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My African Dream

One Man’s Journey Back Home

Henri Nyakarundi

Copyright © 2018 by Henri Nyakarundi

This publication contains the opinions and ideas of its author. This work reflects the author’s present recollection of his experiences over a period of years. Certain names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed.

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Printed in the United States of America

First Printing, 2018

Cover photography copyright © 2017 by Illume Creative Studio

Editor: Marion Grace Woolley

Contributor: Joan Mazimhaka

ISBN 978-1-9863-7182-7 (pbk)

ISBN 978-0-463-47239-2 (ebook)

To book Henri Nyakarundi for speaking engagements and for more information on Mr. Nyakarundi, visit our website. 

This book is dedicated to the following people, in no particular order. My mother, Vivantiane for all her knowledge, and my father Albert, for the fun times he gave me growing up. My sisters Nellie and Johanna, and my little brother, Benny. My wife Joan, for believing in me, for your warm heart, and for being the mother that you are. My children, Mo’nique, Tian and Nailah, who are my inspiration. Mosetta Ferguson, for raising our daughter. Uncle Jaggy for planting the seed of environmentalism and inspiring me to fight to save this planet. Aunt Marie and Uncle Radar, for being there for us. Uncle Charles, for being the coolest person I know and letting us drive his car in Kigali with no license. My aunts, Liliane, Wivine and Agnes. Uncle Aime, for his amazing stories. My friends Dieudonne, Guillaume, Demetrius, Danny, Ivan, Roger, Alain, Olivier, Cedric, Christian, and many more. Tessa, for all the support you gave me through hard times. My mother-in-law Jolly, and sisters-in-law Anne and Sharon. My father-in-law Patrick—who I knew only briefly, but whose impact will last a lifetime—may you rest in peace. 




Growing Pains


Out of Africa




Entering the Race

Keep on Truckin’


Business in a Box

Finding Purpose


I began writing this book soon after the birth of my second child, my son, who is featured on the cover. My inspiration in life has always started with my children, and it is with them in mind that I decided to write my story. Through this book my kids, Mo’nique, Tian and Nailah can look back and see the evolution of my life.


It didn’t feel real until they put the cuffs on.

Cold metal against warm skin.

I could feel the cop’s eyes on me, sizing me up with a stony-assed stare. Then it hit me: this was happening. I was under arrest. I was a criminal.

I kept my eyes to the ground as the door clanked shut behind. I’d never been in prison before, and my English wasn’t great. Maybe if I found a quiet spot to sit down, and kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t draw any attention to myself.

I settled on a spot next to an older black guy sitting in the corner. He looked half asleep and much more relaxed than I felt. Shuffling over, I sat on the bench next to him.

“Hey,” he said, giving a nod. “Henry.”

I stared at him. “What?”

“My name’s Henry.”

“Mine too,” I said, a little suspicious.

“What you in for?” he asked.

Sounds like an easy question, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. Half-a-dozen crimes flashed through my mind, which one would he respect? Which one wouldn’t make me sound weak?

In the end, I told him the truth.

“Huh,” he said. “They can arrest you for that?”

I shrugged. According to the metal around my wrists, they could.

“This is America, they can lock you up for anything,” I told him, repeating the words my aunt had said to me over the phone. “What did they pick you up for?”

“Nothin’,” he said. “Just me and my tool bag.”

“Tool bag?”

“Yeah, my kit.” He gave me a sly sort of smile.

“What you mean, kit?”

“They arrested me for trying to steal a car, but I didn’t commit no crime. I just had a bag on me with some tools and shit.”

“They arrested you, but you didn’t commit no crime?”

“Like you said, brother. This is America, they can arrest your ass for anything.” He saw the expression on my face and softened. “Look, don’t worry. They can’t keep you for what you done. You’ll be out of here tomorrow.”

“How you so sure?”

“Henri, man. I’ve been in jail at least ten times. I know these things.”

I took comfort in this. I was twenty-one and he was in his late thirties. What were the chances of sitting down next to someone with the exact same name as me? It felt like a sign, so I clung to his words. This was a really bad dream, that’s all. A nightmare. Tomorrow, I’d wake up and it would all be over.

Two hours later, they came to transfer us from the police station at Georgia State University to the county jail. Back in 2000, the university had a student population of around thirty thousand and covered over five hundred acres. It was practically a mini state in its own right, and had its own cops to police crime. Anyone they picked up on university premises went to a holding cell, before being transferred to Fulton County Jail to await sentencing by a judge.

“Don’t worry, man,” Henry repeated, as they led us outside. “Just keep your head down.”

I didn’t just want to keep my head down, I wanted the world to swallow me. There I was, being loaded into the back of a police car in the middle of my own campus. My friends were there, my lecturers. What would I say if any of them saw me? How was I going to explain this?

It was mid-afternoon as the car pulled out of the lot, and the cop in the passenger seat turned to talk to us.

“So, what you here for?” he asked, in a thick southern accent.

I let Henry tell his story first, then, with deep reluctance, I told mine.

“How can they arrest you for that?” the cop asked, frowning.

I didn’t have an answer for him. Back home in Burundi, there’s no way anyone would have, but I was learning fast that America was a tough country.

When we arrived at Fulton, we were led in behind the cops.

“We’ve got two more,” the driver said to the guy behind the desk.

After signing us in, they stood us before this giant electric door as thick as my arm. I’d never seen anything like it in my life. There was a loud clunk as it began to open, swinging back on its hinges without anyone touching it. I felt so small standing there, this great metal mouth opening like a portal to a world I did not want to enter. I knew that once I stepped through, I’d be swallowed up by a system I didn’t understand. I had no idea how long they would hold me for or when I would see my family again.

On the other side of the door they took my fingerprints and mugshot. Next, they stripped me down and lined me up with half-a-dozen others. First, they hosed us down with chemical spray, then they rinsed us off with water. All new inmates when through the same humiliating ritual. Partly to check we weren’t smuggling anything in and partly to delouse us before joining the rest of the prison population.

After all of this was over, they gave me a blue jumpsuit with Fulton Prison written on the breast. It was too small for me, and the legs only reached midway down my calves.

Once we had been sanitized, we were taken through to the main holding cell. I couldn’t believe how many people there were. Mostly black and Hispanic, with a few white people, all crowded into a pen like animals with a single toilet for everyone. I took one look at that toilet, all backed up, and decided I was going to hold it in all night if I had to.

I managed to find Henry and sat down next to him. Like before, my plan was to stay silent and keep my eyes to the floor. All I could think of was the disappointment in my aunt’s voice and how badly I had fucked up. I kept imagining the look on my mother’s face when she found out. How was I going to explain this to her? Sitting next to Henry made me feel a little safer, but not better. Those images just kept coming.

If you’ve ever been locked up in a room full of strangers, you’ll know it’s impossible to sleep. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness, listening to men breathing and shouting around me, my throat closed up with the stench of the latrine. All those crazy movies about jail started playing in my mind and I began to imagine the worst.

The next morning, they brought us all breakfast on plastic trays. It was the worst food I’d ever seen: soggy scrambled eggs, stale bread and a can of Coke, but I was so hungry that I ate it. Those who had money could buy their own food, but I didn’t have a cent to my name.

Around 6 a.m. they rounded us up and chained us together. First the handcuffs went on, then the leg shackles, then they strung our hands and feet together with a chain, which joined me in convoy with about twenty other prisoners. We hadn’t had a chance to shower, and we stank. I had never felt so ashamed in my life.

“What you here for?” the guy behind me asked, as though looking for a badge of honor.

He was a tall, mixed-race man with muscles. I didn’t want to seem like an easy target, so I put on my toughest voice. “Man, I don’t wanna talk about it,” I said, shaking my head.

He backed off a little, then leaned in.

“Yeah, well they caught me because I shot my girl, but shit man, I missed her. I missed.”

I swallowed hard and tried not to show emotion.

They loaded us onto the prison bus, headed for the courtroom. I got a seat by the window and let myself drift. The sky seemed so blue and the trees so green. Had the colors always been that bright or was it only now, when I feared I might never see them again, that they put on one final show?

The courtroom was close to my campus. As we drove past, I watched the buildings slide behind the glass. That had been my life less than two days ago. Now it sped by so quickly. I desperately wanted to reach out and grab hold of it. I had messed up so badly.

All of the dreams I’d had were ruined. I was never going to amount to anything; never going to achieve anything. I was the biggest loser of all time.

My life was over.

Growing Pains

My grandparents fled Rwanda in the 1950s. The genocide of 1994 really brought Rwanda to the world’s attention, but the truth is that the problems started a long time before that. Due to escalating violence in 1959, almost 340,000 Tutsis went into exile as refugees in the neighboring countries of Uganda, Zaire, Tanzania and Burundi.

My mother’s parents escaped to Belgium, where my grandfather trained as a doctor. They had one son and five daughters before getting divorced, at which point my grandfather took some of their children to Kenya where he continued to practice medicine, while my grandmother took the rest of their kids, including my mother, to live in Burundi.

This is why, in April 1977, my mother made the journey to Nairobi so that my grandfather could deliver me in a Kenyan hospital.

My mother had met my father in Burundi, and married him at the tender age of eighteen despite an eleven-year age difference. They had a small wedding without many guests as neither of my parents had money, and my mother was already pregnant with me.

My father’s side of the family also has an interesting history. My paternal grandfather, Leon, was actually Belgian. He was a civil engineer sent by his government to work in Burundi. Although married and in his late sixties by the time he arrived, he harbored an adventurous spirit. It was while building a road in Cyangugu. Rwanda that he met and fell in love with, my grandmother, Ancilla.

This was problematic on many levels. Back then it was illegal not just for whites to marry blacks, but even for them to sleep together. The Belgian authorities refused to recognize mix-race children born of such relationships. It’s safe to say that my grandfather’s wife back in Belgium had no idea about his goings on in Rwanda, and certainly didn’t know about his other family.

My dad always spoke fondly about his father. He was loved and spoiled, but he could never be legally acknowledged. My father’s situation wasn’t unique. There were many mixed-race children, or mulattos as they were known, the product of muzungu (foreigner) liaisons with local women, in the same situation.

For my father, this was extremely hard. A system of apartheid existed throughout what was known as Ruanda-Urundi at that time, right up until independence. When my father walked into a place with his father, he was allowed to walk through the door for Whites. When he went by himself, he had to use the door for Blacks. When my grandfather died, his wife in Belgium sold his belongings, but my father received nothing. It caused him a lot of pain that he could never be legally recognized as his father’s son.

Soon after my grandfather passed away, there was a slight shift in conscience in the West. Laws were passed which recognized the rights of mixed-race children born in the African colonies. Some countries took this too far, forcibly removing mixed children from their African mothers and shipping them off to be raised by ‘civilized’ whites, much like the Lost Generation in Australia.

Unfortunately, in order to qualify for legal recognition, you had to be able to prove paternity. By this time, my grandfather’s wife in Belgium had become aware of my father’s existence, but she refused to accept that her husband was the father. So, my dad never got the Belgium passport he was entitled to.

Early in his life, my dad decided to pursue a career in engineering. He studied at a prestigious school in Bujumbura called École Technique de Kamenge, before taking a job at the Sucraf sugar factory in Kiliba, Zaire now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Back in those days, the border restrictions were pretty relaxed. You could travel over on a laissez-passer to work. It was just a simple piece of paper, there was none of this biometric testing or fingerprinting. My dad still refers to it as ‘the good old days’.

He worked there for a year, from 1965. At that time the Mulelist rebels, led by Pierre Mulele, would approach the factory wild-eyed and unafraid, screaming ‘mai mulele’, meaning ‘bullets will turn to water’. Most of the rebels were high on drugs and could not afford weapons. Meanwhile, the factory was protected by around one thousand mercenaries called the Ex-gendarme of Katanga. These mercenaries handed out guns to all of the workers, including my father. He remembers standing there with a gun in his hand thinking, enough is enough, time to go home.

He left the Sucraf factory for Burundi Metaluza, a metal company based in Bujumbura, where he worked as an electrician for a while before striking out on his own. He was always focused on building his own business and was great with his hands – from structural engineering to wiring and electronics. He worked for a Belgian company for a while, but the majority of his life was spent self-employed.

By the time I came into the world, my parents were doing okay for themselves. We were technically classed as Urban Refugees. When you say refugee, most people imagine a camp full of plastic tents and World Food Programme hand-outs. This was definitely true for a lot of people who had fled Rwanda without money or possessions, but there was also a segment of displaced people who were able to work, had professions, and could earn enough money to live well in their host countries.

My own family had integrated so thoroughly into Burundian society, that I grew up thinking I was Burundian. My sister took Rwandan dance classes, and I knew of areas like Nyakabiga which were known to be Rwandan neighborhoods, but I didn’t associate myself with those things. At home we spoke French, and I went to a French school. My friends and I spoke French, some Kirundi and Swahili with each other. My parents never really talked to us about where they came from. Looking back, I think this is maybe because things were so bad in Rwanda at the time, that they never thought we would return, so what was the point?

In 1980, my sister Nellie came along. We were the only two kids born to our parents Vivantiane and Albert, though both would later have children by other partners.

My dad’s business at that time was really successful. It brought in enough to pay our way through a private kindergarten, to put clothes on our backs and to supply us with everything we needed for school. Sometimes I’d accompany him to the office to watch him work while his staff played with me and slipped me treats. I used to love going to work with my dad, especially when he was working on projects up country. Sometimes I would take friends with me. We’d borrow rope and use it to climb small hills, and once, I helped to mix cement for a school my dad was working on. Those are some of my earliest memories of wanting to be a self-made man. Seeing the office my dad built, and how tall he walked through it as the boss – I wanted to be just like him.

Things are rarely as simple as they seem when you’re a kid, though. My parents divorced when I was around six or seven. I didn’t learn for many years that my father wasn’t faithful to my mother, or that, for all his business acumen, he was a lousy saver. I guess everyone’s got their vice. For my father, it wasn’t alcohol or gambling, it was women. He earned money, but he also enjoyed spending it. He never invested what he earned or bought property.

Divorce was still pretty uncommon in those days, and it changed our home life a lot. Back then, parents never discussed money or personal matters with their children. Many still don’t today. You want to protect your children and avoid frightening them with adult problems. But, from a kid’s perspective, I didn’t realize that’s what my mother was doing – carrying on as though life was normal. At that age, I wasn’t mature enough to see things from her perspective. All I knew was that my mom had left without telling us anything, and a part of me blamed her for that. I cried for hours when I found out what was happening.

My mother had always been a rebellious, independently-minded woman, but when she left my father she was a little lost. She had to move back in with her mother which was a challenge. Thankfully, she had a secure job working for Ethiopian Airlines. My mother never finished high school, but she had an advantage that very few people had in those days. She could speak both English and French, as well as Kirundi and Swahili, due to having grown up partly in Kenya. My mother was ambitious and used her talents to forge a career. She was out there earning money to buy us what we needed, but all I understood was that she wasn’t at home anymore. An unsettling sense of resentment was building in me.

After the divorce, my sister and I stayed with our dad while mom was living with her mother. He’d rented a nice house across town and it felt like a cool bachelor pad, somewhere for the men to hang out and bond. We’d often sit on the porch together and talk. We share the same easy-going approach to life, me and my dad. Whereas my mother has always been the one to plan and organize, my father and I prefer to roll the dice and see what happens. We jump in feet first, and sometimes drown.

Things came to a head when I was about thirteen. Dad’s business went bankrupt, and suddenly my mother was the sole breadwinner. In 1988 we moved back in with her, first to Quartier Asiatique and then an apartment in Rohero, which was within walking distance of my school. In January 1992, we moved to a house in Kinindo. That was quite a culture shock for me. Both of my parents still played a major role in my life. Both loved me, cared for me and paid my way through school, but going from living with my laid-back father to my mother’s efficiently run, immaculate household was not an easy transition for an adolescent youth.

At this time, I was enrolled at École Française de Bujumbura, which was the second most expensive school in Burundi. It was the French international school for the sons and daughters of successful business owners and the offspring of ambassadors. There was a lot of money in that school. It wasn’t unusual for kids to go on holiday with their parents to Europe and the US, and return sporting the latest pair of Jordans or Nike Air.

When I was growing up, there was already a lot of western influence in Bujumbura. My dad brought home our first color TV, a Grundig, in 1986 so that we could watch the World Cup. That was the year of Maradona’s infamous Hand of God goal.

Star Wars had a big influence on my intensifying worldview; the biggest TV show that influenced me was The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which everybody watched at the time, and which worked as our main source of information on life in America. I was tall for my age and loved playing basketball; Michael Jordan was nothing short of a god in my eyes.

Together, these images made up the American dream for us.

They were everything kids our age aspired to be.

Which is why I really started to struggle. I enjoyed school a lot, but not because of the work. I wasn’t in any way academically gifted. The only two subjects I showed an interest in were math and sports. Beyond that, my attention wandered. But I was a tall, skinny boy and a bit of a bully. No one messed with me. I had some good friends, like Danny, who I met playing basketball. He was the son of a Burundian ambassador, who had just returned after a stint in the US. He had so many stories to tell about life overseas: the parties he’d been to, the women he’d seen, the food he’d eaten. My mouth had watered over adverts for McDonalds for years, and he’d actually eaten one.

As time went by, I became more aware of the financial disparity between me and the kids at my school. I’d see these guys, the ones I played basketball with and hung out with, returning with brand new sneakers from the other side of the world, and I knew that mine had been bought from the local market. I’d go to their houses on the weekend to swim in their pools, but I would have taken my own life rather than invite them over to my mother’s house in Asiatique. While all my friends were getting driven home in hot rides, me and my sister would wait around until everyone left so they wouldn’t see us climbing into a beat-up old taxi.

One of my friends lived in the most beautiful house I had ever seen. The whole floor was marble. It had a room just for ping pong, a big color TV and a great view of the city. Man, I was so jealous. I used to stay with him some weekends, never wanting to go home. Another friend lived in Kiriri, one of the richest neighborhoods in Burundi. He had a swimming pool on the second floor of his house. That blew me away. I just couldn’t understand why we didn’t have all that.

It wasn’t that our situation was that bad, but as a child you want what others have, plus my friends’ parents were together while mine were divorced. I used to believe that the circumstances you’re born into define the remainder of your existence. If you’re poor, you stay poor. If you’re rich, you stay rich.

But I was always a hustler at heart. One of the favorite stories my dad likes to tell is the time I came home with some money because I sold my bike. The kicker was, I had sold it for more than what my father had originally paid for it. He was so impressed that he let me keep the money. I can still see the pride on his face. I had only been around twelve or thirteen. I was always selling small stuff, not knowing what it would eventually lead to.

The worst day of all came when the headmaster of the school pulled me and my sister out of class because our school fees hadn’t been paid. We were told we couldn’t come back until the bill was settled. It only took a couple of days for our parents to scrape the money together, I think our grandmother chipped in as well, but it felt like a lifetime. My sister and I would go down to the library and pretend to study for a few hours each day, but all I did was stare at the pages thinking, Is this it? Are we poor now?

What I didn’t know at the time, or for many years after, was that we were classed as international students, because our family were technically Rwandan not Burundian. This meant that our school fees were much higher than those of nationals. At that age I was oblivious to the realities of life. All I could think was how devastating it would be to my reputation if anybody ever found out my parents had missed a payment.

Looking back, I guess you’d say my family were lower middle class, but wealth is relative at that age. I was surrounded by kids from very well-off families and whenever I compared myself to them, I felt as though I was the lowest of the low. I had a roof over my head, food in my belly and a private education, yet in my mind’s eye, I was nothing more than a slum-dweller.

This resentment really started to twist me up. I would go to church on Sundays and petition God, asking why is my family cursed? Why are my parents divorced and not like other families? I honestly thought we had some bad juju cast against us. I had so much growing up, yet all I could focus on were the things I didn’t have.

This dark mood followed me everywhere. I was popular enough at school, but I became a troublemaker. Whenever something happened, I was suspect number one on the headmaster’s hit list. I got expelled twice. Once for damaging property – I can’t even remember why, but I lost my temper and trashed the school noticeboard. The second time was probably for stealing something. I’d pick up my classmates’ stuff if I saw a nice pen or a calculator, and try to sell it off. I guess at the back of my mind I just thought, well, they’re rich enough, they can buy another one. I didn’t think they’d even miss it. If I’d been at a public school with kids of my own socio-economic background, I doubt I would have thought that way.

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