BUUMBA CHIMBULU writes
SPENDING nights in the cold, smoking weed, inhaling jenkem (an inhalant and hallucinogen created from fermented human waste), begging from motorists and doing all sorts of things street kids do was not enough to break the now renowned Zambian photographer, Cornelius Chellah Tukuta.
As a child, Cornelius was abused by both his biological father and his relatives, making him sleep in a chicken run for wanting to go to school.
Notwithstanding such pressures of life, Cornelius found himself on the street begging for money to pay school fees before help came through.
With determination, Cornelius now owns a photography company, won many international awards and featured in Worlds best magazines such as Forbes.
An emotional Cornelius narrates his painful story in his words.
THE SUN: Please tell us about your childhood.
CORNELIUS: I was born in Chingola. I am last born from my mother and not sure from the dad’s side because he has many children.
According to what my relatives and my mother told me, my parents divorced before I was born and my father was working in the mine where he found a nurse he wanted to marry after divorcing my mother.
My mother was a business woman (marketeer), she would save money in the house and father would get the money and use it for other things.
Father would bring other women in the house when mother was away. One of the women he brought home was the same nurse he married.
This woman had put juju to terminate my mother’s pregnancy with me in the womb but I was saved by a traditional doctor who removed a wire from her.
My father then resigned from the mine, got his money and went away, leaving us behind with no communication.
My mother was left behind and the next thing she saw were the mine police officers coming to chase us from the house and told her that my father had left the company.
THE SUN: What did your mother do then?
CORNELIUS: She moved in with one of her cousins and I was then born.
My mother then moved from Chingola to Kasama. She worked at a Catholic Church priest’s house.
There was a time I visited my father where I was mistreated by both my father and his wife.
My mother and I then moved to Kasama where she left me at my uncle’s place (my father’s brother).
THE SUN: How was life there?
CORNELIUS: I thought I had moved to a better place without knowing that that’s where life would teach me tough lessons.
I was always abused by my uncle and my aunt. When the rains was pouring on the veranda, I would be asked to mop while it was still pouring and I was told that I will not eat if I did not do it. I was only 8 to 9 years old then.
Despite many attempts, I would fail to enrol in school. My aunt never wanted me to go to school so any time before going to school, she would send me to go and sell fritters.
At that time, I had a friend who was going through a similar situation – now he was selling ice blocks. So we used to sell at the same place and we decided to exchange turns going to school for two hours each while another one was selling both fritters and ice blocks.
We would wear uniform inside the usual clothes so that we were not noticed by my aunt that we were going to school.
I would then study when my aunt and uncle went to sleep so they decided to chase me from the main house to a chicken run.
THE SUN: Where was your mother then?
CORNELIUS: My mother then got married to a headmaster in one of the villages in Kunkuta village in Mbala and then she decided to take me in.
My step father saw my intelligence and helped me with some reading materials. My step father was good to me when he was sober.
At some point my mother and step father went out and came back fuming which forced my step father to chase us out of the house in the night.
THE SUN: what happened next?
CORNELIUS: News then went round to my biological father of what was happening who then took me in 1995. He lived in Luanshya.
I had to hike a truck to Lusaka going to my father’s place in Luanshya. I arrived in Luanshya and the one they sent to pick me up did not show up so I got lost.
I spent two days at the station waiting for my brother to pick me up. There was then a man who found me there and then took me to the police station. That man was an angel in my life!
He took me in and told the police where to find me in case someone showed up to look for me. I stayed with him for two weeks until by biological father found me.
I then started school at Mpelembe primary school. In 1997, I passed and went to grade eight.
When I passed to grade 8, there was no money for school fees and uniforms.
THE SUN: So what did you do?
CORNELIUS: I started doing piece works. I would hike trucks to Lusaka to come and look for money.
During holidays, I would come here and sleep under Manda Hill Bridge and I would be begging from people through windows of their vehicles.
During holidays, I was purely a street boy so that I could make money. Those are some of the biggest risks I have ever taken in my life and that is why I am not scared to take any risks.
I would even take jenkem with other street boys to suit the environment otherwise I would look like a spy. But there was something I used to tell myself, that I wanted to be great.
By then I had learnt to play a guitar from church and the Catholic community embraced me. I started living with those people and my father would always lock the house when I went there so sometimes I would sleep under his truck.
At church back in Luanshya at the Immaculate Conception Parish, I was tasked to take pictures and the priests loved them and then sent them to Rome that was when I was in Grade 6. My life was very hard.
You know you have shoes, and underneath them there are holes and in rain season, water got inside and then my father would always curse me that I will never be anyone in life. He repeatedly told me that I would never be anybody in life.
In grade 9, I had a heated conversation with my father, when I was chased from school and told him about it, he spat saliva on me and cursed me.
This affected me a lot and I missed classes. I told myself that I had come from very far and I cried. It was very painful but I gathered courage, I went to the headmistress’ office and explained my situation.
My own father had denounced and abandoned me.
THE SUN: What did the headmistress do?
CORNELIUS: The headmistress then called my father and he told her that I took drugs. She said my father said I would be kept by her but continued to stay with him.
One day, my father took weed and put it in my school uniform and when it was time to go to school, I just wore my uniform.
The next thing I saw were police officers at my school looking for me. They arrested me for those drugs. I had no idea, they checked my pocket and found drugs. They locked me up.
Some police officers noticed that I was not on drugs so they notified the police man in charge and they secretly released me and I started staying with my sister within Luanshya.
At some point, I left my father’s place in Luanshya and went on the street, I used to pick food from the trash. You see people finish eating and then they go to throw left overs, you are just there waiting to pounce on it. When they just threw the food, you rush there.
THE SUN: Where did you go from the police cells?
CORNELIUS: I went back to school without my father knowing. I started catching up on school.
I then moved in with my friends’ aunt who stayed near the school. There even the meal changed, nice food and I would stay up in the night studying.
I passed to grade 10 to go to DK and Hillcrest but I had no sponsorship so I continued at Luanshya boys
Then I went to Serenje Boys end of grade 10 under a sponsorship of a woman called Mrs Jere.
In 2000, I passed with 7 points. The Catholic Church then sponsored me to go to Germany to study.
While in Germany, I still had a passion to take photos. My sponsors then suggested another course for me and I was moved to France to pursue psycho social counselling so I stated doing it.
There was then an opening in the United States to study philosophy at the University of Chicago so that is how I went and studied Philosophy, psychology and political science.
THE SUN: How then did you manage to pursue photography?
CORNELIUS: While there, I met a man called Scot Kelvin who is a World renowned photographer. He and his team invited me to his place and I became the light carrier for them.
I then saw the image that was portrayed about Africa regarding poverty and I related to those images so I decided that I would change the narrative about Africa
So I had an opportunity to go and study photography in New York and worked there for some time after I finished.
I then decided to come back to Zambia in 2011 and went to ZCAS to study ACCA with the help of Father Jenkins from Saint Ignatius.
While at ZCAS, I sacrificed one semester and bought equipment for photography and people stole those items from me.
It was rough then and I even went to the witch doctor who just lied to me (laughs off).
I found my way back on my feet and here I am. I now own Tukuta Productions. I have a team I work with.
THE SUN: Tell us about your present life.
CORNELIUS: I have travelled to more than 30 African countries, I have won about six international awards, and recently I was named famous vogue photographer.
I am the only African recognised, I was the first Zambian to be profiled by Forbs magazine. I have worked with London and South African fashion industry.
THE SUN: Are you married?
CORNELIUS: Yes I am married and I have two beautiful daughters. I am working hard to make sure that my children go to the best schools in the world.
THE SUN: What made you survive all your hardships?
CORNELIUS: I think the power to succeed lies in a person, you choose to succeed or not. No one can dictate that you will be a failure. I told myself that I did not want to be in that life forever.
I have been in places where they are shooting big stars like former US president, Barrack Obama. I work with stars and celebrities from all over the world. I have come to make this name not only for myself but for my country as well.
There three things you follow in life, it is either your passion, money for fame. When you follow your passion, money follows and so does fame, who knew that people would write about me and my success?