How Gilbert Tuhabonye Runs Toward Joy

Optimism correspondent Leah Fisher Nyfeler shares a conversation about optimism and community with her running coach, Gilbert Tuhabonye, creator of the Gazelle Foundation and survivor Hutu and Tutsi genocidal violence in Burundi.

His motto is “run with joy,” but there was a time when Gilbert Tuhabonye ran in fear. Trapped in a burning building, left to die among the bodies of his high school classmates, Gilbert ran for his life, and narrowly escaped becoming a victim of Hutu and Tutsi genocide. His legs have transported this talented runner from Burundi to the United States, turned despair to joy, and built a unique community in Austin based on running, love, and giving to others.

Leah Fisher Nyfeler: When I see your smile, and get that “Heeeyyyy, Leah” and a high five, it makes my day. Is that positivity something you were born with, or have you worked to develop it?

Gilbert Tuhabonye: I don’t have to fake it; it’s natural … Running, it’s a vehicle that connects me to people. That’s why when I see you, I smile; we’re already connected, we’re doing the same thing, doesn’t matter the pace; you’re running, I’m running. The question is, are you running with joy?

Where did that joy come from? Joy comes from this life that we’re living. Running—you’re not always great; sometimes it hurts. Your calf might hurt, your knee hurts, and the next day, you’re like, yeah!

Growing up, I went to school six miles away and there was a path, some six miles of climbing … So you start with two to three kids, and by the time you get to school, it’s a group. We’re all cracking jokes and trying to rush so we don’t get late. And one thing I remember was singing while we were running.

Our singing was not like we’re wanting to go to “American Idol”; our singing was to forget the pain because we were so hungry, so exhausted; we just want to distract ourselves and make it fun before we get home. Singing is something that always brings me joy.

Joy was something I learned, especially when I was given a second chance.

LFN: You were 17 when you had your horrific experience. What happened, and how were you able to get beyond the darkness to find the joyous man you are today?

GT: October 21, 1993 was the day I would never forget because I almost lost my life. I was a kid, having fun at school, not even paying attention to politics. That day, the president was killed and the people supporting the president came to my school, locked the school down, and tried to kill everyone they could find.

When I was in the hospital, I was told I would never run again.

“I believe in joy first and everything else will follow. You have to enjoy first.”

LFN: The burns and trauma of seeing your classmates [killed] … physically, emotionally—what you were suffering was intense.

GT: Yes, it was intense. But when I look back, how I escaped that place, God was with me and I was given another chance. I was able to break that window and run through crowds of people waiting to kill me. It was not me; it was someone else that give me that power to live.

When I was in the hospital, I couldn’t find a way to overcome. I looked at my scars, my legs—I couldn’t move; I couldn’t even get up and use the bathroom—I couldn’t do anything.

Until one day when I received a message of hope. It was a letter that invited me to run here in the United States on a full scholarship. It gave me—I cannot tell you—it gave me hope that someone there believes in me.

And from that day on, I was sleeping better, I started moving better, and I started doing therapy and then, running! That joy of running! When I run, my mind is free; my mind is clear.

LFN: Your book is titled This Voice in my Heart. That voice pushed you to move from that burning building and do things you might not have been able to do on your own. So many Gazelles are involved in giving activities with your Foundation. What do you think is the connection there?

GT: This voice in my heart, this voice that I heard when I was burning and when I was ready to die—at that moment, I didn’t know what that voice was. But later on, I was supposed to discover; that voice was telling me, “Son, I’m giving you another chance. Get out. Go help other people. Discover joy.”

LFN: You could have turned your back on Burundi and said, “I will never have anything to do with this place [again].” But you didn’t.

GT: People sometimes say I’m crazy. I like to give my time, my talent, whatever I have. To me, I never valued money—I valued relationships because those can last forever. That’s why, whether you’re still a Gazelle or not a Gazelle, it doesn’t matter—you’re a human being. And the key is that connection we have.

LFN: What’s one piece of advice you would give to people who are struggling through difficult times, whether in Burundi or Austin, to help them rediscover life’s joy?

GT: For me, one thing that helped was to go back and be in the place I had escaped, to stand in the moment. As soon as I started standing in the room and thought about how everything happened, there were many films in my mind—how many people were killed—everything started coming to life.

But after I left the place, I felt relieved. It was something I really had to see to come to a conclusion. A lot of people don’t want to have to see where they almost died. For me, I had to.

First thing, you’ve got to find for yourself how to move forward. Running helped me. I had to heal myself. And then to move on, I had to find something to occupy my mind, my brain—good things to do instead of revenge.

I’ll be honest with you; I passed that stage. I have great things that work my way—I have a foundation that is doing great, I’m involved in the big picture—this Texas Holocaust Genocide Commission on the high level to influence education, bring awareness.

As a survivor, you’re always in-between. You try to move forward, but the past keeps hunting you down. I’m not going to lie to you—every time there’s something, like the shooting in Houston, that always reminds me how blessed I am to be alive.

I can sympathize with those who lost family because I was in that situation. Yes, my school got attacked. It’s the same situation. The only difference is when they use shooting, [not] six, seven hours in a burning building. But the aftermath—the horror that this family and my family have lived—it reminds me how life’s precious and can be taken away in a second. And that’s what motivates me to go on and help others: the coaching, the running, all these things occupy my mind and help me stay positive and look forward.

“I value relationships because those can last forever.”

LFN: Would you say that’s part of why you bring the Run for the Water race to Austin?

GT: When you think about people who come to support the Gazelle Foundation for Run for the Water, knowing that it’s $25 to help a family get clean water, when I see those people line up at the starting line—I choke up. I know what it means to change a life for someone, to get clean water, something we take for granted here. You have people—kids, adults—all sorts of backgrounds—coming to support me [by running the race]. I wish I could hug everybody.

LFN: You became a citizen in 2011 after 15 years in the U.S. What did that feel like, and why then?

GT: You know, I cannot describe that feeling … When I first moved here, my goal was to get an education and go back and serve Burundi—give back to the community. It turned out that it was not going to happen; [I couldn’t] go back and live in peace—there were still people who were not happy I escaped. I decided for me and my family to apply for citizenship.

To be able to become a citizen, it was a dream come true. I love being here.

Now, here I am, able to give back to the community again. Becoming a citizen, you have all the rights and all the privileges to become a better citizen, to help others, teach others.

I cannot explain the feeling; I was crying like a baby.

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