Her father was murdered by gunmen, her mother starved to death and Michaela DePrince was branded a "devil child" at her orphanage because of a rare skin condition. Then, as civil war raged around her in Sierra Leone, a vision came as if from another world.
Outside the orphanage gates was a magazine with a picture of a ballet dancer. "I'd never seen anything like it before," says Michaela, now 17.
"It was kind of strange because she looked so beautiful and so happy, and so I ripped the cover off and I tucked it into my underwear. I kept looking at it every single night and just dreaming that if I came to America I want to look exactly like this person."
Her dream was realised. Mabinty Bangura, as she was then, was adopted by an American couple and given a new name and new life in the US. She is now a rising star in the ballet world and makes her full professional debut on Friday in Le Corsaire at the Jo'burg Theatre.
In a nearby ballet studio with walled mirrors and expansive windows overlooking downtown Johannesburg, DePrince speaks with a composure that rivals her control en pointe. Past traumas have apparently bestowed premature adulthood upon her, though there are fleeting glimpses of the teenager beneath.
"I have a lot of bad memories," she says of her time in Sierra Leone. "I was going through a lot. I remember losing my family, I remember seeing a lot of rebels killing people that I knew. It was disgusting and just revolting."
'I had no idea how I survived'
Her three brothers died young and her father, a trader, was shot by rebels when she was three. She remembers her uncle bringing the body home and trying to explain. "I've always been a daddy's girl," she says. "I do have a picture of my dad and I was holding his hand."
A week later, her mother died from starvation. The family had always been poor. "I was always hungry. I had terrible malnutrition when I came to America. I had no idea how I survived."
Michaela was taken to an orphanage by her uncle but there was no escaping the horrors of a conflict that left tens of thousands dead. Among them was Michaela's pregnant teacher.
"My teacher was the only person who liked me and she actually took time to make sure that I wasn't starving as much as the rest of the kids. At night we would study and work on different languages. She was pregnant so she left and I said goodbye.
"Then the rebels came. When they take the younger kids, if it's a boy then it's fine, but if it's a girl they just flip out. She had a baby girl and they cut her belly open and saw it was a baby girl and were furious, so they cut her arms and legs off and left her there. I tried to save her. A little boy – he was probably five years old – thought it was really funny that I was trying to do that, so I actually have a scar where he also cut my stomach, and it was a blackout after that."
'I just push them away'
The carers at the orphanage, known as "aunties and uncles", despised her, she says, for her independent streak and for a skin condition, vitiligo, which caused loss of pigment to areas on her neck and chest. When the orphans were ranked from the most favoured to the least, Michaela was 27th out of 27, putting her last in the queue for clothes or food.
"Calling a little kid a 'devil's child' is terrible," she says. "It ruined my self-esteem for years. Even still now I don't like compliments. I just push them away. I don't like it when people say nice things or when my friends say I'm beautiful. I haven't been able to accept myself yet as a person. It's got a lot better, though."
Michaela adds: "Because they hated me so much, I think I had to prove that, 'I don't care if you guys hate me, I'm going to do whatever I want.' I think that's the only way I was able to survive at that time."
But number 26 was another girl who would become Michaela's closest friend and, eventually, her adopted sister in the US. "I was number 27 and she was number 26. Mia, who's my sister now, used to wet the bed and she was left-handed, so we shared a mat together and became best friends.
"We did everything together and at nighttime we loved talking. In the orphanage I had terrible nightmares and I could never fall asleep, so she would always tell me a story and help me fall asleep. Mia and I would always have great times. I would create new games and we would all play. It was a lot of fun most of the time, but when the aunties were involved, it was just awful. Getting my hair braided was the worst; I had a very sensitive scalp."
After about a year the orphanage was bombed and the girls walked barefoot for miles to a refugee camp. In 1999, everything changed. A couple from New Jersey arrived to adopt Mia (now a musician) and, on being told that Michaela would never find a home, decided to take her too. Elaine DePrince and her husband, Charles, also adopted a third girl, Mariel.
'She was just wonderful'
Michaela remembers arriving in the US. "Actually I was terrified, completely terrified. I'd never seen so many white people before; they looked like aliens to me. But after I got to know my mother better … she was just wonderful."
Soon she went rummaging in her adopted mother's bag looking for ballet shoes. "I was so confused, I didn't understand, I guess I thought everybody wore pointy shoes and were ballet dancers, and so I was looking through her bag and I thought there were pointy shoes in there. She was wondering why I was looking, so that's why I showed her the picture. It was disgusting because I kept it in my underwear because I had no other place to keep it.
"I told her this is what I want to be and this is what I'm going to be, so either take it or leave it, and she said, 'Okay, well, if you work hard,' and I did and now I'm here."
Now, with her parents' support, Michaela has just graduated from the American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis school in New York and will start next month at the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She has been featured in a documentary film and performed on the TV show Dancing With the Stars.
But she faces a new obstacle: she says she has often been the victim of racism in ballet. Once, rehearsing to play Marie in The Nutcracker, she was told she had lost the part because "America's not ready for a black Marie".
One article said she had "big boobs"; Michaela responded: "I don't have boobs. Not everybody's built the same and people need to get that in their heads."
She continues: "There are so many stereotypical things about being black in the ballet world. It's starting to change a little bit, slowly, and a lot of people I've been reaching out to are telling me how much I've started changing things, which is great. I just hope I change it enough to open the doors for other kids. But it's still terrible. Sometimes people are like, 'Ah well, you're too dark for this role'."
DePrince, who loves taking long walks in Manhattan but still describes herself as African, plans to return to Sierra Leone one day to open a school. Before then, she yearns to dance the lead roles in Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake.
"I would like to change the way people see black dancers. I just want to be a great role model for kids. I would hate to disappoint anybody." – © Guardian News and Media 2012