By Margaux Kay LaPointe, ‘11
This year’s One Book Villanova celebrations culminated with “An Evening with Immaculée Ilibagiza” on Tuesday, Jan. 29. Ilibagiza is the author of this year’s One Book Villanova selection, the critically acclaimed, Left to Tell. The entire day was dedicated to her story and filled with Rwandan culture.
Events began with a book signing at Holy Grounds in the Falvey Memorial Library at 1:30 p.m. In the evening, Dining Services hosted a “Tastes of Rwanda” dinner, which Ilibagiza attended along with the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., Ph.D., president of the University; members of the One Book Villanova committee; and others who helped plan the event. The dinner included African chicken, roasted leg of lamb, tilapia kigali ngari, and plantain cake.
The main event happened at 7:30 p.m. in the Pavilion. Villanova’s spiritual dance group, Redemption, performed an interpretive dance to a gospel song. Les Belles d’Afrique, a troop of African women who met in college in Washington, D.C., performed two dances including a traditional Rwandan dance.
Tom Mogan, a member of the One Book Villanova committee and director of student development, welcomed the audience. Rachel Baard, Ph.D., a Lawrence C. Gallen Teaching Fellow in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, introduced Ilibagiza. Baard was born and raised in South Africa. When the genocide was happening, “I didn’t want to look too closely,” Baard remembered. “It was frightening.” After reading the book, Baard wanted to know more. Students in her Augustine and Culture Seminar class who are part of the Citizenship for a Diverse World Learning Community were inspired and challenged by Ilibagiza’s “path to healing,” Baard said. “Her story is the message. She was left to tell. This is a rare and true gift.”
Arriving at the podium, Ilibagiza was touched by the excitement of the audience, which gave her a standing ovation. “Now that I see people dancing to Rwandan music, I don’t want to talk about genocide,” said Ilibagiza. “It is a privilege to tell my story. I feel so grateful.”
Ilibagiza thanked the members of the audience for their support, and shared the reactions of other readers to the book. “It makes people forgive,” she said. “Many tell me their faith has increased. A horrible thing can be turned into something beautiful.”
Ilibagiza continued by explaining the history of the genocide. In Rwanda, there are two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutu are the majority and have always ruled the country. The genocide in 1994 was meant to eliminate all Tutsi. Ilibagiza is a Tutsi.
Seeing a room full of college students, Ilibagiza said, “I was a student. You’re lucky for your protection. All of a sudden, your innocence won’t protect you. The lessons I learned will help you.”
Ilibagiza recounted her story, the same found in Left to Tell. After the President of Rwanda was killed, Ilibagiza’s father told her to go into hiding. “He handed me a red and white rosary,” she said. “It was the last thing I got from him.” He sent her to hide with the local pastor, a Hutu. “Please never judge everybody in a group,” Ilibagiza advised. “Do not generalize. It’s such a mistake.”
Ilibagiza and seven other women hid in a three-by-four foot bathroom for 91 days. They could never talk to each other, but they felt a connection. “Once you know that you are human beings in the same situation, you do not need to know each others’ names,” Ilibagiza said.
After hearing politicians on the radio call people to finish every Tutsi, Ilibagiza’s thoughts turned to God. “Some priests were involved in killing; others were protecting people,” she said. “It was a time when you showed yourself in front of God. What about God?” she began to ask herself. “Where is He? My faith was crushed. I wanted to believe in something. It was so hard.”
During her hiding, 300 Hutus entered the house to search for any Tutsis who were hidden. “I can remember the fear that I cannot express in words,” Ilibagiza said. “My mouth went dry. It felt like the life was sucked out of my body. I remember asking God if He was there.” They came right to the door of the bathroom, and then left. After two hours of searching, it was the only place that had been overlooked.
Ilibagiza began to say the rosary 27 times a day, but she was not able to forgive in prayer at first. “I gave everything to God,” she said, and she was able to forgive. “Forgiveness is being able to pray for the people that hurt you and wish for them to change.”
When she left the bathroom after peace had finally arrived, “I couldn’t believe what had happened outside, but in my heart I felt strength,” she said. Her family had been killed. Seven-hundred students at her school, the National University of Rwanda, had been killed. “When everyone had died, what next?” she asked of herself and of God. “I didn’t want to concentrate on what happened because I couldn’t change it.”
Next was a long journey. She was rescued from a camp. She got a job with the United Nations. She immigrated to America. “No matter who you are, anything is possible,” Ilibagiza said. “Everything keeps showing me that when we hold onto hope, have strength, and clear our hearts, anything is possible.”
In 2000, Ilibagiza began writing her book. She wrote for three weeks straight. Four years later she edited the book, although she had no means of publication. On March 31, 2005, she completed it. Three days later, she attended a workshop and met Wayne W. Dyer, Ph.D., an internationally renowned author and speaker in the field of self-development. Dr. Dyer heard her story and promised to publish the book. He said to her, “You lived for a reason. Your life is worth it. God loves you. Your story is going to change the world.”
“God makes the difference. This is just my story. We have so many things to be happy about. A little act of love – you never know where it will follow you,” Ilibagiza said. “You can be strong. You can overcome anything. Anything you do out of love will come to you. I’m hoping after 100 years, the pain will be forgotten.”
For more information on Wayne W. Dyer, Ph.D., please click here.
For more information on Immaculée Ilibagiza, please click here.
Margaux Kay LaPointe, ’11, is a first-year student from Lebanon, Pa. She is an intern in the Office of Communications in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Villanova University. Margaux plans on majoring in communication with a specialization in public relations.