By David Nilsen
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Theo Makombe, author of The Race for Life. Theo, a Rwandan Tutsi by birth, was a teenager when the awful events of the 1994 Rwandan genocide unfolded, a tragedy in which nearly a million people were killed. Theo’s book is both heartbreaking and inspirational, a powerful journey from devastation to healing. He will be giving a presentation Thursday evening, November 13, at 6:30 pm here at the Greenville Public Library. He will be speaking about his book, and then signing copies for those interested. The Race for Life will be available for sale at the event.
Fourth & Sycamore: Thank you for being willing to talk with us today, Theo.
Having lived in the American midwest most of my life it’s hard for me to imagine the contrast between living in Rwanda, especially during the genocide, and then living here. When you moved to the United States as an adult, what was that like for you? What differences were most glaring as you adjusted to a new culture?
Theo Makombe: People in America seem to always be dreaming and looking forward to their future and they are so proud of their past and their heritage. They don’t seem to live with a constant awareness of danger. America was built on such a firm foundation that has empowered the people of today. Americans are so proud to be American. it is as if in Rwanda our past has been destroyed. Rwanda is a country in a new birth and most people are more concerned with surviving today to dream of tomorrow. Each day brings it’s own dangers and fears. With the genocide being such a dark spot in our history, there is not a lot of patriotism in Rwanda. those in leadership in Rwanda have big dreams for our future, the the common people have not yet caught the vision.
F&S: In the section of your book in which you talk about your childhood before the 1994 genocide, you share a number of memories that are both good and bad. You talk about poverty, being mistreated for being a Tutsi, and even being given insulting nicknames by some family members, but you also speak fondly of your homeland and family during that time. When you think back on your childhood prior to the massacre, what stands out most clearly? Did you have a happy childhood prior to that awful event?
Theo: I so much enjoyed life before the genocide. I loved all of the celebrations that brought our village together like holidays and harvest celebrations. I very much enjoyed a freedom to roam around our village that I don’t think many American children can.
F&S: I think it’s difficult for most Americans to imagine a political and cultural environment in which the type of atrocities you describe could take place. We are familiar with war from a distance, but brutality between former friends, family members, and neighbors on such a large scale is difficult for us to get our minds around. Can you help our readers understand a little better the political and cultural context that set the stage for this kind of violence?
Theo: I believe a lot of the problem had to do with the lack of inspiration. I believe in education but also strongly believe that education without inspiration has led many to destruction. No matter how much our former leaders were educated, they showed their great lack of wisdom. The truth is that the seed of hatred was planted in their minds decades before and sadly that was the motive for all of their education. Also, there is a strong history of unity in America. America has always been a melting pot and was proud to be so. Rwanda never had that luxury. From the time our nation was formed, there has always been division. Much of this division was cemented into our worldview by the separation of the tribe and the issuance of identity cards. From that time there has been animosity and rivalry between the tribes. We were never a nation at peace. For over a hundred years, tension and hatred has been built to the point that blatantly anti-Tutsi media was prevalent right before the genocide. The Rwandan national radio was a major influence in a country where most did not own a television set. It was this radio station that was clearly “Hutu power”. In America today, the radio stations may not be blaring hate speech, but Americans are, just like the Rwandans, completely influenced by the media.
“Those questions lived in my mind for years but I also couldn’t deny the miracles that had happened and were still happening to me. Putting these two things on a balance, I found God too convincing not to believe in.”
F&S: You talk about the apathy of the rest of the world to the Rwandan genocide as it unfolded, particularly that of America and other industrialized world powers. Having lived in the United States now for several years, can you share some of what you believe contributes to this kind of apathy? Why do you believe this country turned a blind eye on what was happening there?
Theo: The problem of corruption is everywhere. Some of the industrialized countries had a hand in the preparation and support of the Genocide. I don’t hold anything against the citizens of these countries. I believe that most of them had no idea what their governments were involved in. Although America did not support the genocide, they did not act to stop it either. I know that many American citizens would love to stop violence around the world but it seems like America has two sides that don’t understand each other, the citizens and the government. Many times politicians have different agendas than their citizens and I believe that this is true in America as well. America has been looked at by other countries as the world police because of their past involvement in war, but there is much speculation that it was only when there was something to gain.
I believe that if America were ever destroyed, it would be the work of its own government. When too much power gets into the hands of those with their own agenda, the country suffers. Many of us didn’t believe then that America or any other western nations cared about us, but now my view is different. Many citizens in western nations care, but feel like they have no power to make a difference.
F&S: Faith in God is obviously a major part of your life, and one of the central themes of your book is that your healing from the past has come through that faith. It would be normal for a person who has lived through the things you have lived through to ask why God could allow such things to happen, or even question the existence of God. How have you personally wrestled with those questions, and how do you reconcile the existence of a good god with the events that you’ve lived through?
Theo: Those questions lived in my mind for years but I also couldn’t deny the miracles that had happened and were still happening to me. Putting these two things on a balance, I found God too convincing not to believe in.
With many years of questioning where God was in those moments, I have come to understand this: where were we before it happened? We were not listening. I myself remember so well a man who slept in our living room for several weeks. He prophesied all that was going to happen but we all thought of him as mentally ill.
Whenever a nation has forgotten its founder, then its foundation will begin to fall. God was not responsible for the genocide, people were; people that had their hearts far from an all loving God.
F&S: You talk in your book about various efforts to bring reconciliation and forgiveness to Rwanda rather than revenge and escalating violence. Nelson Mandela was praised for similar guidance in South Africa following decades of apartheid and injustice in his country. What is your view on how to respond to the violence and cruelty perpetrated during the Rwandan genocide? How do the dual needs for forgiveness and justice fit together in such an extreme case?
Theo: Justice without forgiveness is the brother of revenge. Revenge never ends a problem. Rather, it energizes it to start again even stronger. There must be other ways to resolve the struggles of a nation like Rwanda after what we have been through. Through experience, Rwanda has discovered justice through forgiveness. With the re-institution of the Gacaca (village court), victims were given the opportunity to act on their forgiveness and grant amnesty to those who were repentant. Whenever you choose not to forgive, you hurt yourself more than you hurt the one who offended you.
F&S: What is the social and political climate like in Rwanda today? What do you see in the future for your home country?
Theo: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
I am so grateful for our leaders today. Regardless all the mistakes they make, they have shown inspiration to us. Having suffered the same loss, poverty and sicknesses themselves, they seem to be fighting on behalf of the people they lead. I have hope for Rwanda even though the idea of patriotism still remain in our leaders and it may take some time for every Rwandan to catch up with the vision.
“Justice without forgiveness is the brother of revenge. Revenge never ends a problem. Rather, it energizes it to start again even stronger.“
F&S: You devote some time in your book to discussing race issues here in the United States, which I am eager to hear you address further. Racism, both systemic and personal, is still very much a problem here in America. With your particular background and experiences as context, can you summarize for our readers your view on the race situation in the United States?
Theo: I have seen this issue so painfully and intellectually disguised in this society.
Today it is done in different ways. Skin color is not always the motivation for prejudice, but rather social/economic status and even religious beliefs. It is usually not obvious, but is seen in many subtle ways and those who are guilty of it would probably deny it. Many white people for example, they fear a black man walking on the street after ten at night, but they would equally fear a man or woman that appears unkept or poor. I have seen some black people that are just as uneasy with members of their own race. Although it is true that a large percentage of prisoners in America may be black, we have to wonder what factors molded them into criminals and could the same prejudice be to blame. The real problem here is what drives us to behave the way we do, black or white.
F&S: Finally, if you could leave our readers with one parting thought, what would that be?
Theo: America is one nation that has been God’s tool to protect the world. This is the time every citizen should be reminded of what you all stand for: Freedom for every citizen, freedom of human rights all over the world, freedom of religious practices. But most of all, America needs to remember the God that it was founded to honor. If this nation continues to forsake the God of its foundation, it will become powerless.
Rwanda learned this the hard way and many Rwandans will not sit back and watch the nation that has introduced God to us go down the same road we traveled.
I consider this as a revolution of the Christian Mission.
F&S: Thank you so much for being willing to share your story, Theo.
We will we shelving Theo’s book The Race for Life very soon. Check back often to see when it’s available!