The Running Man

Gilbert Tuhabonye: The Running Man How the voice in my heart helped me survive genocide and realise my Olympic dream. London: John Blake 2007


At first glance, the title of the novel inspires readers to explore the mind of a running man. People have often watched long distance runners from the sidelines, whether on the television or on the roadside, and felt humbled by them. Why does he run? Where is he going? Etc. The Running Man’s sub-heading explains a lot: the protagonist runs to survive and to achieve glory. Considering the relatively short length of the book, the significance of the author’s contribution to the world of books is invaluable, especially in an age where the media plays a huge role on the people’s imagination and when things aren't mentioned enough they seem often easily forgotten.

Tuhabonye’s autobiography is deeply personal and reflective. Raised on the farmland of Burundi, an African nation south of neighbouring country Rwanda, the protagonist is introduced as Tamagu, meaning “energetic” and “constantly alert.” Tamagu is born energetic and naturally curious as any young boy or girl but soon grows up to identify himself as a determined runner from an early age. Tamagu’s alertness is kept alive by inspiration from family members’ and friends’ successes, shortcomings, which create a sense of growing tradition within the collective memories shared by members of his community.

Straight away the reader learns how society in Burundi is a lot less homogenous than in the West. Hutus and Tutsi tribes are segregated from each other and divisions existing outside the borders of Burundi have a rippling effect. Moreover, readers learn of the obvious colonial significance of Western countries like Belgium, who once ruled Rwanda-Urundi, and the subtle effects of globalisation that continue to shape countries like Burundi. Unlike the cosmopolitan upbringing of those brought up in cities like Helsinki, loyalties remain fervent in Tuhabonye’s upbringing as a Burundian: to his country, ethnic group, clan and family. Western readers get a proper glimpse into sense of rooted identity that transcends the nation and liberates African individuals from the hardship of growing up in the fast-paced world of modern pop-culture experienced in the West.

Without television, popular culture or even the influence of fashionable clothing that we might ourselves have explored as a child, Tuhabonye’s childhood is never dull or easygoing, nor any less confusing or challenging as we might imagine it to be. Brought up within a network of cultural fragmentation, Tuhabonye allows his readers to experiences the influence of Catholic priests from Europe residing in rural parts of Burundi, the thickened skin of economic development in metropoles of commerce and trade in cities, and the omnipresent lower and higher school systems imported from France. With a colourful texture that betrays his natural energy and alertness, Tuhabonye paints rural and modernising Burundi with the childlike curiosity of doe-eyed youth.

Several moments in his upbringing humble a Western audience, whether it be the first time he experiences flashy motor vehicles, learns basic principles of riding and competing with bicycles, the steady reverberation of a cassette player, or even wearing clothes or taking a shower. Tuhabonye’s fascinating literary style helps shape the overall experience of a person experiencing dual lives lived during the most turbulent times in Africa’s history alongside South African apartheid or ongoing tales of violent Islamic fundamentalism. The autobiographic style is altogether expressive of the author's feelings and reflections at important stages in his life when, as a boy he became a man, and politics were talked about at school but soon became a reality.

To achieve this, Tuhabonya splits his story into two tales: a tale of growing up as a prominent Olympic athlete and a tale of trauma from unrivalled mass genocide. The stark division of the two narratives are juxtaposed within each other as headed chapters tell a tale of normalcy and un-headed chapters tell a darker tale of repressed violence, horror and trauma that the writer wants to let loose. It is thanks to his interesting literary style that we might be thankful because while shaping the overall experience in a captivating way the audience does not have to face up to the trauma in once go. Much like the way a traumatised survivor might explore their inner feelings, in slow, manageable amounts of bitter-sweetness, Tuhabonye’s autobiography is deliberately restrictive about the genocide which fits into a celebration of survival, rather than recollecting and dwelling on the pain.

On the whole, The Running Man is about living a rich life full of love, hope and happiness, complete with trials and tribulations, and growing sense of imminent fortune that awaits an Olympic champion. It is inspirational for anyone growing up with dreams they also want to realise but it is also more than this — Tuhabonye aims to achieve is to draw on his childhood and early experiences in a way that restores the ‘humanity’ of his upbringing while remaining clear about the political message he conveys, namely that what happened really happened; it shaped him and many others like him; and should not be forgotten.


Mika Laiho

The writer is a thirty year old Finn-Britt, studies a PhD in Political Geography at Durham University. He has spent a lot of time living in Finland, in Helsinki, Turku and Rovaniemi and likes to run marathons and write fiction in his free time.