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In the Strange Land

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

By Dydine Umunyana

One must learn how to listen, not to be listened to. One must learn how to accept and then to be accepted. One must learn how to watch, and not be explained to. One must learn how to love for nothing in return. One must seek first to understand, then to be understood, and this should be the mantra in the Home land. Before it became our home it was someone else's beloved home. We come and we go, none of us live like a mountain, as much said.

I am Dydine Umunyana from the very small African country, Rwanda. Once called the land of milk and honey, overnight it became a land of blood and sorrow. One of my memories was when at 4 years old, I was lined up with other Tutsis in the front yard of a Hutu perpetrator. We had been captured and were awaiting our fate. It was April 7th, 1994, the first morning of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. The Hutu Interahamwe ("those who attack together") began moving down the line, slaughtering people one by one with machetes. I closed my eyes and felt that this would be the last moment of my life.


Once they reached me, the Interahamwe paused, gestured toward me, and said, "This is a child of RPF Inkotanyi Soldiers! A child of snakes is a snake itself. She is a cockroach, kill her! Her mother and father are in RPF Inkotanyi. Kill her, kill her!" They began arguing with one another. "I am the one who is going to kill her." "No! I will be the one to make her suffer.” They were yelling loudly, all wanting the honor of finishing me off. One of the men grew frustrated and impatient.


Without any agreement among himself and the other Interahamwe, he rushed toward me with a machete and a crude homemade weapon called Ntamponganoyumwanzi, which literally translates to "no pity for the enemy." With a timid voice I asked, "May I drink my milk?" A man started mimicking me, snickering loudly with the other Interahamwe. As I faked drinking, an elderly Hutu stepped out from inside his house. He saw me standing in the line where those before me had been murdered or badly wounded. The older man's eyes grew with familiarity and he said, "You should all be ashamed of killing an innocent child like this one, while your wives have children no different from her. No one touches her or you will have to go through me first!" He saved my life that first day of the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsis, but there were 99 more days to go….


It's been over a year since I started calling myself an Author out loud. It took a long time to admit that to myself, even after I had published my first book Embracing Survival: Genocide and war through the eyes of a child. In the back of my head, I would put myself down, chiding that I was never going to find inspiration for another book. Since before Embracing Survival was born I've traveled around the United States, sharing my story with people of all ages. 4 year-olds to 94 year-olds and everyone in-between. There was always someone from the audience who would come to me after my speech and ask so many questions. People wanted to learn more about my life journey.


In the summer of 2015 I was in San Diego, California for a speaking engagement at an elementary and middle school. Afterwards a tall, slim, bearded white man with a little bit of gray in his hair approached me. He was in his late 40s or early 50s, and spoke English with a South African accent. With tears welling in his eyes he said, “Dydine, I am the teacher of this class. Thank you so much for sharing your story with my students! ...really all I wanted to say is: wow, what a beginning!


This was not the first time I heard that phrase in response to my talk. After hearing it from so many different people, of all ages and backgrounds, I thought to myself, these people don't even know my real beginning. If they really knew, I think I may inspire them even more. The question was: how do I share my story with as many people as possible? Do I just go around repeating it over and over? Or is there a better way?


Those questions weighed upon me. It took a lot of energy to share my story by speaking, even when I felt like doing it, which I often didn't. Recovery time was sorely needed. It occurred to me that I should sit down and write.


Later that day I was on my way from San Diego to Venice via the coastal train. It was the most beautiful ride, traveling alongside the Pacific. All I could see from my window seat was the sun setting above the ocean. It felt wonderful to return home after a very successful day.


Venice had become home, as I was so warmly welcomed and embraced by my new American family. I couldn’t wait to get to the house and start writing a book called What a Beginning! The face of the middle school teacher kept coming to mind, his nascent tears punctuating simultaneous curiosity and inspiration. It felt like the only answers that could do justice would be via the written word. I wanted to inspire him and everyone else who asked the same questions.For three weeks words flowed through my mind like a river and didn't stop. I would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and walk to Zinque, my favorite neighborhood café. I loved writing there. Everyone seemed nice and welcoming. Many of the other customers were also bent over computers. It felt like the perfect place to get a lot of work done. When I was working on a chapter that was so dark I wanted to cry, I would look around and realize that Zinque was not the place for that. I didn't want to make a scene. So I would pour all of the rushing emotions into the book.


When I couldn't resist the tears, I would run to the bathroom to cry. I cried for things that hadn’t been cried for, and things that I once thought did not deserve my tears. And I cried for the hurt I was experiencing that moment. It had been almost a year since I had seen my family and I missed them terribly. Then I would emerge from the bathroom and keep working until the sun started to set. Only then would I go home.


Every night I thought about the book. Sometimes I would remember something and wake up to write it down, then in the morning I would develop it. The book became everything to me, and to everyone I spoke to. I couldn't go five minutes without mentioning it. One of my friends started getting annoyed. He told me, “ Dydine, I want to spend at least an hour with you without hearing about that book”. It was harsh, but there was a lot of hard truth involved.


I wasn’t just writing a book, I was reliving a childhood of immense trauma. It was overwhelming. I am so grateful for everyone who was able to deal with me during that time. Their friendship and support was as crucial to making the book happen as any word I typed.


Embracing Survival became an unwanted but sorely-needed therapist. I was learning a lot about myself, feeling every word, every line, every paragraph, every page. I felt the entire book. It was the most healing journey that I never thought I needed back when I was holding it all in.


To complete the manuscript, I worked with my wonderful editor Elizabeth Evans. She would send input, then I’d revise and send drafts back. Finally she sent an almost-finished product and asked me to read the whole thing before sending it to the copy editor. The way schedules shook down, I only had one day to read it.


My whole life flashed by within the span of 12 hours or so. I’m blessed with a survivor’s mind and spirit, but the sheer volume of trauma took a physical toll as well.The next day I woke up horribly sick. I was staying in Hollywood, where one of my best friends Ariana Argend had arranged for me to stay while writing Embracing Survival. It was a beautiful place. I could see the Hollywood sign from my kitchen, and the building was right in front of Capitol Records. I was sleeping on a California king-sized bed, and living the movie star life so many dream of. All seemed luxurious on the outside. But in my heart, I was a mess.


My head felt super heavy. Then the migraines kicked in. I’ve had them since I was a young girl, but this time it was different. My whole body was hurting. I couldn't get out of bed, and I had a fever. So I called out to friends for help.


The first was Consolee Nishimwe, who was also a Rwandan genocide survivor. She asked me how my day was and I replied that my day was fine, which is my usual answer. But Consolee saw through the facade. She implored that I take it easy, and understand that though my mind might be conditioned to take all the stress, I had to acknowledge and address the physiological aspect also. I have to be easy on myself. She called me every hour to check on me, but without any sign of worry. She called just for distraction, trying to get my mind on something other than the book. Concolee had went through the same sickness while writing her memoir Tested to the Limit. She had a better idea of what was happening to me than I did.


I stayed in bed for few days. As gentle as I was trying to be with myself, I was still constantly in tears. I was quite frustrated and angry. I was supposed to be the strong one! Why am I so weak?! I asked myself repeatedly.


When the book was published, I began touring to promote it, speaking on stage, being stared at by big crowds. Stories that I used to laugh about now made me cry. Everything became so confusing. I couldn't figure out what was wrong, or how to fix it. But I knew I had to finish what I had started—no matter what.


While I remained committed to the book tour, I was stunned by how hard it was. Writing it was difficult enough. Putting the book out there was a new level of challenge. The last thing I ever wanted to do with my life was to be a saleswoman, but I had to get the book to as many people as possible. Accepting that sales is part of the process, I've been uplifted by a steady flow of positive feedback, and so grateful for all of the people who make it happen.


It was incredibly difficult to change my world so drastically, but it changed for the better. The book is finished. I published it myself. I am now officially a writer. This role brings its own challenges, upsides, and downsides. But I focus on the upsides, as there is no greater reward than seeing how your work has changed your life, and the lives of others. Author is my job title now, along with Inspirational Motivational Speaker and whatever role that needs to be played to do the work, including Saleswoman.Now I am thriving in this strange land, and grateful for every moment. ...with a new book on the way.

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