At the age of five, Michel Chikwanine and his best friend Kevin were packed into a truck with a group of other children and they were driven to an unknown location. When Michel stepped out of the truck, he felt the crunch of human bones under his feet. An AK-47 was placed into his hands, and he closed his eyes as he was forced to pull the trigger. When he opened them, he found Kevin lying dead on the ground.
It was Michel Chikwanine’s first day as a child soldier.
Chikwanine told his harrowing story on Tuesday, February 5 in a lecture titled “From Child Worker to Child Activist: The Journey to Hope.” It was the third in this year’s Diversity Lecture Series sponsored by the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership Development.
His story exposes the tactics of rebel soldiers in the politically turbulent Democratic Republic of the Congo (D.R.C.), a central African nation. New recruits come in the form of young children who are kidnapped and forced to kill on a repeated basis to desensitize them from death.
“My story is not very unique,” Chikwanine said. “Two-hundred-fifty-thousand child soldiers are forced to do similar or worse things than I did.”
Fortunately, Chikwanine was able to escape the rebel soldiers during a village raid, but the atrocities endured by him and his family persisted. At the age of 10, he witnessed the rape of his mother and sisters after his father, a politician and human rights activist, was forced to flee the country.
Chikwanine spoke of his father with a lightness that gave his story startling contrast. He fondly recalled the streets of Beni, his childhood village, where women would sell bananas from off of their heads, where old men smacked people who gave slow high-fives, and where his father told him endless stories.
He can still remember the last thing his father told him before he died in 2001 after being poisoned by the rebels.
“He told me never to forget the stories he told me as a kid,” Chikwanine said. “This is the reason why I tell my story.”
Chikwanine knows why education is the thing that the rebel soldiers—who burn down schools, kidnap teachers, and cut off the hands of girls caught going to school—fear the most.
“Education is the only way out of poverty,” he said. “By giving a community an education, you’re giving them the tools to fight back.”
Since Chikwanine found refuge in Ottawa, Canada at the age of 16, he has fought for education. He became a motivational speaker for Free the Children and has studied international development and African studies at the University of Toronto. His goal is to build schools in the D.R.C.
About 150 people turned out to hear Chikwanine’s story, which earned him a standing ovation.
“It was very deep, very, very moving,” said Jennifer Martin, a WSU student. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Martin attended the lecture with her History of American Theatre II class, which is taught by Assistant Professor of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) Sam O’Connell.
O’Connell praised Chikwanine’s lecture for bringing diversity to the University, but also for its storytelling merit.
“It’s important to hear stories from a culture that doesn’t have much printed material,” said O’Connell, who is working on a “loss of childhood” themed co-curricular project with other members of the VPA Department.
The next installment in the Diversity Lecture Series is scheduled for March 13th. Zohra Sarwari will be on campus to speak about Muslim stereotypes.
Joe Gullekson ’13 is an English major at WSU.
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