From Rwanda to Penn: a journey fueled by hope

Manzi-story

Peter Tobia

First-year student Remy Manzi remembers every detail of his journey from Rwanda to Philadelphia. He remembers the enormous width of the airplane that took him from South Africa to the United States. He remembers the poster featuring Mayor Michael Nutter that welcomes visitors to the Philly airport when they step off the plane. And he remembers seeing Penn’s campus for the first time—something he says he had never before dared to dream.

“There is something I felt in my body release and I felt as a new person,” says Manzi.

When he speaks about himself, Manzi connects his life to the fate of his beloved country’s past, present, and future.

The past is full of memories that still haunt—memories of the 1994 genocide in which as many as 1 million Rwandans were slaughtered by their fellow citizens in about 100 days.

But Manzi, 21, has set out on a path of forgiveness and reconciliation. He is hopeful not only for himself as a new Penn student, but hopeful for the future of his country.

“Being one of the kids that survived the genocide, I want to make sure the next generation of Rwanda really takes it in hand so that we can secure a peaceful country—a place where people come together and share meals and a place where you can dream and work hard and achieve what you really need,” says Manzi. “Hope is that very important thing that will really take us there.”

Originally from the village of Kabgayi in the southern province of Rwanda, Manzi was 4 years old in 1994, when he saw neighbors and families killing one another in the conflict that divided along ethnic lines. Manzi’s mother, Jeanne D’arc Kantengwa, fled with Manzi and his older brother Patrick to a Catholic refugee camp about four miles away from their village.

“My mom went there because she wanted a place …  where she could feed us and where she could take care of us and where she could completely separate us from the insanity outside in Rwanda and put us in a place where we [could be] children,” says Manzi. “As kids who were safe and … without any psychological trauma.”

But conditions in the camp, where Manzi and his family spent three months, were horrifying. At night, the rains came. Residents barely slept. Meals consisted of light porridge and clean water. Many children were infected with diarrhea and were always hungry. Manzi says you could easily count the number of ribs protruding from his and Patrick’s chests.

Manzi remembers when “the perpetrators,” or the Interahamwe, a Hutu organization, slaughtered 30 women from the refugee camp who had left the boundaries to fetch clean water. The Interahamwe told the surviving women, of which Manzi’s mother was one, to tell the stories of what they had seen.

In a quiet, low voice, Manzi recalls one evening, “which everyone thought we were going to die.” Manzi stood with Patrick and his mother in a line with other refugees, including many of Manzi’s aunt and uncle and his 8-month-old cousin. The perpetrators began slaughtering everyone in the line—including Manzi’s aunt, uncle, and baby cousin. Bodies were loaded onto a truck and corpses were thrown into a nearby river. 

Manzi says his mother was next in line to be slaughtered, but the truck carrying bodies was full—so the gang threatened to come back the next day and kill the rest of the refugees in the camp. Yet, they didn’t return, and the following week Manzi and his family were liberated from the camp.

Manzi estimates he lost 100 family members during the 100-day genocide.

Manzi returned to his village with his brother and mother, and lived there until 2001, when, at age 9, his life changed.

That year, Anglican Bishop John Rucyahana joined with the Rwandan government to start what Manzi calls “an academic revolution,” going village by village, looking for children who had been touched by war, poverty, or HIV/AIDS. The bishop brought those children to the Sonrise School, a boarding institution located in the mountains in the northern province of Rwanda.
Manzi was chosen to be one of Sonrise’s students.

“The institution was built to demonstrate what was possible after the genocide in Rwanda to all Rwandans,” Manzi explains, “that it is possible to live again, it is possible to flourish, it is possible to prosper despite our stories, despite our losses.”

At Sonrise, which counts on generous support from American donors who sponsor students, Manzi and others were provided with food, clothing, and shelter, as well as an education that included English, French, math, religious studies, and social sciences. When he first arrived there, it was a big adjustment for Manzi. Even the clean bed that was only for him was a new experience.

It is possible to live again, it is possible to flourish, it is possible to prosper despite our stories, despite our losses.”

“Education is a great engine to help the country overcome this adversity, and giving a young orphan a gift of education—that is relieving him from all the chains of life, the chains of suffering, and really providing hope,” Manzi says. “Education is that engine that gives you a piece of mind, that gives you a family, that gives you a responsibility, that gives you life.”

At age 9, Manzi was one of the older children at Sonrise, and was handed the responsibility of acting as the “parent” to 16 toddlers and babies in one house. He was responsible for taking care of the youngsters’ health, washing their clothes, providing them with medicine, and even making sure “they [were] not haunted by memories.”

At Sonrise, Manzi met other children whose experiences were similar to his own. One boy, Patrick, had lost his arms during the genocide. His parents had cut them off after Patrick warned neighbors that his parents were coming to kill them, Manzi says.

“When he told his story I found myself there, and when I told my story he found himself there,” says Manzi.

During his time at Sonrise, Manzi was living away from his family. But years before, when Manzi was 6 years old, his father and mother had reconciled and moved in together after years apart.

Then, in 2007, when Manzi was 16, his father was murdered by his dad’s brother. “It’s like another genocide happened in the family,” he says. But instead of getting angry and vowing revenge, Manzi telephoned his uncle in prison to tell him he forgave him.

“In my case, forgiving my uncle was the only way to proceed with my life, [and] was the only way to keep on focusing on what the future holds for me, because hope is the one thing that Rwandans lack,” he explains. “It was part of making sure that I understand what the government was preaching at the time, about unity and reconciliation in the youth and in the future of Rwandans.”

Manzi hung on to hope and in 2009, after meeting his Sonrise sponsor family, began seriously thinking about getting an education in America. He was smart, racking up a 99 percent in school (the equivalent of a 4.0 grade point average), but to continue his high level of achievement, Manzi began doubling down on his academic efforts.

He started preparing for the SAT and TOEFL, the test that measures English-language ability at the university level. Yet, Manzi’s first attempt at taking the SATs didn’t go as well as he had hoped. Nonetheless, in the fall of 2010, he applied to four schools—Baylor University, Emory University, Boston University, and the University of Rochester—and was rejected by all of them.

But Manzi didn’t give up, especially after he met Rodney Smith, a Penn graduate who traveled to Manzi’s home country to work on a book about Rwanda.  Smith told Manzi about Penn, saying “this is a school that molds leaders for the future and transforms their [lives] for the better.”

What really made a huge impact in my life was the fact that [Penn] believed in me."

In addition, Manzi had read a news article about then-Penn freshman Dau Jok, a native of Southern Sudan, who traveled to Rwanda with 13 other University students as part of a service project. Manzi was moved by the story of the students’ service and intrigued by the school located an ocean away.

“I had no idea what University of Pennsylvania was and I really had no idea what impact it had in the world,” he recalls.

But soon enough, Manzi set his sights on coming to school here.

He enrolled in an English-language SAT and TOEFL training class through the organization Bridge2Rwanda. For eight months, Manzi studied reading and writing in English. Instructors drilled into students the importance of public service and an American education; they even assisted with Manzi’s application to Penn.

Manzi never forgot the needs of his community, and with one of his classmates, started a small nonprofit organization called Uplift Rwanda. The focus is on entrepreneurship, leadership, and English-language training—some of the values that Manzi says kept him and his classmates off the streets.

In 2011, Manzi’s application crossed the path of Elisabeth O’Connell, associate dean at Penn Admissions who covers sub-Saharan Africa.

“He appeared on my laptop one day,” says O’Connell. “Here was this application that was so intriguing. From there, it was the Penn village at work in every which way.”

Manzi was accepted as a Penn World Scholar, and a Benjamin Franklin Scholar enrolled in the Integrated Studies Program, and is part of the Paul Robeson Mentoring Program.

“What really made a huge impact in my life was the fact that [Penn] believed in me,” says Manzi. “It was very hard, it was competitive to give an opportunity to a person like me, coming from a place like Rwanda, a local school, not even an international school.”

He had never been outside of Rwanda before, flying first to South Africa and then to Philadelphia. Manzi says he couldn’t stop smiling once he got on the plane.

He enrolled in the PENNCAP Pre-Freshman Program and admits at first, Penn was overwhelming. Manzi watched as professors typed on computers and images of what they wrote appeared on a screen in front of the class; this seemed like magic.

He learned in the Pre-Freshman Program, as well as from O’Connell, who he considers both a mentor and role model, to always ask questions. “I never knew how important this was, but in the Pre-Freshman Program they again emphasized it—you have to ask questions, you have to ask for help, there is no such thing as a stupid question,” he says. “I have survived the first semester because of asking questions.”

Manzi says he can also count on the friendship and support from his roommate, Donald Davis, a first-year student in the College and New Orleans native. Davis, who Manzi affectionately calls “Muzungu,” says the two try to keep each other motivated and on track with studies.

“He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met,” says Davis. “He’s always open and always friendly. He’s great to be around; he’s a great influence.”

O’Connell says Manzi’s path will be fascinating to watch.

“He’s a little bit of a trailblazer and role model for his country,” she says. “[We’re] looking at not just how can we help him [now], what he will contribute during his four years … but what will he do for his country? [Rwanda] needs people like him.”

This summer, Manzi will return to Rwanda for the break. And after Penn, Manzi hopes to move back permanently.

His brother and mother still reside in Manzi’s hometown of Kabgayi. Manzi’s mother, a pig farmer, went back to school at the age of 49. Now nearly 53, she is in her senior year of university and will graduate in the fall. Manzi’s brother works part-time on the pig farm, and also attends a local university.

Despite their success, Manzi worries about poverty—wondering if his family is getting enough to eat. Rwanda, he says, is still a country where 77 percent of citizens continue live on about $1.35 a day.

“These are problems that haunt me and continue to remind me of where I come from,” says Manzi. “After my four years [at Penn], I really want to go back to Rwanda and make sure I …work in the government. The main mission is to make [government] leadership accessible to citizens [so the government may] understand their problems and understand what they really need.”

Originally published on January 24, 2013