Olivier Ndayisaba feared he would die in Africa before he could ever get to fulfill his dreams. Here is his remarkable story
Sunk into Mum’s couch, all arms and legs and languid, athletic nonchalance; folding, unraveling, a sweet curiosity tickling another thought, those spiky, strange new words, recollected triumphs, the “I’m just a quiet sort of guy” mantra.
Then he half-fools you again with that smile, slapped on the end of stuff going on you wouldn’t reckon, of dreams and daring and living so long as an outsider no one wanted. Mostly.
It’s as if he has bucketsful of time for the encore to fade and trickle away, to nothing, before pulling out that show-stopping Bobby Dazzler. Slow and smooth, a melting surprise.
You didn’t expect that grin, it seems to say, but of course he did. He does.
This is 17-year-old Olivier Ndayisaba and he knows what he wants, where he’s going. What’s coming next.
Yeah, just a quiet guy. Sitting back, kicking back, thinking you’re thinking not much is happening, when he actually can’t avert his inner gaze from the winners popping-up ahead.
Click, click, click.
This calm, dutiful boy who didn’t want to die in Africa.
This proud son, mucking about on a gaming console in his Wodonga home, at the start of his gap year before university in Melbourne, perhaps studying sports management, who felt like he had to think as hard as almighty to keep breathing in the excitement of making it to Australia.
Where he did almost die.
The family chose Townsville, a few years back, because it was the best way to get a foothold, quickly, after a small eternity enveloped in the dangers of an anonymous Kenyan city, where Olivier arrived aged 11.
Their journey was fraught with danger. It was a pivotal tenet of their lives, this matter of survival, that lure of salvation beyond such hopelessness.
Many people killed every single day. Kenya’s not a good place, was not safe for us.
Yet the years frittered away as some won the Western world resettlement lottery and others languished. There appeared no reason for why some would go and some would stay.
Go back home, from Kenya. Get out of here, from where he was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They didn’t want him, his family. God wanted him, Jesus embraced him, Mum Beatrice and Dad John, his brothers and sisters - he’s in the middle, in a lucky sibling seven – somehow stuck together across alternating worlds of conflict and peace, across countries and continents.
Warring tribes killed the men in his Congolese village. The women were raped. Their houses were set alight.
Olivier’s father saw Kenya as somewhere to escape their own likely deaths and to uncover a route to the United Nations, through the organisation’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
That would open a path to another country.
A better one, like Australia, America or Canada. I was thinking about America. When I was younger I was telling my mum ... “Mum, can we go to live in America one day?”.
She was like “um, we’re not going to live there”.
Kenya was no haven. Olivier was able to go to school, though he couldn’t thrive in a class of 100 students and just one teacher.
Being Congolese made him a target for bullies.
Home for this family of nine was a two-room house, smaller than his classrooms at Wodonga Senior Secondary College. Tables were hung at night from contraptions his father attached to the ceiling so they could cram onto mattresses choking the floor.
Olivier’s elation, this now-storybook adventure, of matching photos of that bizarre, faraway place with “this is really” Oz, when he finally got here, left him giddy and floundering, on a high fired by the blessed immortality of a teenage boy immersed in wanting to help others, of wanting to succeed.
From when he was a small boy, from around the age of six, doing some cooking and washing the dishes when Mum wasn’t about.
And after doing it I felt really good in my heart.
And then no complaints, nothing but gratitude for what little they had, on escaping to Kenya, or for the grinding emptiness of an hour-long walk to school without having eaten for half a day, another half day to go.
It was difficult. The hunger was always there. I just got used to it. That’s the daily routine, it doesn’t change.
Maybe people here don’t know what they have in Australia. They don’t know how rich they are.
Shock in the thrill of having a bed to himself in that Townsville house, the family’s first home, shared with up to 20 other refugees settling in and then learning about Australian life before finding their own homes.
Even better, there was food in the fridge.
I see chickens, milk. I was so happy they were there. It was a dream. It was a dream. It was hard to believe. I was sleeping and then when I wake up I just look. “Am I in Australia?”
I had to make sure I was in Australia, and then I went back to sleep.
Shoes yanked off, Olivier hurtles away, under the crag, the bulging beacon of the pink granite monolith that’s Castle Hill. Along Townsville’s paved roads, copycat houses, a couple of lonesome high-rise office buildings, the city and its sleepy, tropical suburbia by the reef.
Mundane and magnificent.
A grassed soccer pitch, his elongated thighs and calves, those elegant, gently swaying arms, saved from the savage scrapes of mistimed tackles in the stone-hard African dirt, where his ragtag bunch won the “Super Cup” play-off against a Kenyan team, then fled as the blood-boiled vanquished chased, righteously, violently, trying to thieve their medals.
But this brief, impromptu flight of light feet through the back streets of Townsville was eons away in spirit and purpose.
I ran out to see the houses. I went barefoot and then I came back. I was so happy.
Even that was to fail him – in the consequences of a life surrounded by death, in his thankfulness for their poverty (the bandits in Kenya targeted only the rich), of being a smart, inquisitive, watchful kid – once his new reality made sense.
They had six months in Townsville, “overwhelming” times, searching for a school, help with resumes, Centrelink, bank accounts.
I just didn’t feel like Townsville was the best coz when I got there obviously I was happy, but when I went to school, I don’t know, nobody would talk to me much. I think “what am I doing here?” and so it was like “I don’t like Townsville”.
Since coming to Wodonga he has spent a season playing soccer with Wodonga Diamonds and then, this year, Murray United. A bit impatient he’s not yet at a more elite club, he also accepts silky skills are wasted without coaching. Without strategy.
But first there was that Townsville field.
When I got to the soccer ground I saw the grass and I was like “mate, this is so good, I’m going to be able to do everything here, to tackle”. I started thinking forward, that maybe I could become a professional soccer player.
DEATH tried knocking with a fearsome blow.
Cracked hard to the back of his head, a bully’s racist punch, out of this younger boy’s disgrace at being called out for punching an even younger lad.
Knees grazed when Olivier collapsed – he “didn’t know what happened” – got him into the sick bay, his ricocheted, blood-squelched brain put him in hospital.
Life-threatening, but instead he’s left with an injustice unleashed in the schoolyard as recess ended and kids headed back to class, not long after he began his final year.
A listless mid-February day, heat rising and a northerly puff threatening to gust.
That silent punch. His body convulsed, he couldn’t talk, but he kept seeing, the light still shining because of his faith, from going to church every Sunday and having little chats in our house about what that all means.
This shared religious devotion.
It’s the origin of his identity. For others, he sees identity as something everyone needs, to find a way to tackle the logjams and entanglements of life.
The schoolyard attack and his recovery were traumatic, he says, and at first he could not see a way of ever again helping someone in need.
It was a fleeting feeling.
Since I've been young I've been wanting to make the world a better place. I felt strongly because, you know, Congo is not a good place to live in.
And so something was motivating me to do good in life, do better than others and do good to others. It was a natural thing.
Of that day, Olivier clearly sees one boy being punched by another slightly older. Both younger than him. He remembers being amazed at others standing around staring, doing nothing.
I was like “what is going on?”. I tried to convince him – “that’s a kid, can’t you see?”.
He tried to show off because the other kids looking came around us. He pushed me.
Olivier was pushed again and retaliated with a punch (he now accepts bullying can drive anyone to rage), then the other boy ran away – spooked, he believes, by an approaching teacher.
But the boy returned and Olivier is convinced it was because a mate likely asked him how he could possibly let that new kid do what he did.
I wasn’t looking at him, that’s when he punched me in the back of my head. By then, because I think I had a concussion, I couldn’t talk. That’s when I started getting seizures.
I was passing out and coming back and passing out.
He woke the next day in Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital to learn he had bleeding on the brain, was warned not to play soccer for three months. Olivier was plagued by headaches and had to re-learn how to walk.
A dizziness confounded him on his first run, a month later at school.
But he is buoyant and strong, sensing a racism rooted in a boy’s ignorance over a cruelty and cowardice inflamed by shame.
The Ndayisaba family had moved to Wodonga at the end of 2015 as a relative of John’s did likewise before them. It made it far easier to get a job, to get a better education. Olivier began Year 11 in 2016 and has just finished his VCE.
Everybody at school was happy to see us, me and my sister. And when you were in class everyone was talking to you. So it was good, I liked it.
He won’t be wasteful, knowing one day he’ll send money to his grandparents in Africa.
And then there’s a hopeful son’s thanks to Beatrice and John.
They’re hard working. They motivate us to do better in life.
Love and guidance, faith and strength.
For Olivier Ndayisaba, these are the powerful certainties of life.