From Burundi to Bendigo: child solider turned rapper Fablice Manirakiza tells students to change the world

Fablice Manirakiza admits it is a strange experience to relay his life story to Australian schoolchildren, most of whom have never faced war or persecution.

But it is a task he performs enthusiastically, hoping his experience can motivate the next generation of leaders to change the world for good. 

About 400 grade 5 students from around Bendigo who attended a youth leadership forum at St Francis of the Fields primary school today listened aghast as Mr Manirakiza explained how he was just eight years old when his mother and father were killed.

One Hutu, the other Tutsi, the pair were both victims of the genocide carried out in his homeland Burundi and neighbouring country Rwanda. 

Three years later, on what he describes as an otherwise normal day, a truck full of men arrived at his school, asking students to stand and taking with them the tallest of the boys. 

That was when Mr Manirakiza became a child soldier, recruited to a war against his own people. He was 11 at the time.

It was a fate he would eventually – narrowly – escape by absconding from his captors on a routine toilet break.

He was reunited with his family, but not before spending a night hidden in the African jungle and begging a taxi driver to transport him home. 

His hardships did not end there. Unable to return to school for fear of being recaptured, a despondent Mr Manirakiza turned to drinking, smoking and even sniffing petrol.

It was not until 2007, when he and his surviving family were resettled in Victoria, that his life took a turn for the better.   

It is a confronting tale for students as young as 10 years old to absorb, but Mr Manirakiza’s tone is upbeat; today, he is a rapper and uses his music to plant in students a passion for justice and equality.

“Woah, woah, woah, we’re all the same,” goes the refrain from one of his numbers, a line the Bendigo students repeated wholeheartedly. 

“When I see these young people, I see young leaders, people who are going to be leading the world tomorrow,” Mr Manirakiza said.  

“I hope that when they grow up, they understand these issues.”

They did not need to be on TV, or a superhero, to enact change, he explained, believing students should first work on themselves and their immediate environment before looking outward.

Even picking up rubbish in the schoolyard was a starting point.  

And the message seemed to be getting through. St Therese’s grade 5 student Wil Pinniger, said he came away from the leadership forum understanding not everyone was as fortunate as him and his classmates. 

“I feel that it’d be hard for them (people like Mr Manirakiza), but for us, we’re pretty lucky,” Wil said.

He would put that empathy into practice next year as a grade 6 mentor for newly arrived prep students, offering them support in those first few weeks at primary school. 

“We’re like a role model and we can teach them,” he said. 

Holy Rosary Catholic primary school principal Paul Wilkinson said it was this type of positive behaviour the day hoped to inspire.

“It is hoped that the annual student leadership forum will help students to become more involved in making decisions both locally and in the wider community,” he said.

Students also took part in workshops with Caritas as well as hearing accounts from people involved in social justice building projects in  the Philippines.

Mr Manirakiza believed Australians could apply this sort of compassion to the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. 

He said the situation unfolding on Manus Island made him feel there was “no peace, no love”.

Detractors of the 600 asylum seekers barricaded inside the island’s decomissioned detention camp ought to learn more about the men’s stories before judging, he said. 

“I don’t think they give them enough time to get into the details,” Mr Manirakiza said.

“Give them the time to tell their story.”

He knows better than most. 

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