CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 33 . . . . April 27, 2018
Jackson Nahayo was a child aged six in 1993 when he and an older sister were captured by rebels who planned to hold them for ransom since their parents were successful villagers. The militants used the children as slaves, forcing them to carry water, forage for wood, participate in raids for supplies, and, at times, used them as human shields. Nahayo's outspoken ways resulted in a rebel beating him unconscious with a gun and leaving him in the jungle for dead. The excerpt above occurred shortly afterwards when Nahayo came to, wandered out of the jungle and found a man with two children fleeing civil war in Burundi. He joined the small party as they escaped to the Congo. The civil war in Burundi was part of a long pattern of civil unrest, much of it based on ethnic rivalries in the poor, landlocked country nestled between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.
Nahayo's life story is an amazing tale of resilience, resourcefulness, good fortune, and integrity. He encountered both the worst and best of humanity. Fortunately, strangers like the unnamed man who helped him escape to the Congo displayed compassion and the best side of humanity. At one point, a Christian pastor and his wife gave him a home with their family in the Congo and helped unite him with an uncle who was studying in the country. Newfound stability and life with his uncle in Uvira were not permanent. Civil strife encroached, and when it erupted in the town, desperate to escape the fighting, he fled with neighbours, without his uncle. Thus began a troubled escape with help from a small group of fellow displaced people that accepted him as part of their "team". Together, they escaped to Tanzania, then Mozambique, and finally to Zambia in the quest for refuge. Along the way, Nahayo made use of his knowledge of his native tongue Kirundi, Swahili, and limited French and Portuguese that he managed to acquire from interactions with other young people.
In Zambia, however, at the age of 11, he was orphaned again when the last of his adult refugee companions set off for South Africa. With no identification documents and no money for a train ticket, he was stranded in Lusaka, Zambia, as an unaccompanied child refugee. By good fortune, he met two Canadians, Rob Neufeld and Lois Coleman, who were working in the country for the Mennonite Central Committee. Nahayo managed to explain his situation and, with the barest knowledge of English, declared, "I want to go to school." These strangers agreed to pay his school fees. At the UNHCR office, he met a fellow Burundian, a man named Kingston, who had lived very close to Nahayo's home village and knew his hospitable grandfather. Kingston offered to share his accommodation to repay the generosity that he had received from Nahayo's family years before. With Kingston a de facto brother and the Canadian couple as surrogate parents, Nahayo was able to focus on learning English, studying for admission to high school and assisting with economic activities, such as staffing Kingston's shoe stall in the local market. Entrepreneurial activities are a recurring theme of the biography as children and adults alike find creative ways to earn money.
Eventually, Kingston took Jackson with him to resettlement in Canada. Arriving in Montreal in mid-winter, they barely had time to play with snow and catch some sleep before they were on a bus to Winnipeg where Nahayo became once more a member of the Neufeld family and a high school student. Acculturation to new customs is another recurring theme that the author utilizes to humorous effect. A Burundian friend, also settled in Winnipeg, discovers upon a return visit to Burundi that Nahayo's family have all miraculously survived years of conflict and are living in their old village. A reunion made possible by his generous schoolmates and a local philanthropist allows the newly graduated Nahayo to see his birth parents and family for the first time in more than a decade. Back in Canada, he worked in the oil industry to send money to Burundi, and then he completed a nursing degree in 2012 before pursuing certification in Burundi as a physician.
Nayaho told his story to Dustin Unrau many years after the events took place so some details are vague and timelines unclear. Nevertheless, Unrau reports Nahayo's intriguing tale in an engaging narrative. Several times, Unrau interjects his own experience of interviewing Nahayo and some transcribed dialogue from their conversations. This is clearly set apart from the biography by the use of bold text and a smaller type font. These asides explain Nahayo's own goals in telling his story. He wants Canadian and North American readers to appreciate what they have: life in safe countries with opportunities to become educated, find work, enjoy personal freedoms, and experience freedom from the dangers caused by warfare and massive displacement of civilians. Further, he explains:
Today, Nahayo, a young man in his early thirties, is the President and CEO of the Ubuntu Clinique in Gasenyi, Burundi. He is driven to improve the lives of people in his homeland. He learned from his Canadian associates that partnering with western philanthropists to establish entrepreneurial projects, such as pineapple farming, fish farms and biogas production, is all part of making the medical clinic and other community building facilities sustainable. The book includes colour photographs from Burundi and several from Canada, two maps depicting Nahayo's route from Burundi with timelines noted, and a brief historical overview, with one page of references, that strives to make sense of the conflicts in Burundi.
Nahayo's story reminds the reader that armed conflict creates refugees in many parts of the world. Refugees may end up for a time in UN-sponsored refugee camps, but many others are absorbed into neighbouring nations where they may not really be welcome. The return of stability allowed Nahayo to return to Burundi where he utilizes skills developed in Canada to support his country of origin. Curious readers can easily locate video clips posted online depicting street and market scenes from towns named in the book. Satellite imagery allows internet users to see the landscape of Burundi.
Nahayo: They Left Me for Dead is a worthy addition to the growing library of literature describing real life experiences of people who found refuge in Canada. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be directed to the Ubuntu Clinique.
Val Ken Lem is a librarian at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.