The young refugee who was adopted by a famous actress
The young refugee who was adopted by a famous actress
By ALISON BOSHOFF
Last updated at 18:08 07 März 2008
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He's one student who's not content to be holed up in his hall of residence at Exeter University.
Tindyebwa Agaba, the adopted son of actress Emma Thompson, is a familiar figure in Devon, often sighted in Sidmouth, Honiton and nearby picturesque villages.
His hobby is to cycle through the country lanes, and he says the green hills remind him of his native Rwanda.
He has explored Dartmoor, which he describes as "breathtaking," and makes a point of trying to befriend any farmers he passes along the way - despite the "funny, curious stare that follows the sight of an African on my bike in a village."
His resolution is to get out more, so the locals feel a bit less "alarmed" when they see him. It's no wonder Miss Thompson is so proud of the 21-year-old who calls her "Mum."
Now in the second year of a course in politics and sociology, Tindyebwa (known as Tindy) is an orphan and former child soldier who has overcome a string of daunting obstacles.
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Emma Thompson's adopted son Tindy loves to explore the Devon sights where he is a student at Exeter University
This week, it was revealed that he wrote an article last summer for a charity publication on rural racism, in which he described how he has been "negotiating with my always on and off depression."
The Mail has learned, though, that there is one less obstacle to face, for Tindy has been successful in his application for residence in Britain.
Despite recent reports that he had been asked to return to Rwanda, a close friend has revealed that his adoptive family has been to court to argue on his behalf, with the result that Tindy has just been told Britain is officially his permanent home.
"Everything is fine," the friend said. "He's been given leave to stay in the country. The family are keeping it private for his sake."
A Home Office source would only say: "He has not been removed and is not due to be removed."
As an asylum seeker, it is believed that Tindy was initially granted leave to remain for five years, which ended in 2007. He then had to apply for his refugee status to be made permanent.
There will be celebrations when Tindy returns to Miss Thompson's London home in West Hampstead for the Easter holidays.
"Everyone is thrilled, as the whole family loves Tindy to bits," said a family friend.
So who is this remarkable young man, and how did he come to exchange rural Rwanda for a home with an actress who has won two Oscars, three Baftas, three Golden Globes and an Emmy?
Tindy came into Miss Thompson's life when he was only 16, after being introduced to the actress and her second husband, actor Greg Wise, at a Refugee Council party in London.
Tindy's father had died of Aids when he was nine and his mother and sister were listed as missing after the 1994 Rwandan genocide - they were raped by soldiers and abducted, never to be seen again.
He has nightmares about it to this day. Tindy had been forced to serve as a boy soldier, and had escaped the country thanks to the charity Care International.
"He didn't have much English, but we just got talking," says Emma. "His experience had been awful and when he finally got to Britain after tremendous suffering, he told us the Home Office didn't believe him.
"He spent two nights sleeping rough in Trafalgar Square before they finally did. It was the only time he considered suicide.
"He's such a lovely, enchanting boy, so I said: 'Come and spend Christmas with us.'
"And he came for half the day. Slowly, he became a permanent fixture, went on holiday to Scotland with us and became part of the family."
Quietly and away from the spotlight, an extraordinary story has unfolded.
Tindy, taken in through a spontaneous act of charity, has not just settled into Miss Thompson's family - Emma and Greg have an eight-year-old daughter, Gaia - he has also learned English and won a place at university.
He has changed utterly from the troubled teenager who would stare into space for hours into a bright, self-confident and charming young man, who has a genuine desire to help others less fortunate than himself.
Emma is so proud of him that she's prone to bursting into tears when she talks about how well he has done.
"He's superb. It's incredible what he's managed to do. There he was, he'd never taken an exam, and he did his GCSEs and then went off and did A-levels. Now his vocabulary is somewhat better than mine."
Tindy's journey has not been easy. He found the immigration procedure exhausting. Certainly his adoptive grandmother, Phyllida Law, recognises he has had considerable emotional hurdles to overcome.
"He has adapted sensationally well. When he arrived, he would sit with his knees together, staring ahead. It took a long time to get him to talk.
"Now he dances and sings. He's an absolute treat to have around," she says.
Phyllida and her children are famously close, with Emma living across the road from her mother, in the same street where she grew up, and with Law's other daughter, Sophie, living close by. Tindy is a part of the extended family.
Locals think that he fits in perfectly. Newsagent Bharat Shah said: "Tindy is a lovely boy. He comes in here when he's back from university during the holidays. Sometimes we chat about how his studies are going.
"I've seen the family around for years. They're all very nice, and he is a lovely part of the family."
Tindy is also a familiar presence at his adoptive grandmother's Scottish home in the Argyll village of Ardentinny, where the family often go for simple, low-key holidays. (That said, there was also a swanky tropical break to Fregate Island in the Seychelles a few years ago.)
"Tindy loves old people, because he never saw anyone in Rwanda over 45," says Phyllida.
"There are old people in the village, and he drops in to see them on every visit."
Most importantly, he has formed a wonderful relationship with Gaia. She was an only child until she was three, and friends of the family say she is delighted to have an older sibling, and calls him her brother with natural affection.
Tindy recently gave a talk at her school about life in Rwanda, and inspired the children to raise funds to build a dormitory at a school in Uganda by doing a sponsored skipping event.
Gaia's schoolmates then decided to become penfriends with the African children.
It is no surprise, perhaps, that Thompson and Wise are keen that their daughter should realise how blessed she is, and they take care not to spoil her.
They cycle everywhere and have a modest TV set with no satellite or cable.
Their domestic life is not at all what you might imagine in a celebrity household. Their home, personally remodelled by Wise, is a red-brick terrace where they gather around the table for proper coffee, roll-up cigarettes and long chats about redefining philanthropy for the 21st century.
Like her literary heroine George Eliot, Cambridge graduate Miss Thompson is driven to help others. She is involved actively with a number of charities, and last year held an event to highlight the plight of trafficked sex workers.
It must be said, though, that the adoption of Tindy also seemed to help Thompson heal a personal grief. She underwent IVF before she fell pregnant, aged 40, with Gaia, and despite going through several further cycles, she was not able to have any more children.
Wise recalls that the process was "brutal" and left him requiring therapy. "You try your hardest and, if it doesn't work, it's not your fault," he said.
Phyllida hopes the arrival of Tindy has brought a sense of completeness for her daughter.
"That has been very, very hard. It's too tender for her still."
Thompson is made to be the mother of an undergraduate. She loves helping with essays and having earnest political debates, and has formidable reserves of patience when it comes to hearing everyone's point of view.
"I don't want to sound syrupy, but she's exactly the sort of mother every twenty-something needs," said the family friend.
This being Emma Thompson, the debates are conducted at a high level. In his article for the charity publication, Tindy mentions fortnightly private chats with his "political mentor," who "happens to be a Cabinet secretary."
Sources at the Cabinet Office said this week they were not sure if Tindy was referring to Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary.
But Tindy is clearly proud of his connections, via his famous adoptive mother, with the great and the good.
Despite all the loving attention he received from his new family, it was, Tindy admits, a "total shock" to experience Exeter after the multiculturalism of London, and he seems to have taken a little time to find his feet.
In the article he talks about the "complete decline" of student activism, the apathy of many fellow students, and their interest in "pathetic celebrity culture."
He is scathing about how "boring" his tutorials are, and accuses the university of not doing enough to attract students from ethnic minorities (though its chancellor is the black actress Floella Benjamin.)
Tindy also says he has twice been racially abused: by a group of "nerds" when he was cycling; and by bouncers outside a nightclub.
His reaction was just to laugh at their "boring insults" and enjoy their stunned faces.
"We know Tindy quite well and he's always expressed general satisfaction with what's going on," says university spokesman Stuart Franklin.
"As for ethnic numbers at the university, it isn't the case that he is the only African student in politics.
"Exeter has come in the top ten universities for student satisfaction for three years running in the National Student Survey, which doesn't suggest Mr Agaba's views are widely shared."
A lecturer at the university who knows Tindy, but did not want to be named, said the student's comments have caused irritation.
"Exeter has always attracted a large number of white students from good families and who drive their own cars. It has that old-style yuppie reputation with its golf society and polo club.
"Tindy has said what many people probably have thought for some time. He has a voice because of his personal background. Sometimes a wider audience don't want to hear such things from a student.
"So he has a point, but an informed debate is the way we prefer to discuss matters, however contentious they may be."
Maybe so, but then who can really blame this extraordinary young man for fighting against any perceived injustices?
And what will the future hold? Tindy wants to be a human rights lawyer and return to Rwanda when he has completed his education.
According to Emma Thompson, he also has half an eye on becoming a politician.
"Of course, I want him to be president," she says. "Just corrupt enough so I can have my own palace. I don't need much!"