Another great week of speakers

Before I forget, let me regale you with tales of Tuesday night’s Wallace House activities which were a combination of fascinating, informative, moving and delicious – not necessarily in that order. Our speaker that afternoon was a woman named Valerie Red-Horse. Describing Valerie as accomplished seems a bit of an understatement. It’s not often you’ll find a woman whose credentials have appeared in both Forbes and on, a woman who is an entrepreneur, a financial advisor, investment banker, actress (), writer, producer, director and documentary filmmaker and activist for American Indians (her word choice.) And the model for Mattel’s Pocahontas doll, to boot. Valerie told us a little of her background, particularly her involvement in building casinos on reservations and her opinions on the mistreatment of the Native American communities by the press. She left the majority of the session open for questions, which ranged from her thoughts on expanding American Indian financial endeavors.

Next, we had another round of Fellows presenting themselves to the group. First up, Graham Griffith shared his life tale, along with his wife Rainey Tisdale. He’s a senior producer for WBUR's On Point in Boston, a show that emerged from NPR’s coverage of the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Quite the accomplished young lad and a good egg to boot. Rainey works at the Boston Historical Society, where her specialty (as I understand it) focuses on artifacts – the things of our past and their significance. She’s passionate about her work, which was evident in some slides she showed us and her desire to learn about and appreciate the significance of these objects is truly infectious. (It’s also a good time to note that Rainey and Graham were very welcoming to us when we arrived, extending a dinner invitation to us the first night and they have continued to initiate a number of fun activities.) After Graham, Thomas Kamilindi spoke, sharing with us his life’s tale in halting English. Kamilindi is at the University of Michigan from Rwanda, here filling a relatively new slot in the Fellowship of journalists under credible threats of death for their work. He spoke to use about growing up in Rwanda with a true community spirit that is now gone. As a child, he said, everyone in the village was his parents, his uncles, his aunts. All the elders were there to guide and, when necessary, reprimand the children. It really did, in his case, take a village.

Thomas Kamilindi

He claims no credit for his being accepted into high school in Rwanda, which is not an option for most children. The government decides who attends and both Thomas and his sister were chosen. A number of serendipitous circumstances led to Thomas’ entrée into the world of radio broadcasting, including his involvement with a theater troop that performed twice in front of Rwanda’s then-president Habyarimana and a chance encounter on the street.

Thomas had been a news reporter on the government-owned radio station for a number of years as the tension between the Hutus and Tutsis simmered. He had also been actively involved in leading radio employees to strike against the government before resigning in 1994. A few months later, Thomas was celebrating his birthday when they received the news that the president’s plane had been shot down. “That was it,” he said. “It all went away. Oh, my god. Away went the cake. It was bad.”

Thomas had heard that the Hotel des Mille Collines (known to movie-goers as Hotel Rwanda) had some UN peace keeping forces and it took him two days to make the trip there, a journey that was normally a 15-minute walk. Once at the hotel, Thomas was able to send for his family. There, he said, they survived the genocide with the help of Paul Rususabagina and eventually got out. (Rusesabagina, the manager of the Hotel, will be speaking on campus and at a private lunch with the Fellows next Thursday.) Since then, his reporting has landed him in jail, including two stints earlier this year before coming to the university.

But there was a lot Thomas didn’t tell us that I later discovered on my own. A liberal Hutu married to a Tutsi, Thomas had been forced – during his time at the radio station – to broadcast the very hate messages he abhorred, the messages that incited hate and violence against the “cockroaches,” as the Tutsis were called. He didn’t mention that he narrowly escaped death on more than one occasion, that he has had a loaded pistol held to his temple and was saved when an officer who recognized him happened by. He didn’t mention that while he was at the Hotel, he actively tried to get word of the massacre out to the White House, the Elysees Palace and human rights organizations. He didn’t mention that he gave an interview to French radio from the hotel, an act which resulted in the government sending a soldier with the express mission to kill Thomas. (He was spared when, by happenstance, the soldier turned out to be a childhood friend.) And he didn’t mention that while he and his wife and younger daughter survived the massacre, their five-year-old daughter – who was visiting with her Tutsi grandparents at the time – did not. In a BBC interview, he says:

"It is very difficult to put my life experiences behind me and to forget. I and my wife live with it all the time. It is part of me. Sometimes I shut myself in a room and cry when I think about my first born, my little girl Mamee. It's difficult when you know you were about to be killed and you survived but your child was killed".

But perhaps that’s the very private pain that he must navigate while talking about a very public tragedy, a monstrosity. It is, to say the very least, humbling to sit in the presence of someone who has known true suffering and displayed true courage in a way few of us ever can or will. Thomas Kamilindi is an exceptionally kind man, always smiling, always laughing and practicing his English in a soft-spoken manner. It’s impossible for me to imagine that someone who has been not through hell, but to it – someone who has lived under the most dangerous and difficult circumstances life has to offer any of us – walks through life today with such openness. Such warmth. Such grace.

Read a Guardian UK interview with Thomas here.