; you’re not into space. In some way, when he said, “Would you like to go to school?” That’s when I was like, “That’s for human beings, who have a place to be/who dream. I am not that kind”; so I did not pay attention.
But he asked several times; so finally, I said, “You know what? I’m going to say, ‘Yes,’ so he never have to ask me again.”
Dave: —just stop it right there; yes.
Peter: —just stop it. But also, I think I didn’t want him to stop his food he was giving me; so it was like, “What can I say, that he’d love to hear, so I still get my food and get him off of my back?” So I said, “Yes, absolutely.” He said, “Okay.”
He came back; and a week later, he brought me clothes. But he made a mistake; he asked me to go take a shower. As a street kid, I didn’t bathe. I mean, I waited for God’s rain to come; that’s when I’d shower. So for him, saying, “Go [shower],”—to me, I felt like he’s being arrogant—"Don’t you know where…”—like: “Where would I go?” So I said, “No.”
He came back two weeks later; he said, “Go clean up.” “Clean up,”—I understood what that meant, because I could go wash my face and come back. I went to the sewer—clean my face—and came back. He gave me clothes to wear, and he took me to school. Before he took me to school, he said, “Hey, when we go to school, it’s a boarding school; and you’re going to have lunch, dinner, and breakfast.” I mean, literally, I was like, “That can’t be true.”
Ann: How many meals were you eating a day?
Peter: I mean, we ate when we could—at three in the morning; you know—it was rare to have a real meal. It was more of: “How do I survive?” If someone was lucky, they’d give it to you; and you get to share with your others. So it wasn’t something you’d count on.
Ann: At this point, did you know this man’s name? Did you know anything about him?
Peter: No; I did not want to know his name.
Dave: Still suspicious?
Peter: Suspicious, you know: “You’re kind, so you’re going to hurt me”; so I’m going to stay as far as I could. But towards school, I come to know his name. So then, once he mentioned food, I was like, “Okay.” I think, from then on, I didn’t really think about school; I was about food: “That can’t be true: food; food.”
And finally, he came and took me to school. As we drove, I asked him, “Why me? There are more than 2,000 kids in the streets of Kampala; why me?” And he said, “Peter, I just want to be faithful.” But I did not understand what that meant: “I want to be faithful”?—“Okay”; you know?
We went; and it was lunchtime, and so they give me lunch. So then, I waited for dinner; because they had said there would be dinner. [Laughter] It was more like [curiosity], like, “That can’t be true.”
Ann: “Is this real?”
Peter: So then, I waited for dinner; and dinner came. But before I left the streets, I told my street kids, “Hey, if you don’t see me in the next 24 hours, be sure you kill him,” or “…do something harmful.” Because I thought he was going to do something bad,—
Dave: Right; right.
Peter: —so I made sure I left backup somehow.
Ann: Yes, to even get in a man’s car—to drive—that’s dangerous.
Peter: Yes, absolutely; so I had to come back that night. But this is like 15 miles away—so I have to walk back, at night, to let them know I was okay—because they would have harmed him if I did not come.
Ann: They were your family
But then, they said there was breakfast; so I went back. [Laughter] So then I go back on my walk; I don’t know how long it took. Actually, when I arrived, it was breakfast/they were going for breakfast. So then I went and I waited for breakfast.
So I—in the process of waiting for the next meal, next meal—it’s what made me stay longer. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a teacher; it wasn’t like I loved school. To me, the process of waiting for the meal is what made me stay one day, two day, three day, a week.
Then, the second week, that’s when I thought, “Wait a minute; for me to keep getting the food, I need to go to class.” So now, I knew the trick. It wasn’t like I wanted to learn—no—it was: “If I need to keep this process of getting food, there’s something I have to give that I don’t like:”—and that’s meaning—"to attend class.” So that’s how I managed to go to school.
Shelby: We’ll hear a few takeaways from Dave and Ann in just a minute; but first, Peter’s book is called Now I Am Known: How a Street Kid Turned Foster Dad Found Acceptance and True Worth. You can get a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Peter’s story today brings our hearts back to our mission for godly families. As our valued listeners, you are the backbone of our mission. I just wanted to remind you: when you join us, financially, as a monthly partner, you can explore all the subjects we talk about, here, on FamilyLife Today. You can live on mission with early access to new products, special live events, resources to share, as well as membership in our exclusive social media groups. You can partner, financially, online at FamilyLifeToday.com or by calling 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, ”L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
And when you do give today, we want to send you a copy of Tim Muehlhoff’s book, Eyes to See. Tim was a guest earlier this week on FamilyLife Today. It’s our “Thanks,” to you when you partner, financially, with us today. Again, you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com.
Okay, here’s Dave and Ann with a few takeaways from today’s conversation.
Dave: There’s so much more to this story, and we’re out of time; so you’ve got to come back tomorrow and listen to the rest of the story. Here’s one takeaway for me: the power of a name; the power of a name.
You [Ann] teared up/we teared up when you [Peter] talked about him saying your name. It’s so—it’s our identity—it says we have dignity when somebody says our name.
Ann: And I would say, too, I’m listening to this, thinking, “Oh, Jesus already knew your name.”
Ann: He already called you, and He put people in your path; because He had a hope and a future for you. And He has that for all of us. There’s not one person that He doesn’t know by name, and love them, and have something for them.
Shelby: Now, tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson continue the story with Peter Mutabazi about how the true power of turning his life around was found through being affirmed by those around him. If he didn’t have his new family, Peter would never have considered going to school, or even living more than a street-kid life; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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