July 29th, 2014

by Emily Hill, ehill@al.com

MOBILE, Alabama "I never dreamed to be who I am today and if it wasn't for people believing in me, I wouldn't be where I am," Shepherd Togarepi from Zimbabwe said through tears in an interview with AL.com this week.

Togarepi, 39, will graduate from Bishop State Community College on Wednesday with an associate degree in occupational technology specializing in diesel technology and truck driving, a milestone he never thought he would reach.

Born in the Gweru village of Zimbabwe, Togarepi's family struggled to survive. With determination, hard work and help from others, however, Togarepi made it to America.

The struggle to survive

When Togarepi was 14 years old his father, Nomore, lost his job, forcing the family to move from the city to the Gweru village. Togarepi's mother, Rosemary, took on the responsibility of providing for the family.

"I got to a point where, during the high school time, I could see how hard it was for my family and for my mother during that process, for her to be waking up in the morning to go and buy foods to sell and pay for my school fees. So it just really had a big impact on me, that moment," Togarepi said Monday.

In the middle of receiving his high school education, Togarepi left the village to search for a job so he could help support the family.

Togarepi found a job at Quest Motors in a nearby city, and worked as a security guard for about one year.

"One night they caught me driving a car because I always wanted to learn how to drive. So I was fired for driving new cars in the yard," Togarepi said. "I had nobody who could teach me so I said 'I can do it myself.' "

"With the guilt of feeling I'll shame my parents because the money that I was sending them was no longer coming because I did something wrong, I decided not to go back to the village," Togarepi explained.

He traveled to the border town of Beitbridge after hearing of people leaving Zimbabwe for South Africa to finding jobs. At 16 years of age, Togarepi took the risk of traveling to South Africa.

The escape from Zimbabwe

The only option was crossing into the country illegally "and that was one of the challenges where some people make it, and some people don't."

He traveled with seven other people as they swam across the Limpopo River between the two countries. Togarepi said that during that process, three people didn't make it across.

After reaching South Africa, Togarepi said police showed up. "Luckily there were some stores that we went behind and we spent the whole day in the alley," Togarepi said. A woman brought food to Togarepi and several others in hiding.

The next day they traveled to a farm in the town of Phalaborwa and met several people who had come to South Africa from Zimbabwe years earlier, and they offered to help Togarepi get settled. One of those people, Kenneth Mathebula, gave Togarepi a place to stay.

He was given various landscaping jobs, and locals also gave him food and clothes to wear.

"I truly don't know why they were so nice to me. I just felt some things do truly happen for a reason and the way I've been blessed to be able to make it from Zimbabwe to where I was at that moment, I could really not believe that all this is happening," Togarepi said.

Kenneth moved to another town, but people he knew continued to help Togarepi.

Then, Togarepi said a traveling teacher had a colleague who led a wood-chopping company and the teacher arranged for Togarepi to meet him. At age 17, Togarepi got the job. "They said, 'We are warning you this is a hard job for a young guy like you.' I said, 'well, I can try.' It was really hard but I had to make it," Togarepi said.

He would chop a five-pound bag of wood for about 25 cents, and send money home to his mother. "I was really trying what I can to support my mother because I had two young sisters after me, and I was trying very hard for her not to go through what I saw while I was growing."

'I didn't know when you see the white man you should run'

During this time Togarepi was working with five South African locals. "We had one problem of not having water. There was no running water at the farm where I was staying," Togarepi said.

"We used to go under the bridge and dig for water to wash and cook and clean dishes. We had no beds or electricity."

For almost a year Togarepi lived in those conditions, until one day an opportunity came unexpectedly.

Near the farm where he lived was a research center called Global Vision International, which brings students from around the world to various developing nations for wildlife research expeditions, Togarepi said.

"One day in the afternoon we were under the bridge fetching for water then it happened that one of the expedition leaders was driving along the fence line," Togarepi said. "During those days is when there was still a big tension between the locals and the whites there. So I didn't know that, so the reaction everybody had when the white guy arrived, all the local guys I was with they ran away."

"So I just remained there. I didn't know when you see the white man you should run."

The man from the expedition asked Togarepi what he was doing, and Togarepi explained that they had no clean water. "He said 'I'll be bringing you clean water every day,'" Togarepi said. For about six months 20 gallons of clean water was delivered to the farm Togarepi was staying at.

Togarepi was then asked to do gardening at GVI twice a week for extra money, while continuing to chop wood.

A year and a half later, Togarepi was offered a full-time job and was asked to move into the GVI camp. "It really surprised me. I wasn't expecting that to happen," Togarepi said.

"The guys I was working with, at chopping wood, I told them I was moving across the street and they said 'the white man is going to kill you now.' "

Togarepi said he was taught everything, from table manners, to how to pump water, and the proper way to drive. Living with the GVI people also allowed him to learn more English, Togarepi said. "For somebody like me, growing up in a house in the village where you see baths maybe once a week, having that kind of life was really a big change for me."

Togarepi began joining researchers on expeditions, and became extremely interested in animals.

From wood chopper, to gardener, to safari guide

Sophie Greatwood with GVI put Shepherd in touch with Hugh Marshal, director of safari rangers at Conservation Corporation Africa (CC Africa). Marshal met Togarepi then sent him to KwaZulu-Natal for ranger training.

"When I was there we stayed six weeks walking, tracking animals on foot, and identifying which animal walked where. When we finished training I wanted to go back to GVI but they said, 'Well you've done so much, it's beyond what GVI does,'" Togarepi said.

"I thought they were kicking me out at one point, but later I realized they were trying to give me another step ahead."

Marshal lined up about three interviews with different companies in hopes of getting Togarepi a job as a safari guide. At 25 years of age, Togarepi got a job with CC Africa in a small village.

Togarepi said guests drive their cars near the camp and park downhill, then one employee drives a car full of luggage up the hill, while another drives the guests. Togarepi drove guests to the camp, and when they arrived some of the luggage -- driven to the camp by another employee -- was missing.

"I went to him and said 'what have you done with guest luggage?' He said, 'don't worry about it ... don't say anything.' "

"I called mister Marshal and I said something really bad happened here and I don't want to be part of it," Togarepi said.

Marshal came, held an emergency meeting to resolve the issue of stolen luggage, then had Togarepi leave the camp. "Those guys could have done something to me because I told the director what had happened," Togarepi explained.

A fresh start

Togarepi went back to Phalaborwa, and over the course of three months he purchased land and built a house. Togarepi was now able to legally travel from South Africa to Zimbabwe to visit family, and during this time Marshal was arranging interviews for him.

In 2003 Togarepi began work as a safari guide at Kruger National Park and in 2004 when he visited home he took his girlfriend back to South Africa. In 2006 they had a son and Togarepi named him Hugh, after Hugh Marshal.

As a guide Togarepi met many people from the United States and they encouraged him to go to America. Joe Farrell and his family were led on a safari, and during the tour there was a problem with the Jeep. Togarepi fixed the problem quickly, and Farrell noticed his skill in working on engines.

Opportunities in America

A family he had met on safari from New York had him visit for vacation, and told him he could stay in America. Togarepi flew to New York and then began calling Americans he had guided on safaris.

Togarepi was put in contact with a family in Chicago that was originally from Zimbabwe and he traveled by bus from New York to their home. In Chicago, Togarepi trained as a caregiver for a nursing home, but stayed in contact with Farrell.

After help from a relative of Marshal's with getting legal status to be in the U.S., Farrell told Togarepi that he could work for his company, Resolve Marine in Mobile. In September of 2009 Togarepi flew from Chicago to Mobile.

The next year, he started the process of bringing his wife and children to America. Also during this time he worked toward getting his GED at Bishop State. In 2011 Togarepi began classes at Bishop State in the diesel technology program. A family from Ohio that he guided on a safari, Ron and Allison Unnerstall, assisted with tuition fees.

Togarepi's mother died in 2012, and after obtaining his green card in 2013 he was able to travel home to see where she was buried. Also in 2012 Togarepi sustained a knee injury while working offshore, which resulted in surgery and time off work and school.

In December of 2012 the rest of his family made it to America, for a total of six people living in a one-bedroom apartment.

Habitat for Humanity built the Togarepi family a new 6-bedroom house funded by the Joe Bullard car company and they moved in August 2013. "I didn't believe I'd be having a house in America," Togarepi said.

Togarepi now volunteers at Habitat for Humanity servicing the assistance agency's equipment. "That's how I can thank them for what they've done for me," Togarepi said. He also still works for Resolve Marine.

"It has really been a journey for me and I'm still going ahead with the journey."

Togarepi's family is made up of wife Tendai, 16-year-old Rosemary, 15-year-old Blessing, 7-year-old Hugh and 21-month-old Allison, along with two step-children 15-year-old Ruvimbo Musamadya and 9-year-old Shantle Musamadya.

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