I have a new friend, and his name is Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza. Last week, I was fortunate enough to hear a bit of his life story, as he spoke in front of African Leadership Academy. A small, smiling boy from Rwanda stood before a group of 200, but for ten minutes, the room felt almost empty, as if Emmanuel and I were the only two there. I did not know a group of 17-19 year olds could pay such reverence and respect to one of their peers. More significantly, I had never met a young man whose life experiences absolutely demanded that level of attention. The man standing before me eloquently and calmly conveyed a life full of pain and perseverance on a scale I cannot comprehend. I was captivated. I was impressed and moved. I asked Emmanuel if I could share his tale with friends and family from home, and he graciously said that I could. I will try to present his story as best I can, but I am afraid there is no way I could fully capture his message. Please note, this is adapted from the way he told the story himself – most of the phrases, word choice, and thoughts are his, only reiterated by me, the humble scribe.
Emmanuel began his speech by reciting these few lines that I believe he had written:
Inside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And there after set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
Emmanuel describes his life until now as a steep uphill climb. He has had to master his own survival. Like many people, Emmanuel has lived his life in episodes – some short and enjoyable, others long and painful. Here is a small glimpse into his life, and a view of the young man he has become.
Birth and the Unknowns
Emmanuel was born one day… in nineteen ninety something, on a date and at a time that nobody now knows. For reasons that he perhaps will never comprehend no matter how hard he searches, his story is not polished with beautiful pictures of childhood and marvelous memories of his village or hometown – he never had either. It is instead full of uncertainties of his childhood, inconsistent ups of his growth, and ambiguities of his future. However, it is these complexities that have made him the character he is today.
Passing through the furnace
Not long after Emmanuel’s birth, he says, “the crust of the earth opened up to drink the blood of the innocents and swallow the bodies of the blameless.” The genocide had started in Rwanda. Emmanuel’s uncles, cousins and aunts were murdered. His earliest steps as a child were spent running to escape horror. Emmanuel, who was too young to distinguish a bean from millet, fled with his mother and four sisters to western Rwanda. Along the way, his sister Stephanie was separated from the group and lost.
Upon reaching a UN Camp in Congo, Emmanuel’s mother fell sick and died of cholera. Less than an hour later, Emmanuel’s little sister followed her mom.
Not long after that, the camp was under attack. People were murdered again; abuse and defilement overrode the camp. Emmanuel and his two remaining sisters fled into the bush of Congo. In the chaos, another of his sisters was lost. It was only Emmanuel and his eldest sister Patricia left, wandering in a world of wild savages like foxes without a den. They survived on wild fruits and water from the roots of trees. As Emmanuel’s sister squeezed roots to extract drops of water to quench his voracious thirst, Emmanuel lay with his mouth open like an eaglet waiting for an earthworm.
When he finally told Patricia he was dying, suddenly, “PARARAPAPA!” Gun shots! Fear convulsed through his body like an electrical current. Bullets flew over their heads. They crawled into the shrubbery, protecting their eardrums with their hands from the piercing machine gun fire. After days and nights hiding in the bush, Emmanuel’s stomach was as hollow as his loneliness. At only 5 years old, time in Emmanuel’s life dragged like a flowing river without a mouth, days passed like decades and nights were endless.
Despite these tough times, Emmanuel and his sister persevered. They did not give up in despair and neither did they surrender their lives. Unlike other people who sought lethal poison to cease their pain, Patricia kept on telling Emmanuel that someday the sun shall rise! It required so much courage and endurance to stay awake and hopeful. But somehow they did.
After years of fighting for daily survival in the bush, at age 6 Emmanuel walked with Patricia for miles and miles back to Rwanda in 1997 or 1998. Conditions seemed better but no less dangerous.
It is the pains and sorrows of then and joys of after then that Emmanuel remembers most vividly. There was the joy of seeing his mother’s home village but the pain of only finding ruins. And the daunting feeling that his mother’s body lay in a foreign land. “It is the trials of those times that haunt me for days,” he says. “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”
Upon arriving back to Rwanda, there was still chaos and danger. There were rebels all over who killed, looted, tortured and harassed innocent people. Emmanuel, Patricia and his two lost sisters, who had just been found and returned by Unicef, were no exception. They were abused in many ways, and their parents’ land was overridden and shared among those evil men. They were forced to continue living in the bush, evading the rebels who were threatening their lives.
You have heard people say, “Live each day as if it was your last day.” Those days Emmanuel did live his each day as if it was the last day of his life, not because he actually understood the message behind the saying but because it was the only thing to do. He took care of that present day and left the next day to take care of itself. And when the next day came, he did the same. “Today, those who know me know that I worry not about tomorrow, for I know that tomorrow will take care of itself. You can’t reap from worrying.”
War Ends, Opportunity Knocks
In 2001, when war had ended and conditions improved, Emmanuel was spotted by a philanthropic Anglican bishop who placed him in a school that he had founded for orphans of the genocide, HIV, and war. Emmanuel was a double orphan, spending much of his early childhood living alone, surviving day to day like an animal and ultimately learning to “work the streets.” When he first set foot in a classroom at age 9, Emmanuel had to learn how to socialize and speak the language. The first three months, Emmanuel had no motivation to study whatsoever. How strange it was to be around other kids! However, when he got into the system and saw people wearing shoes and traveling in cars, he thought to himself that education was the only way out. Thereafter, he worked at the top of everything, sleeping only two hours a night. Many people were captivated by his progress. He says his performance, aptitude, and humility helped him to succeed.
At Sonrise School, Emmanuel excelled academically and scored in the top ten for performance on the national examinations in grade six. This honor earned him a prize of 180,000 Rwandan francs, approximately $300. With this reward money, he bought a small piece of land and built a small shack on it for his sister Patricia. Patricia lived in this new home while Emmanuel was away at school, and during breaks he would sometimes come live with her. For the first time they lived in a so-called house and felt a sense of home! This is how Emmanuel’s leadership journey started, donating his prize money, that he could have used to enjoy himself with his friends at school to make a home for his sister. Today, this same land has turned into one of the best homes on the hill! Through a successful chicken project Emmanuel developed, he and his sister now own 5 cows, 16 sheep, and 25 goats. Emmanuel also established a small entrepreneurial project that has lifted his sister to be able to support herself, and earn honor in the village.
During the school breaks, Emmanuel developed the courage to apply for summer jobs in the city. It was difficult to get a job and he worked as a servant to demonstrate his work ethic. He served his master so well that he was hired for his first paying job – a night guard for a gas station at age 14. Emmanuel then became a sales assistant there during the next summer break and was earning more money in a week than a primary teacher at the time could earn in months.
Since then, Emmanuel worked his way in the city during his school breaks to earn money for food and clothes. He made friends who allowed him to stay in their homes, and he migrated from house to house. Like a bird without a nest, he laid his head wherever he landed.
School breaks were often the most difficult times of his life as he had to fight to survive on his own. However, he managed to survive over and over, and he is still surviving and constantly dreaming of liberating his sisters, nephews, nieces and the generations within his reach.
Clearing the Paths
When Emmanuel stepped into the city life, he gained the confidence to reinvent himself and to take every opportunity to make his life better. He discovered a passion for writing and even started publishing stories in the national newspaper! On April 7, 2009 Emmanuel moved from not just writing his words in newspapers but also delivering spoken words. At age 17, he recited his first five-page Genocide poem to an audience of about 2,000 people with the aim of reconciling victims of Genocide and perpetrators. Emmanuel had already started his journey of healing to escape the emotional bondage of his past and break the chains of inferiority. He wished for others to do the same. His poem was broadcast on the national Radio. How he managed to pull that off, now that is another story for another day! “Or perhaps you can wait to read it in my book someday!” Emmanuel told me.
Regardless of Emmanuel’s childhood uncertainties, by 2009 he was one of the highly respected students in his school. He ran many school clubs in the school and did community service with an NGO called Bridge2Rwanda. He worked specifically on project Rwanda, which provides youth with cargo bikes to help them generate a living for themselves. Emmanuel became a tutor and mentor and helped establish a community school.
For many years, Emmanuel had asked why he never got to enjoy the protection of his dad. As a little boy, Emmanuel finally learned of his father only after he had been stoned to death. At age 17, that same boy was mentoring other kids – working as an English teacher and mentor at a prominent orphanage in Rwanda, striving to support others in moving beyond the same obstacles that Emmanuel had pushed out of his own path.
Emmanuel has scars on his skin and he carries bullets in his calf but he knows that these scars are ones of survival. Emmanuel survived for a reason, he says. “Perhaps to meet you!”
Emmanuel understands that history has ruined his past but he refuses to live under the umbrella of its ruins. He has a destiny, a maze set out before him, and he fathoms that it is his only obligation to realize it! He is blazing a trail for himself and making a different story; he refuses to lay down his life. After all, the people who get on in this world are those who get up and change the course life has set for them. They work for the circumstances they want and if they can’t find them, they make them!
As Emmanuel wrote this story, he visited his Diary, of which he hopes someday will be published into a book or even a movie, starring a most handsome actor, of course. He came across these few lines that he wrote when he almost failed to get a passport because he had no parents’ documents, birth certificates or other necessary identity paperwork. His country almost rejected him.
The lines read: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past.”
“Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future,” he went on to say. “Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.”
Despite the troubles, Emmanuel managed to get his passport – his formal identity as a citizen of Rwanda. He developed wings and set himself flying, thanks to Patricia, Dieudonne, Anna Reed and other friends who helped him to defy the odds. On September 4, 2010, he flew to South Africa to attend African Leadership Academy with some of the smartest young students from all over Africa. The rest is soon to become history and yet another chapter in his story.
His life is an inspiration to me, and I hope you have benefitted from the small glimpse offered here. I recommend remembering the name Emmanuel Manirakiza. However, Emmanuel says that if you don’t remember anything from his story, remember this one motto that he has come up with for his life: when you face perplexing challenges, waves tossing you sideways, just remember this one thing that, “Tough times make tough minds!”