JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – “Life is full of surprises. Today you might be sleeping in a dumping area but tomorrow you might be flying to meet the president of Malawi.”
Growing up in Zimbabwe and raised by his aunt in a home with nine other people is a far cry from where journalism lecturer Dr Trust Matsilele (37) finds himself today.
But though he was abandoned by his parents as a boy, Trust became determined not to be defined by his difficult childhood.
In 1983 Trust’s mother dropped him and his twin brother, Justice, at a Harare police station where their father worked. Trust never saw her again. Unable to care for the babies himself, their father sent them to live with their aunt at a Free Methodist mission compound in Masvingo.
Trust spent the first nine years of his life with his aunt, who was responsible for a 10-person household, including three of his siblings and a few nieces and nephews.
“My aunt was a teacher at Lundi Christian High School where we lived. She obtained her master’s at a time when few women were educated. You can imagine sustaining a family of 10 with a middle-class salary. As much as we managed to eat three meals a day, we didn’t enjoy some of the privileges of middle-class life like colour TV,” Trust says.
But when his aunt moved to South Africa in 1992, his brush with privilege came to an end.
Trust and his siblings moved in with their grandmother in Chitanga, a village in Masvingo province. The dynamics had changed completely: no electricity, no running water, no television.
“Overnight we no longer had lunchbox tins to carry to school and no buttered bread – we moved from being average middle-class children to lower-class children. Not because our economics changed, but because that’s life in rural areas. Where we’d use electricity we’d now use firewood. All these things were a radical shift.
“My grandmother loved us the same way my aunt loved us, so emotionally you don’t see this shift,” he says. “You still have the emotional bonds that are crucial for proper upbringing.”
Trust’s dad would visit them intermittently, but he couldn’t view the man as his father.
“My assumption is that a lot of children who are adopted very young have a different experience to those who are adopted in their formative years. Because we were adopted at five or six months, the only parent we knew was our aunt,” Trust says.
“Parents were theoretical, something abstract. Calling someone a father or mother was weird for me, because they’re parents biologically, not emotionally. These are just people who come to see you and go. So, I’d struggle to imagine a world without my aunt, but I’d also struggle to imagine a world with my parents because they’ve never been there.”
After obtaining his journalism diploma at the Christian College of Southern Africa in Harare, he made the decision against his family’s wishes to leave his job at National FM radio station and immigrate to South Africa in 2005.
“I wasn’t seeing much of a future in Zimbabwe, so I moved in with my uncle to Ga-Rankuwa [in Tshwane] and worked at a scrapyard picking out metal in the heat. I went from earning a decent salary at the radio station to earning R50 a day at a scrapyard.”
Two months later, he took refuge at a dumpsite where he collected and sold bricks. He was now a homeless man with a diploma.
“I wasn’t content with my situation, but I understood.”
Not long after, he found himself sharing a one-room shack with his cousin in Olievenhoutbosch, Centurion.
“We were travelling back and forth to Wierda Park in Centurion looking for menial jobs like gardening and construction work.”
But his luck was soon to change.
In 2007, after two years of unsuccessfully applying for journalism jobs, he crossed paths with someone who connected him to freelance work for a newspaper based in London.
“During that period I met another stranger who was the South African coordinator of a non-profit organisation called National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), which fought for constitutional reform in Zimbabwe. He invited me to work on my freelance articles from his office in Johannesburg.”
These two strangers are now close friends.
Tapera Kapuya, coordinator at NCA, then offered to pay for Trust’s fees should he consider furthering his studies.
The following year he enrolled for an honours degree in journalism at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. While studying at Wits, Trust started working with political parties and civic organisations in Zimbabwe.
“In 2008 I was involved in the campaigns of late Movement for Democratic Change president Morgan Tsvangirai. I travelled the bigger part of Zimbabwe through this campaign, being the link between the international media and [Tsvangirai].”
It didn’t stop there. In 2009 he joined the newly established African Democratic Institute (ADI), which conducted democracy advocacy initiatives across Africa, and travelled to countries such as Kenya, Malawi and Senegal.
In 2012 Trust enrolled for a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. This time around, he was able to pay his own way through school.
While working on his thesis, he travelled back and forth between South Africa and Malawi, heading a visibility campaign project for former Malawian president Joyce Banda under the ADI.
He also worked for Forbes Africa Magazine and CNBC Africa. And then the academic bug bit again, but this time he was faced with studying a master’s degree and a PhD at the same time.
“In 2014 I started applying for a number of things and one of the things I applied for was a programme to study in Canada. But I applied for a PhD at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) at the same time. The idea was if I don’t get one place, I’ll pursue whatever comes. I got an offer from Canada first and I started the visa applications. Within that waiting period, UJ accepted me for a PhD, so I started studying for my PhD while waiting for about eight to nine months for my visa to be approved.”
When his visa was approved in 2016, he was already one year into his PhD. But because the programme in Canada required him to attend lectures and the PhD didn’t, he decided to move to Canada in August.
With all his achievements, Trust has remained grounded.
“I still feel inadequate, I still feel insecure with whatever I have. I don’t feel that I know enough, I don’t feel that I’m educated enough. So, there’s this lingering sense of inadequacy that I think I’ll walk through life with every day, and that’s what I think keeps me humble.”