As a young homeless orphan begging for food on the filthy streets of Lusaka, Zambia, Anthony Mulenga remembers the day he resolved to become a doctor.
He was sitting near a traffic light when he noticed three children crossing the road to attend school. They were dressed in uniforms, with backpacks, and looked happy. He wanted to go with them, he said.
“I made a promise,” Mulenga said in recent interview. “If I get to school, I will take advantage of every educational opportunity and be the best student.”
Fifteen years later, Mulenga has fulfilled that promise.
This fall, the 24-year-old will begin an internship as a doctor at the University of Zambia Teaching Hospital.
To reach his incredible goal, Mulenga had to overcome the death of his parents at a very young age and survive life on the streets. His journey required the timely assistance of a charitable organization that helps orphans. He needed the loving assistance of two sisters who mothered him and eventually adopted him into their family. In the end, he also gained a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“This is a story of hope,” Mulenga said. “Never give up. God has a plan for each of us. He will always provide a way.”
Mulenga’s earliest years are clouded with painful memories. His father, Edward, was a police detective. He had some standing in the southern African community and was somewhat wealthy. But he was openly unfaithful to his wife and abused his son.
Embarrassed and heartbroken, Mulenga’s mother divorced her husband and moved out. He later died of AIDS.
Mulenga’s mother, Mary Kanda, was uneducated and struggled to provide for her young children. AIDS eventually claimed her life as well, leaving 7-year-old Mulenga and his older brother, Michael, homeless.
For the next three or four years, the boys’ lives consisted of trying to stay warm and sleep in boxes, looking for scraps of food among the garbage and enduring abuse from older homeless people who sought to take advantage of them.
“That’s how I thought life was supposed to be,” Anthony Mulenga said.
During those years on the street, it was Michael who ensured that young Anthony had something to eat. Each day as he ventured out to find food, Michael would vehemently instruct his brother not to trust anyone. If he didn’t stay in the ditch, bad things would happen. The concept was pounded into his mind and it would be years before Anthony would be able to trust another person.
Mothers Without Borders
Before she died, Mulenga’s mother told her sons they were destined to do great things.
“She said, ‘My children will either be the president, a doctor or a lawyer,’ ” Mulenga recalled.
Those dreams were difficult to envision while living on the streets of Lusaka.
A short time after Mulenga saw the schoolchildren and made his vow, his life changed when the 11-year-old met Kathy Headlee-Miner.
Headlee-Miner had just founded a new organization that she called “Mothers Without Borders,” a nonprofit charity aimed at assisting orphaned and abandoned children with basic living and educational needs. She saw something special in the young boy and felt he was a prime candidate for rescue.
Because of his “trust issues,” Mulenga said, he initially refused her offer. Headlee-Miner had to track the boy down several times and develop a relationship of trust before Mulenga finally agreed to let her help him get into school.
Unfortunately, leaving to pursue his educational dream meant Mulenga had to leave his brother, who wasn’t around at the time.
Anthony Mulenga would not see his brother again for almost a decade. Through miraculous circumstances he found Michael in jail. Anthony Mulenga spent what little money he had to buy his brother a blanket, a pair of shoes and food. He also bribed the cook to give Michael extra food. He cherished the chance to repay his brother for taking care of him when they were younger.
It didn’t take the young student long to discover he had a talent for learning. Despite not holding a pencil until he was 11, Anthony Mulenga demonstrated enough proficiency to jump from the first grade to the fifth grade in one week. His teacher also noticed that he listened well in class and had a good memory.
Mulenga completed high school with high marks in 2008. He enjoyed each subject but especially favored mathematics and calculus. When he finished high school, he was the top math student in the country and second in science.
Mulenga said two thoughts sustained him during those difficult, lonely years. First, he wanted to honor his mother; second, the image of a “burning house.” Both helped him to have hope.
“I would think of myself in a closed room with no door in a house that was burning. I didn’t sit and feel sorry for myself, I looked for options and tried to find a way out. I imagined people would see me trying to get out and help. I always want to find a way out,” Mulenga said. “That’s how my life has been so far.”
Mothers Without Borders can only legally assist individuals until they reach the age of 18. Therefore, when Mulenga completed high school, he was forced to return to the streets.
But he would not beg for food this time.
Each day Mulenga walked several miles to a rich neighborhood where he knocked door after door, offering his services as a math or science tutor in exchange for kwacha, a form of Zambian currency, or a meal. He estimated that more than 80 percent of the residents let him in for two or three hours. He was typically paid the equivalent of $2 or fed a plate of rice and goat meat.
At the end of the day, he saved the bus fare and walked to the bus station where he found a place to sleep.
“I would pretend I was going somewhere and just sleep,” Mulenga said.
He carried his life in a little black notebook, which contained important documents and academic certificates.
Mulenga survived using this routine for just under a year. During that time the aspiring doctor also applied at the University of Zambia and was accepted, even though he had no clue how he would pay for it.
Meanwhile, Utah residents Kent and B.J. Warnick, as well as B.J.’s sister, Sandra Peters, who had become involved with Mothers Without Borders years earlier, learned about Mulenga from Headlee-Miner. While in Zambia they met him for the first time just prior to the time he was back on the street. A year later, during the time when he was sleeping at the bus station and surviving as a tutor, they met with him again. The 19-year-old had dropped 20 pounds and not eaten in days, B.J. Warnick said.
As they became acquainted with Mulenga and learned more about his situation, they had a desire to help him. They pledged to pay his college tuition, about $3,000 a semester.
“They said you don’t belong on the streets,” Mulenga said. “We’ll find a way to help you.”
Mulenga was so grateful for the tuition money that he didn’t have the heart to mention the other expenses, mainly the cost of textbooks, which ranged from $70 to $90 each. Instead of requesting additional funds, he got creative. He offered to tutor Chinese students in exchange for the use of their textbooks at night. While most students slept, Mulenga studied the borrowed books and materials. If the electricity was turned off, he lit a candle.
For a residence, Mulenga said he “squatted.” He paid someone who had a room to let him sleep on the floor. Even so, he slept little. When he did, he carefully hid his possessions to prevent them from being stolen.
He did all this while consistently earning high grades.
“I worked harder than everyone else,” Mulenga said. “I took all the challenging courses when other students were afraid. I said I will take them and work extra hard. It was an opportunity.”
Warnick said they figured out what Mulenga was doing sometime later when they saw a list of his required textbooks. They noted the expensive price and asked if he had the books he needed?
“You would think that $3,000 would buy you a Taj Mahal over there. We thought, surely this money is putting him up in style,” Warnick said. “He was so grateful that he was just in school. He had absolute faith.”
Mulenga's sacrifice and hard work paid off as he graduated from the University of Zambia and moved on to medical school. His final requirement is an internship/residency, which he starts this fall.
“I was so moved by the dedication of this individual,” Peters said. “Growing up as a street boy, no love, no family or friends, so thin, yet so full of hope and positive energy. He was in the depths of hell, yet he still had an outlook that life could be better. To feel his energy was inspiring.”
Gospel and family
Several members of Mothers Without Borders are also members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The gospel was shared with Mulenga toward the end of his high school experience. He liked the LDS Church, but admits his testimony was faint at the time. Mulenga gained his true testimony last year, thanks to his new family.
Knowing what he’s been through and how lonely he was, Warnick and her family decided to “unofficially/officially” adopt him.
"He’s 24, so we didn't feel it was necessary to do it legally," Warnick said.
A home computer was used to make a certificate that reads, “Anthony Mulenga was adopted on March 28, 2012, by Kent and B.J. Warnick and family. This is an adoption of the heart and is binding in every way that matters. Though too many miles separate us physically, the strength of our love forms a solid bridge that makes the journey a short one that will be easily and often traveled.”
“Anthony had been without a family long enough,” Warnick said. “We wanted him to know he is ours, that he has the luxury of failing and knowing through thick or thin he still has a family. Now he has three mothers, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
The adoption certificate hangs on Mulenga’s wall in Zambia.
It was the love of “Mother Sandy and Mother B.J.,” Mulenga said, that helped him understand the love of the Savior Jesus Christ.
“They are the only people who have loved me. They saw how lonely and helpless my life was, and that’s my understanding of the Savior, someone whose first impression is not your imperfection. That's the pure love of Christ,” Mulenga said. “If these sisters are Mormons and are willing to change my life for nothing in return, there must be something great about this church. That’s when I decided I should pay attention and develop a stronger testimony. That’s how I truly found out I had a testimony.”
Mulenga now serves as the clerk and librarian in his local Zambian LDS branch. He also traveled to Utah in May and spent a month getting to know his new family.
Message of hope
In a video taken by Warnick two years ago, Mulenga can be seen wearing a white lab coat. There is a stethoscope around his neck and an ID badge hanging from his front pocket. He is in his hometown of Lusaka, Zambia, standing next to a shady tree and a ditch full of trash. Beyond the ditch is a busy street lined with cars.
Mulenga smiles as he speaks to the camera.
“In 1998, this was my bedroom,” Mulenga said, gesturing toward the tree.
As he reflects on his experiences, he wants to give people a message of hope. If the Lord can help me, he can help you too, Mulenga has said.
“God will always compensate you for everything you go through. I grew up without a mother, now he has given me two,” he said. “God is very much aware of your life and situation. It may not be in your time frame, but sooner or later, when you least expect it, he will compensate you for all the pain. He is not asleep.”
“We are never alone,” she said. “There is no other explanation for how he survived.”
“If you have family, you have it all.”
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