This is the first autobiography I’ve read, which makes it hard to evaluate. The book is the story of the life of Gilbert Tuhabonye, from the central African nation of Burundi, up to about 2005.
Like its neighbor Rwanda, Burundi has suffered from serious conflict between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes for decades. The genocidal spasm that afflicted Rwanda was well known at the time, but Burundi has had its own troubles as well, and Tuhabonye was nearly killed in one in October, 1993.
Tuhabonye presents his life growing up on a farm in southern Burundi as idyllic, and given that he knew little of the world beyond his local community, that’s not a surprise. Sub-Saharan Africa is lush, so his immediate and extended families did well enough with their crops and cattle to do more than merely survive. However, Tuhabonye’s description of this life as he grows up and starts going to school goes on for chapters, and for me this portion of the book dragged. Even the stories about his discovery that he was an exceptional runner, and the awards and other benefits that brought him, became tiring, although running is what eventually brought him to the United States and his role, at least as of 2005, as a professional distance runner and running coach.
Tuhabonye and co-writer Gary Brozek skillfully weave the days of rage that led to Tuhabonye’s near death in between the other chapters. While that murderous time lasted just a few days for Tuhabonye, he and Brozek explain its background and share Tuhabonye’s confusion, tension, fear, and ultimate determination to live through many interludes between the descriptions of all the years leading up to them. The authors do not dwell on the horrific events that left Tuhabonye badly burned, but neither do they shy away from describing them. It’s truly remarkable that he was able to survive and recover as well as he did, given the limited care his burns and other injuries received.
The final two chapters and epilogue cover Tuhabonye’s recovery, return to running, acceptance to a number of U.S. colleges, and even his participation in various major track competitions in the U.S. and internationally. While he won many awards, he did not achieve his goal of competing in the 2004 Olympics. In a way, that’s a relief, keeping the book from becoming too much of an exercise in self-congratulation.
To be sure, Tuhabonye’s survival itself is amazing, to say nothing of his recovery to the point that he could compete at very high levels. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is his ability to accept and move on from the horrors he experienced, which included being the lone survivor of the brutality that took so many of his friends. His ability to forgive those who committed such despicable acts is a tribute to the power of his faith.
Overall, the book is well-written and easy to read. Unlike a memoir, This Voice offers no lessons Tuhabonye wishes the reader to learn, at least not directly. However, athletes, especially runners, those who enjoy autobiographies, and those who enjoy stories of faith triumphant will likely appreciate this book.