Climb On, Emmanuel

“Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.  And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.”                                                                                                                                Emmanuel Manirakiza

I hesitated to post this because it makes everything I write seem silly in comparison. But it is a story that must be told.

Through the generosity of the Morehead-Cain Scholars Program, my second son, Andrew, was able to work at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa this past summer.  While there he met Emmanuel Manirakiza.

This is Emmanuel’s story.

Another ALA student, Andrew, and Emmanuel Manirakiza.

Emmanuel Manirakiza: Uphill Climb

Originally written and posted by Andrew Powell at APatALA on May 31, 2012

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 thereafter 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.

Bitter Motherland

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.

Lessons Learned

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!

Emmanuel Manirakiza at African Leadership Academy Graduation, 2012

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!”

The following was originally posted by Andrew Powell at APatALA on July 15, 2012.

Climb on Emmanuel

“The great use of life is to spend it for something that outlasts it.”  William James

This morning, Emmanuel passed away, drowning in a swimming pool in Kigali.

Thanks to his infectious happiness and resilient optimism, Emmanuel Manirakiza became a close friend over the past ten weeks. I feel privileged to have known such a remarkable and inspiring young man, but today my heart aches for the loss of a truly great man. The world has lost a special person. However, I take solace in knowing that his presence, story, and positive impact will long outlast him. He would want us to be happy, even now, and that positivity is the legacy we must leave him — I only that wish we could have a fraction of his strength to push through right now. Please pray for his two sisters and all his other relatives back in Rwanda.

And share his story, so that he may continue changing the world for the better.

His life was full of insurmountable hurdles, but with his resilience and will power, even death cannot stop him from changing lives.

Climb on, Emmanuel.

Emmanuel would have started college this fall at Rochester Institute in Rochester, New York. 

Though his years were few, the impact of Emmanuel’s life will be immense if his story is shared.  Please click a button below to share via Facebook, Twitter, or other media.  

To read this and other essays visit my blog, In-House Counsel,  You may subscribe to the blog  and receive weekly posts delivered through email by clicking on the “Follow Blog via Email” button at the top right corner of the home page.  

To read other inspiring stories from his time at African Leadership Academy visit Andrew’s blog at  APatALA.


32 thoughts on “Climb On, Emmanuel

  1. Carolyn Watt Cantwell

    Oh Molly, thank you for this post. My heart aches for his sisters and for Andrew. I have met so many inspiring Africans and now Emmanuel will join the ranks of those I admire so earnestly. I will pray for his sisters, and that God will grant a legacy to this amazing young man.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      It was such a blow to Andrew just days before the end of his time in South Africa. However, Emmanuel’s story is getting out to inspire others, and that is a big part of what he hoped to do with his life.

  2. ronfurg

    I don’t know whether I feel more inspired or sad. What a tragedy to loose such a talented young man. We can be very thankful that he leaves the legacy of his life and story with us.

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      It is one of the saddest things I have ever heard and living through the personal loss with my son made it even harder. I think it comes across from the essay but according to Andrew you sensed that you were in the presence of greatness.

  3. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    what a truly incredible moment in time to be blessed being in the presence
    of such strength
    Emmanuel has left a blazing trail of light I believe….That is his Gift to the world
    to blame no one, just take each moment and live it to the fullest
    The world has lost and gained an energy that resonates with Hope….
    Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story….
    wow, just wow….!
    Take Care…

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      It is compelling. It is such a blessing how something as simple as a blog can be used to continue the work that Emmanuel started. Thank you so much for reblogging. Who knows how the spread of this story might be just the catalyst for hope and change in a needy life.

  4. LadyBlueRose's Thoughts Into Words

    Reblogged this on ladybluerose and commented:
    sometimes an energy pulls the heart strings….. to me here is a story of a pure heart of loving and determination of a soul to make a difference in their world….and in ours for these words surely will touch anyone in a profound way that reads them…Take care…)0( ladyblue

  5. Wendell A. Brown

    A very inspiring true life story of pain, suffering, loss and blossoming new life success! My heart praises his heart and prays for his continuing success to help others to achive what at a time was not possible…with his selfless heart he has made it possible!

  6. Pingback: A Story Worth Reading | Ronfurg's Blog

    1. In-House Counsel Post author

      Thank you for re-blogging! Seeing this story spread in a small way replaces a bit of the sadness at the loss of this young man with gladness that one of his goals in life continues to be met. Thank you for your part in this.

  7. In-House Counsel Post author

    I am reposting here a comment from Alex at
    IHC: Thank you so much for visiting and following “Bookshelf: for the Intellectually Curious” and posting a like. But more importantly, thank you for sharing your son’s touching and inspirational story about Emmanuel Manirakiza. What a remarkable, intelligent young man (but paradoxically an “old soul”) who fully embraced life — with all it’s beauty and love as well as its ugliness and hatred — and understood that one’s future is ultimately defined by the choices one makes. Emmanuel, at such an early age, was liberated by the most powerful truism of human existence — in the words of Jean Paul Sartre: “We are our choices.” Some people spend their entire life looking for a cause and a purpose, and Emmanuel at age 5, through very unfortunate circumstances, found his: to make the world a better place through his insight, passion, and efforts. Sadly, the candle that burns twice as bright, burns only half as long. With the loss of Emmanuel, a candle that illuminated a glorious path to love, healing, understanding, education, and embracing the intrinsic goodness of being human has been extinguished. Alas, heaven is glowing brighter now, with a star as brilliant as his smile, that inspires us — that challenges us — to be better human beings, to eschew indifference and roll up our sleeves, put away our digital mobile devices, and do something, however small or large in scope, to make the world a better place. I find in Emmanuel a kindred soul, one who was shaped not only by education and great mentors but by embracing the wisdom and perspective of stories. As a student of literature I have read much of what brilliant academics have written (or pontificated) about why we read, especially why we read the classics, but it boils down to one thing, as the playwright William Nicholson once wrote: “We read to know that we are not alone.” However, Emmanuel’s heartfelt, insightful, and eloquent words transcend perhaps anything that has ever been 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 thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.” What makes his words so remarkable, so precious is that he actually lived them. By sharing his words, we honor him, we honor his life, and what he stood for. Thank you sharing the story of this courageous, bright, young man with the world. –Alex

  8. Pingback: The Power of Literature « Bookshelf

  9. David Irakoze

    Thanks for sharing. Emmanuel was like a brother to me. We went in the same school for 10 years. He was such inspiration to many young generation. I miss him every single day and I hope the last words we shared will be the path my success in impacting my community and the whole world.
    May his Soul Rest in Peace.

  10. HansiniAppajala

    Reblogged this on Hansini Appajala and commented:
    “His life was full of insurmountable hurdles, but with his resilience and will power, even death cannot stop him from changing lives.”

  11. Pingback: The Power of Literature | Atkins Bookshelf

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