Consolee Nishimwe has the most gorgeous laugh. She gives fantastic hugs. I miss her during this pandemic.
She is my friend now, but we started out as journalist and source about 10 years ago, when she told me her story. It changed my life. I’m not sure she knows this, but she altered the way I view the world.
Consolee, 41, survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994, when she was 14. Her three younger brothers and her father were murdered. She was raped by her neighbor. Years ago, she told me that she won’t wear a skirt because she doesn’t want to show the scars the man etched onto her legs with a sword as he attacked her — or the marks the HIV he gave her has left on her body.
She and her mother and sister spent the 100 days of the genocide on the run as at least 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were killed. But she survived.
This is the response she gave me back in 2014 when I asked her how she did that: “There are others who really had it worse,” she said.
This phrase, “others had it worse” — I have heard it time and again from other Rwandan survivors. It is hard to understand how someone who has experienced multiple traumatic events in a short period can think their experiences are not as bad as what others have gone through. Yet it is something I heard over and over when I was in the country, probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, entirely green and smelling intoxicatingly like earth and something burning.
In a story I did back then for The Atlantic (I was trying to get my head around how — how — an entire country that has been so traumatized can possibly heal), Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University and a pioneer in the field of trauma therapy, told me this of Consolee and her compatriots:
“We’re going to be breathless in realizing that they have the capacity to come out of atrocity with this very modest sense that others had it worse. The Rwandan example is one of endurance.”
Which is why I want you to hear her story. She is one of the few people I’ve met in life who have not only survived such terrible things, but actually thrived.
All the music in the episode is by Michael Hearst. He also gave production help. Listen to more of his compositions and unusual books here.
For more about the genocide, I highly recommend reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories From Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch.
And a warning: This episode is painful. Very much so. There is a particularly brutal bit in which Consolee talks about the murder of her family. You may want to fast-forward that part, but keep in mind that this is her story, and this is how she wants to tell it. Thank you for listening.