After the Rain
by Emmanuel Mbonihankuye
I am called Mbonihankuye Emmanuel. I am married and the father of four children. I work in Social Services and Communal Development. My country is Burundi, located in central Africa, notably called big lake country. I was born of a Christian family, the son of a farmer. My father was a summer driver but also took care of the planting and machinery.
My history speaks of a life in exile. It is a long story that I’m finally committing to paper, so I can share what has touched and shaped me. My life has been a mountainous journey with distorted and twisted paths. Everything that I thought was impossible or a dream I now see as possible, as all things are, in front of God. My experience, one I never chose or wanted, taught me a lesson that suffering can be a man's strongest foundation.
Part I: The rain
Social difficulties and policies caused Burundi’s people to be shaken and sprinkled throughout neighboring countries as well as in some far off lands. Most of the population had initially been dispersed in 1972 under the regime of Michel Micombero. I was a child at the time but I still understood what happened. I could see how things had changed.
In 1988, under the rule of Pierre Buyoya, war exploded between Ntega and Marangara in the north, and the majority of the population took refuge in Rwanda.
In 1993 October 21, the first Hutu president, Ndadaye Melchior wasmurdered, followed by the deaths of many refugees, especially Hutus near Tanzania and the R.C. Congo. The next year, refugees of Rwandan origin and Burundais, of which my wife, myself and our young daughter were included, were being hunted by Tutsi soldiers, the Rwanda’s "Inkotanyi." While trying to escape, many fell in rivers, for there were few bridges to cross. The jungle was dangerous; many fell to sickness, famine, falling trees and poisonous snakes.
Emmanuel means "God with us" and He truly was. During this time, my wife and I were struggling to survive. Many time we felt ourselves saved by His grace. Our will and strength began to wane as time passed, but our belief in Him held, even when we became separated in the forest.
I wandered the woods for over two months with five other youngsters until my wife and I were united in a corner of the equatorial forest of the Congo. Although our reunion was joyous we still had a major problem. No Légas family would take us in, because sheltering refugees was condemned by the Inkotanyi and any violators would be treated brutally.
We needed to separate to survive. It was a difficult decision to make; an individual adventure in the dangerous forest. It was heartbreaking to say farewell to my wife, because it had taken so long to find her. Unsure of my destination, I set out, praying that death didn't want either of us.
As I rested by a small river, afraid and alone, I took a mouthful of water in a hollow stomach. I was starving and exhausted; I closed my eyes and waited for the end, but God was not ready for me to die. A small group of people passed by, spotted me and roused me. They tried to give me some of their food but I could no longer open my mouth. One of the kind strangers wet a handful of food and created a mush which he patiently worked into my mouth. After regaining some strength I walked with them, hoping to find someone that could shelter me. However, my misfortune continued and malaria fell upon me. Arriving at a camp in a clearing, the inhabitants became afraid of my sickness and ran in the forest. All who saw me feared I was a demon. Fortunately for me, I couldn't see myself.
When my companions called out to the refugees and assured them I was human, they returned and bestowed upon me good clothes. My hair and my beard were wild and comical. Only one of the men actually spoke to me. He told me I could only stay for two days and after that I must leave. They were afraid that those who hunted me might not be far behind.
After the second day of food and fire I returned to my long, lonesome journey. A day later I arrived in another small forest village where nearly everyone was intoxicated. Several boys tied me up and prepared to kill me. There, I felt the kiss of death again, but God was with me! A pastor who always went to the field to cultivate had chosen to stay behind that day. He took it upon himself to intervene. After a long discussion, they finally let me go. He had saved me. Fully aware that I had nearly been killed, I kept very quiet and thanked the pastor privately.
Weeks later, I came across a Léga family that welcomed me into their home. I had to begin a new life without knowing if my wife and daughter were still alive. I was very careful to listen and learn the customs of my new family so I did not offend them. At first I had a problem adjusting to their food and the constant consumption of animal meat such as of snakes, turtles, and pangolins. Eventually, due to how active I was, I developed a good appetite.
I became skilled at hunting, trapping and fishing. I learned how to make baskets and sieves of braids. My new family was amazed at how quickly I learned things, as I picked up skills faster than many who lived in the family. They wondered how I learned so quickly. I knew it was the power that God had bestowed in me.
Part 2: The clouds clear
During these years, I never thought about repatriating since I was afraid of the unsafe situation that was in Burundi. Although I was able to maintain my physical strength, my grief of being separated from my wife and child affected my mental health. I often wondered how I could do to elevate my status in Burundi if I ever made it back, and because I was always in the forest, I didn't have access to any information.
After several years of this ignoble existence, I wanted to improve my way of life. To earn my keep, I carried luggage and supplies, but I wanted to work in mineral extraction. I worked hard, sometimes travelling for weeks at a time, yet I was paid very little. I couldn’t afford basic essentials like soap and anti-malaria medication.
After seven years of this suffering, I asked for the job of supply carrier to a person of Bukavu who came to buy ore in the forest. He accepted. After seven months he decided to return to Bukavu, and took me with him. I never thought I would return to a city. I felt as if my life began anew. I had a mattress and I slept like the dead.
It was that year, 2004, that I saw a computer and a mobile telephone for the first time. Through those devices I found out my wife was alive! We were able to talk on the telephone, and I learned she was in Kenya at a Biblical Institute. Our conversation was bittersweet as I learned my only child had not survived the forest. But this miracle of her discovery made me forget all the hardships of the forest.
My employer wanted to return to the forest, but I had to tell him I had no intention of going with him. I had lived for seven years as an animal! No more would I carry trousers and shoes for another man. No more would I be ashamed and have others look down on me and treat me poorly. I would become the man God made me. I would get myself clean clothes and good shoes of leather.
It was on that day that I dressed myself as a man and set out to find my wife.
Part 3. The sun
I returned home to Burundi in February of 2004. My wife arrived in November of 2005. After eight long years, my struggles and suffering allowed me to get to that day: the day of the most joyous reunion.
Restarting our life had a few complications. We adjusted to being a couple once more. God blessed us with three boys and a girl. I knew I needed to continue my studies in order to support my family, and I wasn’t sure whom I could turn to for help. My father had been murdered in 1997. I learned this upon returning to Bujumbura. I was able to scrape up enough money for two years of schooling and achieve a diploma in electro-mechanical studies. I dreamed of studying further in university but I didn't know how I could cover the expenses.
A year before finishing school, my wife was hired by ALARM Burundi, a Christian organization. She was then transferred to Rwanda where we met an American woman named Kristen Swanson. Once again God answered my prayers. Kristen generously paid my university fees and I finished my studies. She continued to sponsor me and kept me in her heart.
Recently, Kristen invited me to participate in Rwanda Writes, a program in Kigali. It was at this program I had an opportunity to write this story.