This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue with the headline “Stolen Youth.”
Twenty years ago a young orphan from Zambia named Given Kachepa boarded a plane at London Heathrow bound for Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport. This was the final leg of a trip to America for Kachepa and a group of eleven other Zambian boys, all members of a touring choir organized by Keith Grimes, a Texan missionary. Kachepa had dressed in his nicest clothes—a royal blue shirt and khaki pants—but did not have any baggage in the hold of the plane or in the overhead bin, as the organizers had instructed the boys to leave all their belongings behind.
For weeks leading up to their departure, Kachepa and the other boys spoke of nothing else, gushing to anyone who would listen about their upcoming journey and what they imagined life in faraway America would be like. They wondered about the plane: would it take them high above the ocean, or would it almost touch the water while in flight? Some of them carried around a photo of a British Airways plane to show everyone they met. When at last the day came, they flew south from Lusaka, the Zambian capital, to Harare, Zimbabwe, and from there to London. For the transatlantic crossing, Kachepa lucked into a window seat, and he spent much of the flight gazing out of the plane, mistaking the blinking dots on the wings for lightning. He marveled at the flight attendants in pressed blue uniforms asking what he would like to drink. One handed him a tray of food containing an item he’d never seen before: a piece of cheese. “This pretty girl is serving me food. This doesn’t happen at home,” he thought to himself. “We must be kings.”
In a photo snapped of the choir boys soon after they landed at DFW, they are lined up in the arrivals terminal, waiting to show their passports. At the front stands Kachepa, eleven years old, among the smallest of the boys. He stares at the camera with a blank face. In that moment, he and the other singers had no reason to suspect what awaited them.
Kachepa is now 31, a dentist in North Dallas, and on a warm winter day last year he closed his dental practice for the afternoon to deliver a presentation in a downtown Dallas federal building. He projected a photograph of the choir group onto a screen for an audience of social workers, government employees, and police officers. “This young little boy that you can see right there, that’s me,” he said. Another photo showed a two-room mud brick house in Kalingalinga, the shantytown outside Lusaka where he was living when he met Grimes. To a poor boy with no opportunities, the Texan had seemed winning and charismatic, promising to build schools in Zambia, to educate the boys while in America, and to send payments to their families.
Kachepa, wearing a gray suit and light blue shirt, clutched a microphone and spoke about the journey that had taken him from Zambia to Texas and ultimately to that drab meeting room. “I feel very passionate about this cause because I know people around the world are still being used,” he said. The title of the session was “How Trafficking Victims Rebuild Their Lives”—namely, how a young boy from southern Africa managed to climb out of virtual enslavement and eventually become a successful professional.
The number of human trafficking victims who enter the U.S. each year is difficult to track (estimates range from 14,000 to 18,000), though many of them enter legally, as Kachepa did, on U.S. visas. For Kachepa, it took almost two years for him to extricate himself from servitude. An American family then helped him enroll in public school and straighten out his legal status. Restoring his ability to trust other people was a harder task. “It took me a long time to trust that lady, my mom, but she in a way earned my trust,” he said, pointing to Sandy Shepherd, the woman Kachepa now refers to as his American mother, who was sitting in the front row. “Eventually I began to see the good in her, and we started talking. It was not easy, as she can tell you.”
Also in the audience were Kachepa’s dental assistant and receptionist, who watched quietly, having never before seen Kachepa speak in public about his past. At the end of his talk, the crowd applauded heartily. And then it was back to his regular life: Kachepa rushed to his office to interview two dental hygienist candidates.
The events that brought Kachepa to America had been set in motion one humid afternoon around early 1997, when he witnessed his first choir practice inside a classroom at Highland Baptist Church School in Kalingalinga. The sound echoing off the shiny concrete floors and blue-and-white cinderblock walls moved him even before he entered the room. He had come that day simply to listen, at the urging of his two cousins, who were among the sixty boys on the choir stand. He was mesmerized as the group sang, “We’re marching to Zion / Beautiful, beautiful Zion / We’re marching upward to Zion / The beautiful city of God.” Dozens of gospel songs in Nyanja, the local Bantu language, followed.
A slight boy with closely shorn black hair, dark brown eyes, and a withdrawn manner, Kachepa had been unsure of his place in the world since the deaths of his parents. (His mother died of an illness, likely tuberculosis, when he was in second grade, and his father passed away following a brief illness two years later.) He moved in with his aunt, but there was not enough money for him to continue his schooling, and he would watch wistfully every weekday morning as his best friend went off to school while he sat perched in the local quarry, crushing rocks. When Kachepa wasn’t working there, he was crafting intricate wire cars to sell to tourists, peddling kerosene door-to-door, or lugging groceries for women returning from the market. He used the money he earned—less than $1 a week—to buy a crushed corn staple called mealie meal to help feed himself and his six siblings. At night he stayed up late listening to his older brother, Cephas, ten years his senior, tell him scary stories in the small room they shared.
After the choir practice ended, he marched up to the chorus leader, a well-respected local, and told him he wanted to join. The director said he first had to come to the daily practices, and after three weeks of perfect attendance, Kachepa was accepted as a member.
Choir reinvigorated him. It gave him a sense of belonging, and he found comfort in the rolling cadence of the songs. He straightened his small frame and proudly wore his choir shirt, of green-and-white chitenge (a patterned cloth), when he walked around Kalingalinga. For the next year and a half, Kachepa learned dozens of songs and performed in area singing competitions, at funerals, and during Sunday church services. When his older sister Grace died (he believes from tuberculosis), three months after he joined, the entire group showed up to sing at her funeral. “I felt part of a community. I thought this is what life is supposed to be like,” Kachepa recalled.
During a handful of practices and performances, Kachepa noticed a white man smiling and tapping his feet to the music. He had bushy brown hair streaked with gray, and he wore pressed dress shirts and cowboy boots. Kachepa soon learned that he was an American named Keith Grimes who had previously brought two choirs to the U.S. Kachepa would later discover that Grimes began visiting Zambia around 1990 while selling Christian school curricula but now ran his own nonprofit called Teaching the Teachers: Partners in Education (TTT). Kachepa heard a rumor that Grimes was recruiting for another touring choir, confirmed one day when the choir director kept Kachepa after rehearsal. “There is an opportunity to take you to America,” he said, explaining that Grimes had promised to educate the boys while they were in the U.S. Thrilled by the chance to return to school and to see the world, Kachepa tried out and was selected for the group of twelve boys, which included two of his cousins.
All the families had to do, Grimes told the boys, was sign their contracts. Kachepa didn’t give it a second thought. He walked to Highland Baptist with his aunt to meet with other choir members and their relatives, as well as the director, who distributed documents outlining the terms of the tour. While the English text was not translated for them into Nyanja, the director assured Kachepa’s aunt that the boy would be educated and that he would be earning money to build a school in Kalingalinga—plus she would receive $20 a month in his absence. His aunt signed quickly before passing the borrowed pen along to the guardian of the next boy. Afterward, Zambian TTT representatives made quick work of obtaining the boys’ Zambian passports, U.S. visas, and plane tickets.
Once they made it to DFW Airport, Grimes, wearing his signature cowboy boots, greeted his new charges in the arrivals hall. Kachepa was overwhelmed by the sound of planes constantly landing and taking off. “Would all of America be so noisy?” he wondered. The boys piled into two vans bound for the rural outskirts of Sherman, some seventy miles north, and Kachepa watched as Dallas’s northern suburbs gave way to lush fields dotted with grazing cows. “Everything looks much greener than the pasture in my country,” Kachepa thought to himself. “This is going to be some story to tell my brother.” After a little over an hour, Grimes turned onto a gravel road that led to his compound.
When Kachepa stepped out of the van, he was mildly disappointed that his new life, 8,800 miles from Zambia, would begin on such a rural stretch. He had imagined that in America he would live in a city. Waiting for the boys was a heavyset woman wearing a long dress—Grimes’s daughter Barbara Martens, who served as TTT’s secretary and treasurer. She led them past the ranch-style main house and into a refurbished brown barn that served as the organization’s office. After measuring them for choral uniforms and other clothes (they hadn’t brought any with them), Grimes and Martens showed the boys the mobile home that would be their living quarters. Kachepa marveled at the amenities: a bathtub—impressive after a lifetime of outdoor bucket showers—and an indoor stove. Tacked onto one side of the trailer was a large bedroom with rows of bunk beds installed to accommodate twelve boys. Spent after the long trip, Kachepa selected a top bunk and settled in.
When it came time for the first tour, the dozen boys crisscrossed the country in Grimes’s van, performing two to five concerts a day at churches, schools, nursing homes, and shopping malls. In a videotape of a performance they gave that December, at the First Baptist Church of Slidell, Louisiana, the boys—all wearing matching gold-and-brown leopard-print chitenge over white dress shirts and black pants—sing, clap, and snap their fingers as they take the stage, assembling in clusters behind the microphones for an a cappella rendition of Andraé Crouch’s “Soon and Very Soon”:
Soon and very soon
We are going to see the King
Soon and very soon
We are going to see the King
We are going to see the King.
Throughout their concerts, Grimes would point at the corners of his mouth to instruct the boys to smile.
After performing, they sold autographed posters and CDs, and Grimes would distribute fund-raising literature. The boys stayed with host families, who were given written guidelines on how to care for them: the choir members had an “appealing and enjoyable” demeanor, the guidelines stated, because “their lack of material comfort has bred traits of humility and contentment into their lives.” Individual gifts would distract the singers from this graced state, so host families were encouraged to express their gratitude by donating directly to the organization.
“The children of Africa are talented, precious in the eyes of God, and they deserve hope for the future. We are committed to giving them the life opportunities that education affords,” Grimes wrote in a pamphlet for host families. Yet he was doing nothing to educate the boys in his choir. Day after day, the singers woke at dawn, performed several concerts, and returned to their host families late in the evening. “Sometimes I just slept in my clothes, because I was too tired and knew I had to be ready to go so early in the morning,” Kachepa said. He was devastated when he realized that the grueling schedule left no time for school. During a meeting one of the boys asked when they were going to start classes. According to Kachepa, Grimes snapped. “You’re here to sing, not go to school,” he shouted, then stormed out of the room.
In response to repeated inquiries from the boys, Grimes explained that they would not go to classes in America after all but enroll in school when they returned to Zambia, at a campus he planned to build some two hundred miles south of Kalingalinga. This left Kachepa and the others despondent. And any instance of perceived insubordination would trigger Grimes’s temper. Kachepa remembered Grimes once threatening to send him home simply for refusing to play a game of soccer. Another time, when Kachepa said he was too weary to sing, Grimes picked him up by his shirt collar. “That was the only time he ever put his hands on me,” Kachepa recalled, but the experience spooked him. Kachepa soon became depressed and withdrawn, but he never considered running away. He claimed that Grimes had warned the boys that no one would believe them if they tried to report him. The singers also learned that TTT screened their mail. Kachepa managed to call Zambia one time, catching his aunt at home for a brief chat, but stuck to niceties rather than revealing his true situation.
As the months went by, the indignities mounted. When choir members asked questions or to be excused from a concert because they fell ill on tour, Kachepa said, Grimes would invariably threaten to send them home. For a stretch, Kachepa was assigned the lead parts in several songs, and if he said he didn’t want to sing them, they would tell him, “Little boy . . . we’ve already bought your ticket back to Zambia.” According to Kachepa, when choir members complained to Grimes that they were sick, he would tell them that it wasn’t customary in the United States to go to the doctor right away. The boys began to ask about where the money they were earning was going, and Grimes retorted that they were acting “greedy” and like they were “not in love with Jesus.” Once, when the boys refused to perform a concert, in solidarity with a fellow singer who’d run afoul of Grimes, the gas was turned off to their mobile home and they were told, “No singing, no food.” The boys usually cooked their own meals, but Kachepa said they didn’t eat for days because all they had available was raw chicken.
The America Kachepa found was not the one he was expecting from episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
When they were off the road and back in Sherman at “home base,” as they all called Grimes’s compound, they traded exhaustion for boredom. Entertainment was scant, save for a small basketball court behind the mobile home. One day that first summer, Kachepa recalled, Martens approached the boys and told them they were going to get a pool—a thrilling notion, until they discovered that Martens intended for them to dig it themselves. Over the next three months, using hand shovels and picks, they worked in the sweltering heat until they’d made a hole about five or six feet deep. “We didn’t come here to dig a swimming pool, but now we have picks and shovels,” Kachepa thought to himself at the time. Martens never did line it and fill it with water, and Kachepa now suspects the whole venture was simply a way to tire them out or control them.
The America Kachepa found was not the one he was expecting from episodes of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air that he had watched back home on his uncle’s battery-powered black and white television. On long walks down rural gravel roads near the compound, the singers spoke in Nyanja among themselves about their predicament, worrying and speculating, until they finally piled into their bunks at night, wondering, “What is happening to us?”
Grimes’s charming public persona, which he deployed to recruit boys to sing for him, can be glimpsed in home video footage from a trip to Zambia he took in the mid-nineties. In a segment outside a mud house in Kalingalinga, he speaks effusively in his lilting Southern drawl about the choir members: “They’re like my children. They’re very close to me. They have a special message to tell the American young people that, no matter what your background is, if you take advantage of the talents God has given you and you persist and remain true to your dreams, God’s going to make something of that.”
Grimes was born in Altavista, Virginia, in December 1938. The son of a Navy man turned Baptist preacher, Grimes followed in his father’s footsteps, walking into a Navy recruitment post four days after his eighteenth birthday to enlist. Grimes spent most of the next four years as a radar operator on naval destroyers. Afterward, he attended Baylor University. He married a woman named Beverly Jane Broaddus, with whom he raised five children. He moved his young family to League City, where he spent much of the seventies working as the youth minister at the First Baptist Church. Once, he reportedly managed to break both arms in a stunt that involved jumping over a church bus to attract young congregants.
Later on, Grimes became a missionary of sorts, peddling a controversial fundamentalist curriculum called Accelerated Christian Education (ACE). His work for that company brought him to Zambia to try to find a home for the curriculum in the country’s schools. It was during a visit to Kalingalinga’s Chembo Christian Academy, in 1990, that Grimes first heard the stirring voices of the a cappella group singing Handel. Four years later, Grimes brought his first Zambian choir to the U.S., a group of 10 men ages 18 to 24, and began traveling around the country with them. The group recorded an album, and the tour was such a success that Grimes decided to bring over a second choir to begin a two-year stint in the U.S. in August 1996. This time, TTT selected a group of 26 boys ages 10 to 19, much younger than their predecessors. The two groups spent most of their time on the road and rarely overlapped at home base (Kachepa believes they were separated by design). Records show TTT would bring in more than $500,000 each year.
What Kachepa and his fellow choir members had no way of knowing was that by the time they arrived in the U.S., people had already been raising questions about TTT. Janet Tyson, an area counselor who got to know two of the boys from the 26-member choir, wrote a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno in early 1998, four months before Kachepa’s choir would arrive in the U.S., about the “exploitation, neglect, manipulation, fraud, and broken promises” she believed the singers had experienced. “It is my opinion that these Zambian boys need help. I think their sponsor, Keith Grimes, is using these young men in order to obtain his goals and possibly make himself rich.” In June 1998 the FBI opened an investigation to determine if Grimes was involved in “involuntary slavery and servitude,” and soon two other federal agencies, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Labor, would also begin scrutinizing TTT’s activities.
Grimes seethed when he learned he was the subject of an FBI investigation. The boys noticed that his moods, which could turn foul in an instant, seemed to be getting worse and that he also seemed to be growing weaker. Grimes’s health had never been great, but none of the boys knew what kind of illness he had. In January 1999, while the choir was performing at a Catholic school in Houston, Grimes was admitted to a hospital in Sherman after experiencing headaches, memory loss, and aphasia, or trouble speaking. He was diagnosed with brain cancer.
When they returned to home base several days later, Grimes told the boys he was ill, and Martens took over the day-to-day management of the choir. But tensions continued to rise. Where Grimes had been careful to shield the choir from the concerns others had expressed about their treatment, Martens shared these complaints openly and blamed the members for talking too much to their host families, Kachepa claimed. He said she began playing favorites among the boys, asking them to rat out one another, and also started searching them to make certain they weren’t accepting gifts from host families. “The van would pull up beside the barn, and we had to get out, and they would pat us down. I was so furious about it,” Kachepa said, adding that when gifts were found, Martens seized them and locked them away in the barn’s attic.
Less than three months after his initial diagnosis, Grimes died, at age sixty. Kachepa’s choir sang next to Grimes’s casket at his visitation. It was a somber day, and in spite of everything, Kachepa felt sadness at Grimes’s death. Soon afterward, the FBI closed its inquiry into the group, having found “insufficient evidence to prove use of force or threat of force or coercion.” But TTT’s troubles were far from over. That May, Martens was informed by the Department of Labor that she owed $483,221.34 in back wages to the singers and that TTT would have to pay its choral members minimum wage and overtime. “It is suspected that TTT misrepresented themselves as a nonprofit organization,” DOL investigators later concluded, “with the intent of taking advantage of an undereducated third world community and using the pretext of religion and promised educational opportunities to exploit, for monetary gain, a trusting people of Kalingalinga, Zambia.”
Soon afterward, Martens held a meeting with the choir, which Kachepa had decided to record on a Walkman he’d stuffed into his shirt. Martens explained that TTT would now begin paying the boys a monthly salary of $570 but would take back $485 of that to cover airline tickets, housing, education, groceries, clothing, utilities, and medical care. The Labor Department investigation also prompted TTT to scale back the choir’s touring schedule to weekends only so that the boys could attend school during the week. Self-directed classes using the ACE curriculum were held inside a plastic-covered geodesic dome on the property, where Martens’s children were also homeschooled.
By January 2000, Kachepa was fed up. The choir was staying in Houston for a few days, and one night he and the other boys talked late into the evening, discussing their options. They ultimately decided to leave. The next morning they told Martens they were quitting, and while she seemed resigned to their decision, maybe even relieved, she was also somber. The boys rode back to Sherman in silence. Back at the compound, they were able to get a message to an INS agent named Sal Orrantia. (Orrantia had left his card with the boys on a previous visit to Sherman.) To this day, Orrantia marvels at how openly TTT managed to conscript the boys. “Even now, it’s hard to imagine that this was a group in plain view. Most labor traffickers keep it under wraps, but these folks were blatant,” he said. “People call it human trafficking now, but at the end of the day it’s slavery.”
Sandy and Deetz Shepherd were almost empty nesters when Kachepa and his fellow choir members arrived at their five-bedroom red brick house in Colleyville that January. Sandy, a member of Colleyville’s First Baptist Church, had been an active volunteer with TTT but disassociated herself from the group in 1998 after relaying concerns about the group to the FBI. Then, one day, a deacon from the church had called to see if the Shepherds could house the boys, who had been taken into INS custody, overnight. They ended up staying there through the spring, by which time Sandy had found each of the boys a host family. Orrantia secured most of the boys deferred action on their immigration status, allowing them to remain in the United States while an investigation proceeded. The singers were so grateful that, on one group visit to the INS office, they gave thanks by bursting into song.
Kachepa ultimately remained with the Shepherds and enrolled in eighth grade at Colleyville Middle School. But he could read only at a fifth-grade level, putting him far behind his classmates. His difficulties were compounded by the fact that he didn’t want his teachers to know his background, preferring to be known as an exchange student. He pored over his homework for more than four hours a night with Sandy’s help, and steadily his grades improved.
The first few years at home with the Shepherds were challenging. For so long, adult figures had either suddenly disappeared from Kachepa’s life or exploited him, leaving him afraid to love and connect. “He seems to be maintaining some emotional distance that will help protect him from other potential painful losses,” a psychologist wrote in an assessment of Kachepa as he was applying for his T visa, a special visa for victims of trafficking. He was reluctant to speak about what he had endured during his years with TTT. As he waited to find out whether his visa would come through, his long-term fate hung in limbo. “It was a heart-aching ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ time,” Sandy recalled.
In the evenings he would sometimes lock himself in his room, going downstairs to eat only when he knew the Shepherds had gone to bed. He missed his biological family, and he would get angry that he wasn’t with them. But the Shepherds, who became his legal guardians in 2002, eventually won him over by allowing him to simply act his age. “I can be a kid again,” Kachepa thought of his new life. In time, he developed a warm bond with his adoptive sisters and his new nieces and nephews.
In high school, Kachepa got his first car and would sometimes threaten to run away to St. Louis, where one of his cousins lived. “I’d drive by the school and make sure his car was in the parking lot,” Sandy recalled. Kachepa found a release for his anxious energy when he joined the soccer team, and at fifteen he started working at a local skating rink, the first in a series of jobs. He sent most of his earnings home to his siblings and aunt in Zambia.
In his sophomore year of high school, he began speaking publicly about his story. He was invited to testify in front of a state House committee about human trafficking in 2003. “I know how bad it feels being used by other people. It just kind of feels like you’re a machine and they’re going to use you for as long as they want and then put you down whenever they want,” he told the legislators from the podium. A year and a half later, he appeared on Nightline, and many of his classmates heard his story for the first time. (He has since spoken at a conference at Harvard Law School, appeared on the cover of Christianity Today, and given dozens of speeches and interviews.)
For so long, adult figures had either suddenly disappeared from Kachepa’s life or exploited him, leaving him afraid to love and connect.
In the spring of 2005, Kachepa graduated from Grapevine High School. By then he’d been granted his T visa, but once again, he had to apply and wait—this time for a green card. A career counselor had given him a pamphlet about dentistry that set him on his way: here was an occupation in which he could help people, both in America and back in Zambia. He graduated from the University of North Texas in May 2009, landing on the honor roll for two semesters.
Later that year, he received his green card, which allowed him to return at last to Zambia, after an eleven-year absence. On the flight from London to Lusaka, Kachepa was too excited to sleep. For years he had spoken with his brothers and sisters on the phone and sent them money from his paychecks, but he hadn’t seen them in the flesh for more than a decade. As the plane touched down in Zambia, tears welled up in his eyes. “It’s magical, a wonderful place. It’s home, and I’m glad to be here,” Kachepa said in a video Sandy shot of him just after they stepped onto the tarmac. In the parking lot his oldest sister, Fridah, spotted him and ran toward him with outstretched arms, wailing. While hugging all the members of his extended family who’d come to greet him, Kachepa began laughing and crying. “They told me they thought I was gone forever,” Kachepa recalled. “How do you make up that lost time? You can’t. I missed out on all those years with them.”
The other members of his choir ended up scattered across the country, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Lewisville, Texas. Three of them ultimately returned to Zambia. TTT never paid the back wages it owed to at least 67 current and former choir members, so in December 1999 the Department of Labor filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas and eventually sought some $966,442.68 in back wages and damages. In December 2000, the court rendered a default judgment against TTT, but according to multiple sources, none of that money has ever been recovered for the singers. When I reached out to Barbara Martens, she declined to speak to me. But in the comments section of a 2004 blog post about the Nightline episode featuring Kachepa, she wrote, “I have in my possession both documentary and testimonial evidence to definitively refute every allegation made against TTT: Partners in Education, or specifically against Keith Grimes.” She went on to defend her father’s legacy: “Those who paint him as a villain are doing so for their own purposes. His visionary zeal made him quite a controversial figure, but his heart was solely set on benefiting others at any cost to himself.”
Kachepa took the dental school entrance exam twice and in 2010 entered Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, where the course work was rigorous. “My overarching goal was to become a dentist, and boy, I sweat for it. I struggled every single step to get where I am,” Kachepa said. “But I didn’t want to be known as a victim of human trafficking. I needed to create a new identity for myself.” He graduated five years later, spent a year working for chain dental practices, and in 2016 purchased Inwood Dental, located in a squat brick building just off the Dallas North Tollway. When I visited him there, he greeted me wearing a light blue lab coat. His black hair was closely cropped, as he still prefers to wear it. He bantered with a patient as he numbed the area around two teeth, preparing to perform a root canal on both. “This filling is pretty large here, so if I was to do just a crown on it and we shaved down this tooth, we would still get close to the nerve, and your pain would continue. You would come back next week, and you would want to choke me. And I don’t want to be choked,” he said with a laugh.
His dental practice is filled with reminders of his past. Propped next to the door, there’s an intricate wire car, a replica of the kind of knickknacks he once sold to tourists as a child. On the wall, there’s a carved wooden plaque in the shape of Africa that hangs underneath a sign engraved with “Given Kachepa, D.D.S.” And on the shelf, alongside books about tooth decay and braces, there is a copy of the book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.
Kachepa enjoys being a dentist, and he views the career as a way to relieve people’s pain. “I think more of the service part than the dentist part,” he told me. His dream now is to open a permanent clinic in Kalingalinga, a community that has never had regular dental care. He hopes to employ a local Zambian dentist, whom he would help train, and make regular trips back himself as well. “That’s the way I can give back to the disadvantaged people of the world. God brought me this far not to let me fail at the end of it,” he told me.
His relationship to the events that brought him to America is complex. His life clearly would be very different if he had remained in Zambia. If he had never come here, he likely would not enjoy the success he has earned; he wouldn’t be able to help support his family back home. But he mourns the years he missed with his family, and the way in which he was exploited has left scars. “Experiences like these can make you cold,” Kachepa explained. “I’m very withdrawn. I try to just focus on my practice.” Kachepa still speaks regularly about human trafficking, and articles about him fill several binders. “I am going to continue to tell my story as long as I have breath in my lungs or until this does not happen to another boy coming from Africa,” he said.
Kachepa has spent a lot of time reflecting on his 21 months with the choir. “When you’re taking poor, young black boys from Africa—with all the history of slavery, with all the history of tension because of one’s skin color—and bringing them to a developed country, you have to think about all the ramifications of that. Mr. Grimes, being [nearly] sixty years of age, he knew very well what he was doing,” Kachepa said. But as a Christian, Kachepa has forgiven Grimes for everything he did. He believes that Grimes “had a good heart,” but “over time, so much money was being generated that it changed from being from a good cause to something that could make him a lot of money.”
One afternoon I accompanied Kachepa and Shepherd on a trip to Sherman, to visit the place where Kachepa’s American story began. On the drive up Highway 75 north of Dallas, Shepherd popped a Zambian Acapella CD, featuring the first choir group that had traveled from Kalingalinga, into the player. Upbeat strains of “Climbing Up the Mountain” filled the car. Kachepa, who can now sing baritone, joined in:
Climbing up the mountain, children
(Oh Lord I) Didn’t come here to stay
(Oh brother) If I never more see you again
Goin’ to meet you at the judgment day.
As we pulled onto the grass across the street from the house, Kachepa looked deep in thought. The current owner of the home (Grimes’s wife, Jane, sold it in 2004) let us walk around the property, and Sandy took photographs of Kachepa in various meaningful spots—where the basketball court was, where the mobile homes stood. As he toured the grounds, he paused and said, “Being out here brings back memories. I’ve become so removed from it, but it’s where everything began. It doesn’t have the same hold on me that it once did, which shows me how far I’ve come,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “But this wasn’t the America I imagined.”