by Kendra Hovey
I read Frederick Ndabaramiye’s new memoir so that I could write about it for Follow This. I didn’t have to think about whether I wanted to read it. But you will. And because Frederick is Rwandan, and was just 11 years old when genocide swept through his country, you might wonder if this book will be too hard to read, or you might decide, no matter, it is still a book that you ought to read.
But while the reality of humanity’s capacity for cruelty is extremely hard, this book is not, and while bearing witness to the suffering of others is noble, don’t let it cloud your understanding of what this book is really about. It’s right there on the cover: Frederick. As Jack Hanna tells us in the foreword, “Today, you become one of the privileged. Today, you meet Frederick.”
Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope, written with Nashville author Amy Parker, was published this fall. In 2012, Frederick was a speaker at TEDxColumbus. In an onstage conversation with Nancy Kramer, he shared his story, including what he experienced at age 15, while traveling by bus in northeastern Rwanda. The 100-day genocide that left one million dead had officially ended, but the Interahamwe genocidaires that had managed to escape capture, were again leading attacks from hideaways within the mountains of neighboring Congo. It was this group that intercepted Frederick’s bus and singling out Frederick, ordered him to kill everyone. He refused: “My God won’t let me do that.”
The Interahamwe massacred his bus companions and then severed Frederick’s arms below the elbow. While his book confronts the full force of this trauma—and shares it with equanimity and respect for the reader’s emotions—this memoir is not so much about what happened to Frederick; it’s about what Frederick makes happen.
The story opens with Frederick in Columbus, Ohio and absolutely reeling from so many firsts—his first experience with cities, planes, trains, thousands of white faces, the taste of ice cream and, ironically, gorillas. Frederick had never seen the mountain gorillas on the other side of his country—something “it seemed only wealthy Rwandans and international tourists were privy to”—yet gorillas are why he is here. It was through the Columbus Zoo’s conservation efforts in Rwanda that Frederick came to meet and eventually befriend Jack Hanna, Charlene Jendry and others, and from this, came the flight to Columbus and the appointment at Hanger Prosthetics where he was to be fit with mechanical fingers.
Frederick’s story then takes us to Rwanda, to his village and family, the beginning of the genocide and to the fateful bus trip, and his unlikely escape. The blood streaming from what it left of his arms, he was forced to his feet and to walk. Frederick heard the order “Finish him off,” yet he kept walking “down the hill and into the trees and no one followed.” But escape did not mean survival, to survive would take something else: good fortune. There were the two sisters who first saved him and the truck full of men who found a surgeon; even the electrical cords the Interahamwe used to bind him saved his life. They acted as a tourniquet so that, as Frederick writes, “what those men had meant to harm me, God had used for good.”
The gratitude expressed in these words from Frederick was hard won. Initially, there was only despair, an attempt to end his life and despair that, even at this, he was a failure. He was a burden, worth nothing, he thought, in a family and a country that demanded self-reliance. From the words in psalms and hymns he began to understand he was not alone in his suffering, and had the seed of a thought that would only grow: So sure of his uselessness, yet maybe there is another perspective he had not considered.
From this epiphany and all that he has made happen since—from a painting to a new educational center for people with disabilities to a movement “I Am Able”—there is a rich story, including surprising interactions with his perpetrator, with his savior and with his mother, that stun, yet reveal the quality of equanimity so impressive in him. There are unexpected details, like that, because rebels would cut the arms off of their own soldiers, Frederick could be mistakenly identified as the very people that did this to him, or that the Center he built and that now educates 500 from preschoolers to master’s students began with a volleyball game. Frederick was the coach.
Wherever Frederick shares his story, people often respond with a kind of awed incomprehension. How has he not only healed from this, but thrived? And how did he find the magnanimity to forgive? His book answers these questions, but also asks us to see that his trauma is not so unique, nor is it so worse than others:
“When you, get down to it, I think we all have our handicaps. People everywhere struggle with forgiveness, and everyone is hungry for hope . . . By wearing my handicap on the outside, I’ve learned to speak about the trauma and the struggles that go along with it. People are more likely to show compassion to me. But what about those with hidden handicaps? Disability of the spirit is so much more debilitating than a physical disability. Yet we tend to be less sensitive to those hidden handicaps.”
“We are all broken,” he says. From everything he has experienced, the truth of this statement is clear to him. But, says Frederick, “the good thing is this: although we are all broken, we all have the same offer to be made whole again.”
[by Kendra Hovey]
The answers are tallied and submissions (so far) are in. We can now share what TEDxCbusers think of Columbus and what Columbus (+ surrounds) thinks of TEDxColumbus. Before the 2013 event we invited attendees and live-stream viewers—at McConnell Arts, Marion Correctional (MCI), home, office, etc—to write about their Out There experience. Their posts are below (please add your own in the comments).
And during the event, sometime after the aliens, brain pacemakers, cats in code, anti-terrorist dry cleaning and lunch but before the Maillard reaction, tampons, valleys, sewage, healing and “genderbread,” each audience member was given a 3×5 card and asked to answer 3 questions:
- Why are you here (at TEDxCbus)?
- What are your talents?
- Has Columbus provided you the opportunity to share your talents?
543—almost 75% of attendees—responded. Here’s what they said:
The answer to this question typically came in pairs (“to grow and connect”) or in triplicate+ (“to be inspired, enriched, motivated, to make change”). Judging by word count alone, to learn and to be inspired were the top two reasons. And the brain, whether it would think differently, wake up, open up, or be fed or fueled or blown altogether, was the biggest beneficiary, but not the only one: a few came to “open my heart,” “feed my soul” or “to be moved to act differently.” Other reasons, from most repeated to least: Community (connecting, conversing, celebrating); To Support Someone (a speaker, mostly); Personal Growth (motivate, refuel, “clear the cobwebs”); Fun; and To Listen to Others. There was also a sprinkling of “curiosity,” “creativity,” “innovation” and “I love TEDs,” plus one or two outliers: “I am here as a spy.”
Interestingly, in these career-focused times, less than 5% of respondents mentioned a professional title or identity. (Who did the most? The dancers.) Instead, an absolutely overwhelming majority said their talent was helping others. “Others” was usually non-specific, but some subsets emerged, namely youth, community and animals. Parenting and advocacy (#1 environment; #2 arts) were other oft-repeated talents. Many listed personal qualities, such as “kindness,” “modesty,” “loyalty,” “being a good neighbor;” and a few were much more specific, mentioning a talent for “great pastry,” “a bad accent,” “selling a lot of jeans,” “solving puzzles,” and “soup.”
Is Columbus Supporting Our Talents?
YES—say a whopping 87.3%. For 8.7% the answer was NO, while 4% did not answer or were out-of-towners. It is interesting, too, to look at how respondents shared their Yeses and Nos. With variations in size and placement, the bulk (401) of the total yeses (474) were straightforward, unadorned and unqualified. Among the rest that were more detailed in their response (73), the emphatic, superlative, decorated YES (62)—as in, the big bubble-lettered YES, Abso-freakin-lutely Yes, Yes x 10, even Yes x 1,000—beat out the tentative YES (11)—as in, 1/2 Yes; Yes…but barely—by a ratio of nearly 6 to 1. In contrast, just under half of the total NOs (47) were clear-cut (23). Only 1 was a resounding NO! The rest stopped just short with either a “Not Yet” (13) or “Not Fully” (8)—also expressed as “ish” and “meh”—and 2 of the NOs blamed themselves (“I haven’t taken enough advantage…”; “I think the onus is on me now…”)
There you have it. And now, a sampling of what Columbus has to say about Out There:
Brian Crawford, live-stream at MCI
I felt honored to be a part of the TEDxColumbus simulcast here at Marion Correctional. The entire production was great and I got something from every TEDx talk. My favorite talk was the young man (Austin Channell) talking about grade point averages and how the system is flawed. I felt hurt because I have four children in school and this could affect them. I felt like getting up and running to my kids’ school to demand change. As a parent this issue hit me deeply. I absolutely loved the event. I felt free for a few hours.
Doug Dangler, live-stream on computer
Consider these quotations from Michelle Alexander’s talk:
- During a 30-year period of time, our nation’s prison population quintupled.
- We have the highest rate of prison incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly repressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran.
- As of 2004, more black men were denied the right to vote than in 1870.
It’s an overwhelming problem, with the final statistic pointing to the thesis of Alexander’s talk: institutionalized racism is evident in the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, resulting in a new caste of legally disenfranchised and dehumanized people, who are overwhelmingly poor and of color. Alexander said that nothing less than a radical revision of the criminal justice system, with attendant major upheaval and social change, will combat this problem. So she ended with a call to action, asking TEDxColumbus attendees to do the “hard work of movement building.”
I was left feeling that she was right and that changes needed to be made. But how will these changes arise? The changes she’s suggesting—decriminalizing marijuana, restoring voting rights to felons, dramatically shrinking the prison population, etc.—will be an incredibly difficult sell in a nation whose elected officials can’t even keep the government open. I hope her next TEDx talk will lay out specifics of how to accomplish her goals. Clearly, this is a hugely difficult task. But a thinker and speaker as deep and talented as Michelle Alexander may be just the person to do it.
Wayne Snitzky, live stream at MCI
Watching TEDxColumbus live from inside Marion Correctional had the same effect as watching any live event, we felt connected to the event. The difference is that inside a prison the opportunity to feel that connection is few and far between. Watching as a curator is always fun because it is an opportunity to…borrow ideas for our event, and learn from their glitches and glories. My thoughts on the overall event can be summed up in the last thought I had watching the event. When Nancy Kramer gave Decker Moss a hug after his talk I thought: (tongue firmly in cheek) “Oh great, now we’ll have to stock men’s rooms with free tampons!”
David Hooker, live at COSI
One of the most interesting talks for me was a session by Mohamed Ali, the founder of the Iftiin Foundation created to foster innovation and entrepreneurial spirit in Somalia, spurring forward an economy and putting people to work.
He shared stories about bringing a dry cleaning shop to Mogadishu, figuring out how to run cappuccino machines without electricity—in a city with no functioning electrical grid after years of war—and how solar-powered street lights allowed people to stay up after dark to socialize with neighbors, and shops to stay open late. The reemergence of nightlife, missing in Mogadishu for 20 years, speaks to the simple needs and simple solutions that can have a huge impact on a culture.
Ali’s story of terrorists trying to break these streetlamps to drive people back inside and to crush an economy where people have a chance of earning a living instead of turning to illegal work or terror to support their families, speaks volumes. My sense is, his talk, and the work he does, will have great impact in this part of the world for generations to come.
Daniel Royston, live-stream at MCI
So…she said in a paraphrased kind of way…”you can’t contemplate what you see or hear unless the signal is degraded.” And it was this, this simple phrase that totally made my TEDxColumbus day. Now I have to confess that I may have missed the next talk or two as I contemplated this metaphorically difficult yet contextually simple sentence she had just shook me with. I mean think about it, have you ever thought about something that went well? Beyond the “This is too good to be true” cliché when things do go well? Or…are you like me and always become fixated on the imperfections we see in everything we do?
I realize that it is moments like these that draw me to TED talks and TEDx events again and again, these small unexpected moments of clarity, bursts of catharsis, or epiphanies with gravity if you will. Dr. Susan Nittrouer was talking about hearing loss, cochlear implants and the deaf learning to speak without impediments. But all I could think about was all the nights I had lain awake, my mind stubbornly refusing to shutdown as I chastised myself for whatever minute mistake I had made and contemplating just how I could avoid doing the same in the future…and then I wondered, why I never find myself in that same place at that same time reliving something incredible that I had accomplished that day and how I should strive to be that good…again…tomorrow. How did I go from contemplating a degraded signal to pondering my daily failings and my obsession with them?
I was watching TEDxColumbus via livestream at our viewing party in Marion Correctional Institution in a room full of men just like myself. Men who are reminded of their own shortcomings and mistakes every morning they wake up and look out the window to see the 20’ tall razor wire fences that surround their current residence, and I find myself thinking about all the little things I have done the last 15 years to improve my own “signal” from the horribly degraded version it was all those years ago. I will always be someone who broke the law, someone that society holds to a different standard than someone who hasn’t. But maybe the work I’ve done has been successful and my signal is no longer degraded as much as it used to be. Maybe society… and by this I mean you…will contemplate my character, my signal, as it is…today.
Matt, live-stream at MCI
I really enjoyed TEDxColumbus. I thought it was very well organized and the overall flow was planned very well. I really was humbled by all of the praise offered to the Marion Correctional team. We are all hopeful of the same future with the same goals: That every man and woman regardless of race or religion will have a voice and the platform to share ideas. Thank you, TED.
I saw this talk in person, and it was one of those situations where I thought, is this for REAL? I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears!!! My brain could barely comprehend the presentation!! It was MIRACULOUS! Check out Anthony Atala printing a human kidney!
Guest blogger: Nancy Kramer
Founder and Chief Culture Officer