International Voice and Local Force of Nature: Gilbert Tuhabonye brings water to Burundi and PRs to Austin runners
Gilbert Tuhabonye brings water to Burundi and PRs to Austin runners
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons
Gilbert Tuhabonye stepped on to the stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a gathering of prominent human rights’ activists from across the globe. This wasn’t the first time Tuhabonye had delivered his story of outrunning genocide to a captive audience or high-ranking government officials, but it was his first foray away from the borders of the United States.
Hailed as “a spectacular human-rights festival…on its way to becoming a human-rights equivalent of the Davos economic forum,” by The Economist magazine, the distinguished guest list provided Tuhabonye a platform to share what faith, forgiveness, peace, and courage look like in the life of a man who once faced imminent death.
“Words can’t describe the opportunity they gave me, and I was so thankful,” said Tuhabonye as he reflected back on that day. “It was very special and something I’ll never forget.”
Tuhabonye’s speech brought members of the crowd to tears when he told of how he was once left for dead by his fellow countrymen, and the scars on his arms, legs, and back are a daily reminder of not just the fateful day, but of the way his faith lead him to forgiveness. Less than two decades later, this survivor shared with those on the front lines of the fight for human rights how he is putting his time and energy toward improving the lives of those same people who once tried to kill him.
To understand Gilbert Tuhabonye, one must know his background. Growing up in rural Burundi, the eventual NCAA Track Champion didn’t receive his first pair of shoes until he was 13. “I had just won my first race in seventh grade,” he recalled. “My cousin Bernard’s dad told me to go pick out what pair of shoes I wanted. And he was mad at me after I chose because I got a pair of the Converse. He knew I wasn’t going to run in them and instead wear them when I was with friends.”
Tuhabonye continued to run—and win—races barefoot over the ensuing years. He gained prominence as a ninth grader by beating eleventh and twelfth graders and becoming the national champion in the 800 meters. All of this notoriety, however, also brought him to the attention of the opposing ethnic tribe once civil war broke out.
In 1993, Tuhabonye was locked in a burning building by opposing forces with more than 150 of his classmates and left to die. After eight hours of hiding under charred bodies, the 18-year-old miraculously broke out through one of the boarded windows and out-ran the surrounding rebels. Tuhabonye eventually reached safety, though his back, arms, and legs were severely burned and he spent the ensuing months lying in a hospital bed. The doctors told the fleet-footed young man he’d never run again.
But it’s a mistake to count out a strong-willed and determined individual even if all odds are against him. It wasn’t long before Tuhabonye was back on his feet, finding his way to the United States and carrying the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Although he didn’t make the games, the 19-year-old was part of an international development program; these athletes from underdeveloped countries received special training in the United States so that, one day, they could run for their respective nations.
Following a short time in Atlanta, Tuhabonye ventured west to Abilene Christian University. “They had a great coach at the time, and I wanted to attend a school that made faith important in everyday life,” he said. The four years took him to heights previously unimaginable, such as shaking hands with President Bill Clinton when presented with the Giant Steps Award for the most courageous student athlete of the year.
Tuhabonye married his high school sweetheart shortly after graduation from Abilene Christian, and they travelled a few hundred miles south through rural central Texas at the urging of Paul Carrozza, owner and founder of RunTex. The mention of this Austin running icon lights Tuhabonye’s face with excitement, and he was eager to relate stories of how Carrozza has helped him and many others.
“When you talk about people that have inspired me in what I do, one of the major influences is Paul,” he said. “[Carrozza] has this desire to help, and he’s given so much to so many people here. The running community would not be what it is today without him. I can never thank him enough, and he motivates me every day to do more.”
“It’s no accident that Gilbert ended up in Austin,” Carrozza said, looking back on their friendship. “He survived the terrible attack on his life for a reason and that’s not by chance. Since then, he has worked incredibly hard to overcome obstacles, create a better life for himself and his family and, ultimately, touch the lives of many people around the world, especially here in Austin.”
Today, just 37 years old, Tuhabonye lives life at a breakneck pace. One of his many roles is serving as Executive Director of the Gazelle Foundation, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2006 to build sustainable, life-changing water projects in Burundi.
As a young boy, Tuhabonye ran three to five miles each day to fetch water from a creek for his family. Naturally, the beginnings of the Foundation were borne out of a morning run with a few training partners.
“The Gazelle Foundation was conceived by Gilbert, Paul Pugh, and myself during a long training run in early 2006,” recalled Peter Rauch, President of the Board of Directors. “Twenty-two miles provided ample time for conversation, and we discussed how people who attended Gilbert’s presentations would ask how they could help. By the time we finished, we had an answer—we’d create a charitable foundation to help people in Burundi.”
Life in Burundi as a child was—and, for the most part, still is—fairly simple. Each day, children wake up, get water, go to school, come home, get water, and go to bed. There are no vehicles, no electricity, and everyone lives off the land around them. It is rural, subsistence farming at the barest of bones with little chance of ever escaping the vicious cycle of poverty. For areas where access to clean water is not available, statistics of waterborne illnesses are tragic; based on the most recent United Nations report, one of every five children in Burundi does not reach the age of five, and the average life expectancy is just 52 years.
As of April 2012, the Foundation has served more than 11,000 Burundians and plans to reach another 5,000 with new projects before the end of the year. These plans are funded through the continued generosity of the Austin community.and those beyond who Tuhabonye touches through speaking engagements or events. Tuhabonye works hard to ensure that donors’ money goes directly to the work in Burundi, as he explained “corruption is a problem in the government and has always been. You see officials driving fancy cars and wearing nice clothes while the people still don’t have shoes. What we do enables us to go straight to the population. They trust us.”
In an era where corruption isn’t just limited to the government and seemingly trustworthy nonprofits are exposed for fraud, creating a relationship between donors and beneficiaries is increasingly important. Last summer, the Foundation led a group of 16 Austinites to Burundi and went so far as to walk the entire length of a new project, more than six miles, in one day. Along the way, they met the local villagers and workers and saw the impact of the water project first-hand.
According to Tuhabonye, the Gazelle Foundation works directly with a project manager in Burundi who has more than two decades of experience with international nonprofit organizations. He is responsible for maintaining documentation of every dollar spent and must meet certain benchmarks before receiving the next phase of project funds. Additionally, a steady stream of representatives has flowed into Burundi over the past few years and routinely inspected the construction.
“It’s our goal to take groups at least once per year. If you have the ability to go, you should,” Tuhabonye said, referring to the Work for the Water program that leads teams up to the front steps of his mother’s house. “Your life will be changed forever, and you can see exactly what we do.”
Tuhabonye returned to his home country this past year for the first time in more than a decade. After visiting the population and seeing the work, he claimed he’s more motivated than ever to help the Foundation grow.
“I saw hope, and people told me how much it has changed their lives,” he recalled from visiting his old village. “They know that someone is thinking about them and cares about them. There is hope that they can get out of poverty. If it wasn’t for the Gazelle Foundation, they might not ever get water.”
The Gazelle Foundation, however, is only a small part of what Tuhabonye does each week. Tuhabonye also holds the head coach position for the St. Andrews Episcopal School Cross Country and Track programs. Under his tutelage, the program has achieved remarkable success, both on the field and off.
In 2010, St. Andrews christened the Tuhabonye Cross Country Trail. Administration and faculty members carved out a running trail around the property of their upper school so that his athletes would have a top-notch place to train. The trail now serves as a host to a growing annual distance festival bringing in schools from across the state and is a physical testament to the young lives Tuhabonye continues to mold.
“He exemplifies everything that St. Andrews is about,” said Reed Clemons, co-head coach at the small private school located in southwest Austin. “Faith, education, and giving back—Gilbert lives it out each and every day. He is loved by this community and has built a trust through his loyalty and commitment.”
Tuhabonye got involved with St. Andrews because he was looking for a private school for his then 5-year-old daughter to attend. When he heard they held chapel every day for the kids, he was sold. Shortly thereafter, Clemons approached him to join the track and cross country programs, looking to spark a squad that struggled to bring kids out.
Tuhabonye’s impact was immediately felt; the number of students on the team doubled in his first year. According to Clemons, Tuhabonye provides a different perspective than what is typically found in high school coaches: “There’s no yelling, all are welcome, and he doesn’t allow any type of bad mouthing about others. He has a keen ability to get kids to really believe in themselves, and he makes running fun.”
“Running is for everyone,” Tuhabonye explained in regard to his philosophy for coaching. “It is not only for the fast people or those who might make (the) varsity (team). Everybody can run, and we have fun.”
Although Tuhabonye’s squad comes from a small private school, there’s never been a question of putting them up against the big local schools such as Westlake and Cedar Park. “I want them to be tough and know that they can compete with anyone, even if the other team is much better,” he reasoned. The results of his coaching style are a string of four consecutive state Cross Country championships dating back to 2008, top three finishes at the state Track & Field meet, and a number of runners receiving college scholarships. The victories are appreciated, but Tuhabonye finds that shaping the character of young men and women is more important to him than any award.
“He inspired me to never settle for anything except my best,” said Roberto Diaz, St. Andrews class of 2011 and scholarship recipient at Oklahoma Christian University. “Without Gilbert, I wouldn’t be a runner and I never would have gotten a full scholarship. He’s like a second father to me.”
From the eyes of John McNamara, St. Andrews class of 2010 and member of Tuhabonye’s first state championship team, it’s not just about the trophies. “He makes the team not only about competing to win but also about developing a passion to live a healthy and active lifestyle that will last ‘way past high school.”
“His motto has always been ‘run with joy,’” said McNamara, who is one of the most decorated athletes to leave the high school. “But Gilbert also had a way of getting right to the point. At one meet, I was in the front group of runners about nearing the end of the race and starting to struggle, and instead of giving me some elaborate words of encouragement, he got straight to the point and yelled out ‘John... Run faster!’”
While Tuhabonye’s impact at St. Andrews has been large, his biggest footprint in the Austin community has been made through his running group, Gilbert’s Gazelles. The club, a training program for individuals of all speeds and abilities, has provided him the opportunity to touch thousands of lives.
The slogan “Run With Joy” serves as the motto for the group, and Tuhabonye inserts much of his Burundian roots into the training. One can find his “herd” running all across town, sometimes singing African chants at the Austin High track: “The lion is coming; don’t let it catch you!”
His jovial personality and ability to immediately connect with individual runners has helped Gilbert’s Gazelles grow into one of the most recognisable brands in the fitness community. The company, which started out with just three women shortly after Tuhabonye won the Capitol 10,000 in 2002, will celebrate its tenth year anniversary in April 2012.
“Gilbert’s story has always been an inspiration to me,” said Staley Faulkner, a member of Gilbert’s Gazelles running group since 2005. “He’s the most loving, forgiving man I’ve ever met and someone you can model your life after.”
Faulkner lost nearly 200 pounds by 2008, and he attributes much of the weight loss and a very dramatic life change to Tuhabonye. “He’s helped me become a better runner, father, husband, and person. It’s moving to see someone care so much about not just your running but also you, personally.”
A common misconception is that Gilbert’s Gazelles is only for elites. “When you look at the Austin Marathon this year, we had Gazelles finish in under three hours and others in almost six hours,” Tuhabonye pointed out. “Some of our half marathoners were finishing at the same time as our top marathoners.”
Former RunTex manager and current Mizuno Running marketing director, Bob Wischnia (“Wish” as he is commonly known around Austin) has been observing Tuhabonye since 2001 when he arrived from Abilene.
“One of the things I love about Gilbert that I have seen over the years is how he treats the slowest runners better than the best runners,” said Wishnia. “People tend to rally around leadership, and that’s what he provides. When you look at what he’s done, it’s really amazing. The kids at St. Andrews want to run for him. The people of Austin have joined his cause in Burundi because he’s doing an incredible service.”
When asked what makes him desire to give back to so many, Tuhabonye simply stated that’s who he is and what he’s called to do. Undoubtedly, growing up in one of the world’s poorest countries has made him more appreciative of life in America, but not every person who makes it to the United States impacts individuals and communities in such life-changing ways.
Tuhabonye released his memoir, This Voice in My Heart, in 2006. It sold more than 20,000 copies domestically in 2011—no small feat for a novice author—and has hit bookshelves all across the world. The man from six years ago hasn't changed much, although his life looks very different. Gone are the days of plans to run in the Olympics, his dreams officially ended at the 2008 London Marathon with an on-going hamstring injury. Though he’s still a fixture in the Austin running community, his days as a competitive runner are coming to a close while his role as motivator and inspirational leader continues to rise. You can find him at most of the Austin races, within a few miles of the finish line, cheering on both Gazelles and non-Gazelles in a way that makes runners want to go faster and finish giving their best.
In February at the 2012 Austin LiveStrong Marathon, Tuhabonye stationed himself at mile 25 where there wasn’t much of a crowd. Having already completed the half marathon, he racked up nearly 25 miles that day helping his runners get to the finish line.
“I was watching the pavement in front of my feet when Gilbert came sprinting out to run with me. It gave me a quick boost of energy just to see his smiling face and hear his cheers for me,” recounted Christine McAllister, who joined the Gazelles to train for her first marathon. “His enthusiasm reminded me to run with joy. I told him I was dizzy and he ran over to someone in the crowd and got water and poured it on my head. It hit me that he had already finished his race and he still wasn’t slowing down. I had to keep going.”
Going Home to Burundi
When Tuhabonye travelled home to Burundi for the first time in more than a decade, the country was a much more peaceful place. Although there are still well-documented tensions between various political parties, the country continues to head away from the seemingly endless years of civil war and more toward fulfilling the peace accord signed in 2008.
In 2011, Tuhabonye became an American citizen after more than 15 years of living in the country, which he said was a "dream come true." With citizenship comes civic duty, and November will mark the first time in his life Tuhabonye has ever voted in a national election for any country. Eighteen months ago, his long-time friend Governor Rick Perry appointed him to the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. As the only African genocide survivor on the committee, he provides an example of the power of forgiveness and the strength necessary to move forward after unspeakable atrocity.
Tuhabonye won’t make any predictions about what his future might hold. “How do you eat an elephant?” he asked and then answered, “One bite at a time. You can only live life one day at a time.” It’s safe to predict Tuhabonye’s future is full of joy and, if you’re in Austin and lucky enough to catch him on the trail around Lady Bird Lake, he might just make your days a bit more joyous and full, too.
How Can You Get Involved With the Gazelle Foundation?
Volunteer at one of their annual events or local outreach programs.
Visit www.gazellefoundation.com/volunteer.com for details.
Travel to Burundi this summer. Three trip options available for ten, 14, or 18 days during June and July. Check out www.workforthewater.com to learn more.
Buy Gilbert’s book to share with your friends and family. All proceeds of This Voice In My Heart sales go directly to the Gazelle Foundation.