I am a combination of experiences that have shaped my values and beliefs. I don’t belong to any culture, country nor do I subscribe to any particular identity. I have learned that life is fleeting and thus I have committed myself to make sure whatever life I live counts for something.
But let's go back to the beginning. My mother will tell you that she knew I was trouble the minute I was born. She says that I gave a good fight to make it into the world. I was born at 1 am and to this day I blame my time of birth as the reason why I am a night owl. Read more...
My parents are both pastors. Well actually my dad is a Bishop and my mom is the pastor. Both of them have "day jobs" though and it has been the case since I was little.
I get my entrepreneurial spirit from my father and my love for academia from my mom. But they both get the blame for my love for community work.
I was born in Gitega Burundi. Bivumu, my village, is small but for seven good years it was my playground. I got into a lot of scrapes as a child. To date, I can tell you all the shortcuts to school and where to go when you need to hide from teachers. Put simply, I was a very active child. I took playing seriously and school was my extracurricular activity –never mind that my mother was a well–respected math teacher; which by the way is the one subject that I never excelled at when I was in school. There is something to be said about those brilliant math genes skipping a generation.
By the time I was six I was acute to my surroundings. I also knew that my family was ingrained in the political process of my country. The talks on Hutus and Tutsis were done behind doors and it was at this young age that I learned of my label as Hutu. This off course did not stop me from playing and making friends with Tutsis. Truth be told, I never could differentiate between Hutus and Tutsis.
By the time I was 7, it was clear that one of my mum’s cousins was going to be running for president. I knew him from my parents’ wedding pictures and few chance encounters, even though his wife and children were part of our family gatherings. When I did meet him, he was "uncle". And in 1993, it was then that my "uncle" ran for president for what had been termed as the first "democratic" election. Off course at that age I was ignorant of the implications that this held for our family. Nevertheless I was swept into the excitement.
On the evening that we heard that Melchior Ndadaye won I joined the masses. I took the streets shouting with excitement. Running to the shopping center with tree branches in hand it was excitement all over. Then the police showed up and started shooting. At that time I thought they were shooting at people and it was not until later that I learned that they had been shooting in the air. Nevertheless, hearing gunshots, my survival instincts kicked in and I jumped into a ditch hands first, scraping my knees in the process. There are days that I sit down and look at my knees and see the scars- there I am reminded of the pain, blood and the chilling fear that I could have died that day.
That was the only good memory I would remember about "democracy" for a long time. What took place in the next three months was a mix of joy and trepidation. Being so naive to the political unrest unraveling, it seemed my life went on as usual. That was until one unfortunate morning on October 20, 1993. I should have known something was wrong when mother was at home seated at the dining table. She was a teacher, which meant that she was always out of the house before I even woke up. But I didn't think much of it and my day seemed to progress as usual. It was not until I was on my way to school that I knew that something was wrong. The main highway was blocked. The trees by the side of the road were cut down and lying across the road. There was no way I was going to make it to school that afternoon. A quick glance, and I saw soldiers with guns coming my way but I had no time to turn back or run. Like any child with a godly fear of guns I hid in a ditch beside the road and no matter how much I wanted to cry, I kept still. There was no doubt in my mind that if I showed my face, I would not make it back home. After a while they passed by and I got out and walked- well actually run and stumbled my way back home. That was the last time I would walk to school.
What took place in the next few days was blur. In fact, in the next couple of months, I found myself living a stranger’s life. What used to be a peaceful life had turned into turmoil real quickly. My uncle was assassinated, neighbors became enemies, and for a month, my life consisted of hiding in strangers’ houses, running during the day, hiding at night, and hoping to see the next day.
My father had managed to escape to the city, and the rest of our family, (my mother, two sisters and brother) managed to make it to Bujumbura from Kibimba. Along the way in the bus you could see houses that were destroyed, bodies alongside the road, and the stench of it all was almost nauseating. We were always in danger of soldiers stopping the buses and separating the Hutus from the Tutsis.
Thankfully, we reached Bujumbura, and took refuge in my father’s church. A couple of days later, our mother was warned that soldiers were coming to our church compound. My brother, sisters and I were woken up in the middle of the night, and we had to hide in the Church’s baptismal pit. We put a mattress in the pit, and some foot and one of our house help locked us in the pit for a whole night. We couldn’t cry, talk, and at times we had to hold our breath. The soldiers did come and even walked on “top” of us. Afraid of sleeping, we stayed awake all night, making sure not to make a noise. We survived that night. That same day, we were briefly reunited with our father who had been making plans for us to leave the country. Soon after, we left the country and moved to Congo where we lived as refugees for a year.
A couple months later, there were riots in Kivu, where we lived. The conflict in Burundi and Rwanda trickled into Congo. Men and women, some bloodied, walked by our house all looking for refuge. Violence escalated in Congo, and in 1994, our mother got accepted at Daystar University in Kenya. She left us in Congo to start school, but we were soon reunited with her in late 1994. In Kenya, I had my second permanent home. We made a new home, and made new memories. We adapted to a new life, and new country. Bonus: I learned English and Swahili!
Years later, I look back at my life, and what I have become and wonder if I had any choice but to be who I am. The seven years in Kenya were instrumental in shaping my beliefs as not only a human being, by my faith in that I have been created with a purpose. My time in Kenya was my first practice as a nomad. I was caught between the desire to be back in Burundi, and that of making a home in Kenya.
Through all this turmoil, one thing never changed: my parents remained active in community work, and remained hopeful that Burundi would see peace one day. This was my first lesson in hope and determination. Year after year, they would attend meetings on peace and reconciliation, and make trips to Burundi to see if we still had a home. It was at these times when I was left to be the mother and father to my siblings that I learned the true meaning of responsibility and leadership. I learned the value of solitude, and that of compromise.
Eventually, the nightmares stopped. Somewhere between finishing primary school and starting secondary school, I stopped dreaming of death, dead bodies and me running through graveyards. For someone who used to spend their childhood trying to skip school, I found out that I was good and actually enjoyed school. It was during this time that my parents send me to the United States with my brother to study. Ironically, I arrived in the United State a couple of weeks before 9/11. I am not sure if that is a sign, but I knew the moment that I landed in the USA that life for me, as I knew it, was over. It surprised people that I adapted to the country so well. What they would never know is that I had seven years of practice. I had learned to adapt to my circumstances, and always hope for the best.
Over the last 12 years, I have spent half of those trying to escape my past in Burundi and Kenya. It was not until I was almost done with college that I realized that the saying goes true, “ You can run, but you can’t hide.” There was no defining moment where I realized what I wanted to do was engage Africa. Working on African issues or even being a young “African Leader” was not something I pursued. It just happened. In the fall of my junior year, I was assigned to do some research on HIV/AIDS in Africa, and I never stopped. I went on to pursue my Masters with every intention to use my skills for the betterment of Africa and its people. I guess I had no choice. Having the parents that I have, and having had the experiences that I have had, I was bound to end up doing community work of some sort.
I would want to say that my work to date has been a coincidence, but I have been blessed to know that life is not a coincidence. The Council of Young African Leaders was born out of sheer frustration of seeing young Africans being sidelined over and over again on decisions which affected them. There was also frustration on watching the inaction of young leaders who had resources at their disposal but were unable to utilize them to the betterment of Africa, or their communities. It was luck to meet my co-founder Okenfe Lebarty at a time where young Africans were making moves across Africa demanding change. Together, we allowed for the Arab Spring to be our guide, and we reached out to our networks to see if Africa’s future could really get some work done in the present. As they say, “the rest is history”.
After years working in corporate America as a marketing communication strategist and event planner, I decided that the only way to continue to effectively work with The Council of Young African Leaders; and pursue my professional career was to marry the two. To that effect, I founded a marketing communication firm that works particularly with the Africa businesses and organizations. After years of “searching”, I have finally found my “home”. My mother once told me that Africa’s greatest asset was its people, and to that end, I have committed myself to training, enabling, and empowering this human capital that is Africa’s salvation. It’s not always easy, and at times frustrating, but at the end of the day, I get to do what I love.
I still dream of returning to Burundi. No matter the painful memories, I still hope to return home and make contribution to its growth and development. I guess that is THE DREAM. I have taken all my lessons and have applied them into becoming who I am today. I have learned that my happiest moments are when my life is of service to others. I know I must be crazy to think that I can change the world, but if I don’t, I can at least say that I have tried. It is quite a naïve way to live - as some point out to me - but for me, it is the only way to live. Ubuntu is the principle I live by: "I am what I am through other people. My humanity is tied to yours”