Theo grew up on a farm, raising crops, rice and animals with his family in Rwanda. He speaks 15 different languages, and explained how in Africa if you traveled the equivalent of Princeton to Bloomington-Normal, you’d find a different language being spoken. Africa has 54 countries, and an individual needs a passport and documentation to travel between every one.
Africa has many natural resources, like gold, diamonds, copper, iron and salt — producing $9 billion in diamond sales every year; as well as being the largest supplier of gold in the world. The continent’s exotic assortment of wildlife, mountains and rivers make for global treasures, and Africa is rich in oil, wood and fertile soil.
However, there is a dark and vicious history behind some of Africa’s recent regimes. Theo said some of the challenges include political instability and corruption, endless war, unemployment and diseases like HIV/AIDS. The continent experiences stretches of drought, and a demographic explosion has resulted from a high birth rate subjected to minimal education or social nutrition.
“Life was really hard for me because I’ve seen how a person can reach their extremes,” Theo said, voicing his appreciation for the Wright family, including PHS senior Cole Wright, and the individuals who helped lurch him from the chaos he experienced. “When you reach the last minute of your life, there’s still hope.”
Theo said when vicious regimes come into power in Africa, they will do anything necessary to retain that power, leading to no equilibrium between countrymen. He said the political leaders in the 1990s were as comfortable with murder and disintegration of family units as they were preparing a meal for dinner.
African natives were suddenly classified as Tutsi, Hutu or Twa, depending simply on their location and appearance. Theo said he didn’t like it at all, as the Hutus were allowed entrance into the best schools available, while the Tutsis were not allowed to go to any school whatsoever. The attitude was those in control spoke orders, and everyone listened … or they died.
“In 1994 the Tutsi were pushed out of the population, beginning the genocide. People were burned or killed where they stood,” Theo said, stating he was only about 5 when his family went on the run to avoid certain extermination. “They were hunting everybody, blocking the roads so no one could pass, so we were moving through the forest to avoid being killed.”
In a setting of constant war, life can change in an instant, and a man will do what he must to survive. Theo said he was pushed to a form of existence where everything besides staying alive fell by the wayside.
“While we were on the run I found a pile of people who had been killed, and I crawled inside that pile of bodies so I wouldn’t be found. That’s how I escaped.”
Theo and his family went to Burundi, where they became refugees for two years. They were told peace had come back to Rwanda, and so Theo’s family returned — only to watch such horrors as his pregnant aunt being cut open because she had a “Tutsi in her belly.”
“I was young, but the memories are there,” he recalled.
Property was taken by whoever wanted it, and those who stood up for themselves were killed or imprisoned. Theo had been trying to earn an education, but he had to stop because his family had no income. When he went to a priest at a high school to ask about his family’s property, the priest said, “Theo, tomorrow you are going to die.”
“The priest said it’s better if I left, and even though I didn’t know where to go, he said just leave this place and go anywhere — just don’t stay around here,” Theo said.
Theo ran like an animal of the forest, without food, water, shelter or family. He’d sleep on the floor of the jungle, and eat whatever he could find to survive. He said he’d go into police stations and tell the officers to arrest him because he had no documentation, and they would just laugh and shove him out the door. He had no compass in life and seemed to keep circling back into the nightmare.
“I said this is the end, and in my mind committing suicide was the best option,” Theo admitted, stating he tried, and failed, to commit suicide multiple times. “I sat down afterwards and said there has to be a future, and if I die I will not see it. Sometimes life makes you do what a human being cannot do … I did that.”
Theo ran for three months in every direction but forward, and he stumbled upon a refugee camp where he remained for almost seven years. He barely had a roof to rest his head under, and saw children who were heads of their family at 7 years old. People came and took what they wanted, claiming to have “misplaced” it. There was no air conditioning, no proper living conditions, essentially no life worth living … and yet Theo did not give up.
“Suicide is not an option. If I committed suicide I would not be here today talking to you,” he said. “I lost everything, even my reason to life, but it’s not the end, and you can take even the worst experiences as the beginning of a new life.”
Theo made his way to Africa University, where he was proud to accomplish a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. He met a man from Iowa State University who knew the Wright family, and because of their efforts to support him, Theo has found a new life in America where he runs down the hallways of greater joy and education.
“You can see how I’m smiling now, and that’s because I found people here who brought me down from where I was,” he said, stating there was a time he believed the whole world hated him; where he spent six months without talking; where he wondered why he was born.
Theoneste Nzaaranyimana just earned a 4.0 GPA in his first year at Illinois State University studying for his master’s degree in agricultural communication.
“Do not look at your problems and how big they are; look at how well you can resolve your problems,” he said, encouraging the students to become something more than their challenges in life would allow.
“I never looked at losing my family or how I had a reason to commit suicide, and I never gave up. That’s why I’m here and doing well.”