Homeless, Destitute and Alone: Lessons Learned Along the Way

Old Suitcase and Shoes

'The gospel of Jesus Christ can change us fundamentally, and that this is what helps us change our circumstances.'

When Etienne Marakavi arrived in South Africa at the age of 25 he had no family, no home and very little money. 

Having lost his parents and survived many civil war atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, he left the country by himself on foot. At 19 years old he began an epic journey, travelling from country to country in pursuit of a new home. He stayed in refugee camps along the way, relying on donated food and shelter to survive.

Eventually, Etienne found himself in Norway. There, he had the life-changing experience of meeting the missionaries and joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But a fruitless attempt to gain asylum status meant that after some time, he was forced to leave. 'I went to Rwanda, Uganda, and then Kenya”, said Etienne, “where I was advised to leave the country. Then I moved to Tanzania, where I was told the country does not accept asylum seekers. I moved to Malawi, where I unsuccessfully tried to apply for asylum, and I had to leave due to the harsh conditions of life. I managed to slip through Mozambique, where I got mugged and robbed”. He made it to Tongogara, a refugee camp in Zimbabwe. But the conditions in the camp were extremely harsh and “hopeless” said Etienne, so he left again -- this time bound for South African shores.

Because he had found the church, he had something he didn’t previously: a testimony. But his temporal circumstances were dire.   

“I had every expectation of being homeless for several years”, says Etienne.

And in the beginning, he was. He joined a group of homeless people on the streets of a small border town called Musina and lived on discarded food to stay alive. 

But some months later he managed to travel to Johannesburg. There, he gradually started finding menial jobs. Now, a few years later, he pays his own rent, has completed his high-school certificate, recently finished the Church-sponsored distance-learning “Pathway” programme and is now registered with BYU Idaho to earn a degree in computer science. He has also remained active and faithful in church -- currently serving as the ward assistant clerk.

Etienne shares the three biggest things he learned about self-reliance in this extraordinary journey, and his answers show an understanding that self-reliance permeates every part of our lives. “People should not confuse the topic of self-reliance with self-sufficiency”, he says. “I firmly believe that self-reliance involves both spiritual and temporal aspects of people’s lives”. His three personal lessons are:

Develop faith and practice faithful habits

“What I first learned about the principle of self-reliance is to always rely on the Lord through the basic routines such as morning prayers and daily scripture studies while I am trying to achieve the goals that I set out”, says Etienne. “Self-reliance in this case means to have faith in the Lord and at that time I am exercising the free agency that the Lord bestowed upon me”.

Carrying out the daily habits of prayer and scripture reading takes discipline. And discipline takes work. 

The church Handbook of Instructions reminds us that work is fundamental to any kind of self-reliance, and that it is the foundation of joy: “To become self-reliant, a person must work”, it reads. “Work is physical, mental, or spiritual effort. It is a basic source of happiness, self-worth, and prosperity. Through work, people accomplish many good things in their lives”.

Look for help in developing skills, not handouts

“The second thing I learned is the ability to seek help that will impact your life positively in the long run both temporally and spiritually,” says Etienne. “In other words, you better learn to ask people to teach you how to fish, rather than constantly asking people to give you the fish”. 

When he first arrived in South Africa, Etienne remembers the struggle of meeting basic financial obligations. “It was really very difficult,” he said. But as he battled through these challenges and asked for help when he needed it, he always kept in mind his end goal: “finding a job so that I could take care of myself”.

Look for ways to help others build up their own strength

“The third thing that I learned about self-reliance is the ability to help others to become in their turn self-reliant”, says Etienne. “We all are gifted in our way or another, and we can use our gifts to help and bless others so that they too, in their turn, can even help many more. By empowering our fellow beings, we learn and enrich our lives in the process”.

Etienne’s life is living proof of how the gospel of Jesus Christ can change us fundamentally, and that this is what helps us change our circumstances. President Ezra Taft Benson put it this way: “The world would take people out of the slums. Christ takes the slums out of people, and then they take themselves out of the slums. The world would mould men by changing their environment. Christ changes men, who then change their environment. The world would shape human behaviour, but Christ can change human nature”.

Above all, Etienne’s faith in the Lord helps him maintain perspective through the tough times. “I think my trials are small compared to what Joseph Smith and the early church pioneers went through”, he says. “In the trying moments I always try to remember the words that God told the Prophet Joseph Smith while he was in Liberty jail, as recorded in D&C 122: 

“If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea… and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”

“Therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever”.