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Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

Frederick Nadbaramiyeby 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.

Frederick and Hanna

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.

hanger prosthetics

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.”

I Am AbleThe 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.

Ubumwe Community Center

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.”

Frederick at TEDxCbus

 

Kendra Hovey is editor at TEDxColumbus: Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

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Events, Follow This, Speakers, TEDxColumbus

[by Kendra Hovey]

Birth. Death. Sex. These are three grand motifs. But plot them on a bar chart or in a spreadsheet and they will tell stories “a little bit better, a little bit sexier than Hollywood.” Or so says Priyank Shah, a demographer and the kickoff speaker at this year’s TEDxColumbus.

As an opener, Shah was the logical choice. Demographers use statistics (on birth, death, sex, etc.) to make statistical projections. That’s a handy thing to have at an event titled “The Future Revealed.” (Ours, by the way, will likely include “super-centenarians” in a statistically relevant number, a big jump in multiethnic identities, and “vertical families”—adult children and parents simultaneously elderly).

But Shah’s talk set two other important plot points for the day. As he shared his statistics and their macro- and micro-level implications, he elicited the passion and relevancy of his life’s work, while entertaining and edifying. It’s the “TEDTask.” Fourteen speakers in one day and none veered too far from this mark.

As for plot point #2, while Shah’s data pointed to trouble ahead, trouble is not where he lingered. Throughout the day other speakers piled on more trouble, much of it in the “too many” department—too many people, too many carbon bonds, too many greenhouse gases, perhaps, even, too many photographs—but after taking a good look at that accumulated heap, speakers, for the most part, got straight to tackling the question of what to do about it.

Elsewhere, I’ve said that the push-pull of What the hell have we done! and Wow! Look at what we can do! is built into TED. Last year’s TEDxColumbus, “A Moment in Time,” ended in a draw. This year, hope pulled out the win. But seeing as maybe we humans can’t help but be bright-eyed about the future, the theme gets at least an assist. Hope was helped along, too, by the number of speakers who came to the stage with solutions. Whether we like them, agree with them, or don’t, the attempt itself can be a boost.

And, it has to be said: it’s not too hard to be optimistic when the day’s talks, taken collectively and literally, offer a rather palatable, even indulgent, prescription for living. Crave a donut in the morning? Go ahead! Drink lots of coffee while you’re at it, and have a puff of marijuana—but ONLY one. And, Kids, to build your job skills, don’t bother with that homework; play Minecraft instead.

Or . . . maybe wait a bit on that Minecraft thing. The others are backed by data; this one is more of an inference. Though one that Naomi Stanford is not about to back away from, no matter the ruffled feathers. And while it is certainly conjecture, it is conjecture drawn from Stanford’s decades of studying, interviewing, data-collecting, reading, writing, observing and thinking long and hard about workers and the world of work in the past, present and future. Generally, we call this mix of time, effort and output “expertise,” and at this TEDxColumbus, more so than any other, expertise was on display—sometimes even color-coded and nicely organized into pies, graphs and charts. Here’s a brief rundown from the day:

Why when we think of the future is it all flying cars and jetpacks? Why not demographics? After Priyank Shah and his data asked us to ponder this question, other speakers and their data challenged us with more questions, including unpopular ones, such as Why not nuclear power? This one came care of physicist Gordon Aubrecht, whose tables and maps argued, quite powerfully, that our fear of nuclear energy is outdated and overstated, while, when it comes to fossil fuels, we are not nearly fearful enough.

Jan Allen’s question, What is My Next?, seeks to rethink and redefine “the construct of the leisure industry,” more commonly known as “retirement.” Gary Wenk is also out to shift our perspective on something both accepted and ubiquitous. In this case, the storefront sign FOOD & DRUGS. It contains a typo, says the neuroscientist. It should read FOOD = DRUGS, which, by the way, also = CHEMICALS. With help from some gems of early advertising (“THEY’RE HAPPY because they eat LARD!”) Wenk shared his research on chemical components in foods (donuts and coffee) and other ingestibles (the one puff) and offered a plan for anyone wanting to up their odds of a longer life. Take in fewer carbon bonds and more antioxidants, he said, and do it earlier in the day, i.e., eat less, eat berries, eat early.

 

Laura Hill so upended my thinking I was the one with the question: “Really?!” I know it’s simple and not really a question at all, but it is what came to mind when Hill said that the anorexia patient who insists “eating is bad for me” has been right all along. According to Hill’s 33 years of expertise, recently deepened by findings from functional MRIs, in those with anorexia, food sets in motion a psychological storm both painful and noisy. You can track it on an fMRI. This is extraordinary. It flips accepted thinking and accepted treatment, and, as dire as it may sound, the result of this turnaround, Hill says, is better outcomes for the patient.

Safety pharmacologist Brian Roche is also working towards better outcomes—this time for cancer survivors. The problem he wants to solve is one you may not even want to know about: most cancer drugs are not good for the heart. The good news is that for a vast majority the damage is temporary. For a small percentage it is not, and for an even smaller percentage it is dangerously dormant. The other good news about this problem: Brian Roche is on it.

Though Catherine Evans’ talk was not nearly as data-heavy as some others, she had one statistic that got the audience murmuring. According to Evans, 10% of all photographs were taken in the last year alone. It’s an instagram world. But, in her talk, Evans looked back to when it was a Kodak world, back to the Polaroid, even the tintype to consider how photos function (as art, news, storyteller and more) then, now and in the future.

If we were to use the measure of stats per hour, this TEDxColumbus would beat out all previous—combined. But there was plenty of expertise and insight not so easily codified. There was the kind expressed in humor, dance, and music, or that you’d more likely find under a Big Top, as well as the kind that comes from following what takes hold of you and simply paying attention to it, as Michael Bongiorno does. Drawn to spaces of urban residue from a young age, the architect, in his talk, will make you see a cloverleaf interchange in a whole new light.

Expertise and insight also comes from listening—to others as well as to oneself. Interested in the higher education experiences of African Americans (which completion rates suggest can be all too brief for all too many) social scientist Terrell Strayhorn has found that a sense of belonging is connected with success. He also shares a few things we should know about belonging: It is not about being the same. It is about difference not being a deficit. And, the need for it is in us all. “Anyone who doesn’t want to belong,” Strayhorn asks, “will you stand with me now?”

A guest from TEDxYouth, Dan Stover, and the last speaker of the day, Doug Smith, both shared life lessons drawn from personal difficulties. Stover is a living example (thank goodness) of why when given the choice to fake it or to come clean, vulnerability is the best way to go. For Smith to get wise about life, it took a double dose of epiphany. The first enabled him to talk about how to be happy. The second enabled him to practice how to be happy. “Misery is easy,” he counsels, “happiness is a set of skills.”

What Frederick Ndabaramiye experienced in his life is ungodly. It pushed him to the point of wanting to leave life altogether. Yet, a few Fridays ago, he was in Columbus, Ohio, very much present and free of bitterness, generously sharing his story. If we were to be serious about deriving a prescription for future living from this year’s TEDxColumbus, the most potent piece would be the forgiveness exemplified by Ndabaramiye.

Kendra Hovey is editor and head writer at Follow This. On Twitter @KendraHovey, she blogs at kendrahovey.com

 

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