The Times photo by Betsy Reason
Rwandan genocide survivor Kizito Kalima (middle) poses for a photo with Noblesville East Middle School Student Council members Madison Hoppe (from left), Alexa Garton, Abby Gibbons, Hannah Buchner, Megan Meinerding, Kate Williams, Josie Flinchum and Megan Broviak following a seventh-grade school convocation during which Kalima shared his story of survival, of when he was 14. Today, he visits seventh-graders at Noblesville West Middle School.
The Times photo by Betsy Reason Rwandan genocide survivor Kizito Kalima (middle) poses for a photo with Noblesville East Middle School Student Council members Madison Hoppe (from left), Alexa Garton, Abby Gibbons, Hannah Buchner, Megan Meinerding, Kate Williams, Josie Flinchum and Megan Broviak following a seventh-grade school convocation during which Kalima shared his story of survival, of when he was 14. Today, he visits seventh-graders at Noblesville West Middle School.

Kizito Kalima, standing 6 feet, 9 inches tall, towered over Noblesville East Middle School seventh-graders who came up to him for high-fives.

Just moments before, the Rwanda-born Kalima, 39, shared his amazing story of survival of the Rwandan genocide 25 years ago.

“Who’s 14 years old here?” Kalima asked the audience of more than NEMS 400 seventh-graders, mostly 12- and 13-year-olds, who filed into the schools’s main gymnasium and assembled on the bleachers to listen to Kalima’s story. 

Kalina was born in Nyanza, Rwanda, a country in East Africa and is a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a mass slaughter of Tutsi people in Rwanda during the Rwandan Civil War. The genocide lasted 100 days, from April 7, 1994, to mid-July 1994, and resulted in the killings of 800,000 to 1 million people there.

He vividly recalled the horror, of being an injured 14-year-old, who hid under piles of dead bodies for two days, after being struck by machetes, as ethnic conflict ravaged his native country.

He ran and was captured and taken to a killing site, and then ran again, trying to find his family. He found his mother hiding at a church, and she instructed him to go to safety. “I never got a chance to see my mom again,” said Kalima, who came from a family of 12, “with six of us left now.” 
Kalima, who survived death four times during the genocide, eventually made it a swamp, where he lived by himself for nearly three months, consuming only grass, swamp water and whatever he could find. “I was laying in the middle of nowhere, waiting for my time to come,” said Kalima, who was hallucinating and whose body was like a skeleton when he was finally rescued and then put into an orphanage.

Kalima shared his story, bringing a real-world connection to the students, who have been studying the Rwandan genocide as part of their Imperialism in Africa unit in Social Studies class. 

Kalima said he talks about it now to educate people and raise awareness, so it does not happen again in Rwanda or elsewhere in the world.

It’s the third year that Kalima has visited Noblesville middle schools. On March 1, he spoke at NEMS, which enrolls 414 seventh-graders. Today, he was scheduled to visit and speak at Noblesville West Middle School, which enrolls 439 seventh-graders.

“Mr. Kalima puts a face to history and can given an account on how these seemingly impossible events, such as a genocide can happen,” said Mieke Kendrick, an English Language collaborative teacher/coordinator at NEMS. Serving her fourth year at Noblesville Schools, she works closely with classroom teachers to provide services for English Language students who speak more than one language. Students at Noblesville Schools speak more than 50 different home languages, she said.

“We live in a global society, and it’s important to expose students to others in the world around them,” Kendrick said. “Mr. Kalima does a wonderful job sharing his story in an age-appropriate context.”

Kalima -- a Pike Township, Marion County resident, who speaks five languages and understands two more -- relates to students “by telling them that it is OK to go through various emotions and that they are not alone,” she said. “He encourages them to seek out advice from teachers, parents and counselors when they feel overwhelmed. He survived unspeakable acts but lived through it.”

Students were moved by his visit.

“I thought he did a really great job talking about himself….I was sitting there, almost crying... the way that he described it,” said seventh-grader Megan Broviac, among eight NEMS Student Council members, who also included Hannah Buchner, Josie Flinchum, Alexa Garton, Abby Gibbons, Madison Hoppe, Megan Meinerding and Kate Williams, who met Kalima and posed for a photo with him. 

“I thought it was really interesting, because he came right around the time that we were learning on this,” Buchner said.

Seventh-graders have been studying the effects of European colonization in Africa and other continents. The Rwandan genocide is among the topics studied.

When Kalima asked the audience if any students were from Africa, Rwandan-born seventh-grader Wayne Mushyoma held up his hand and came down from the gym bleachers after the program to meet Kalima. Other students, seeking high-fives and selfies and a chance to meet Kalima, face-to-face, also stopped to see him briefly before returning to afternoon classes. 

Kalima looked back on the 25 years since the Rwandan genocide. “It’s amazing that I’m still alive, because I never thought I was going to get here,” said Kalima, who will give his survival testimony during a Rwandan genocide memorial event for the 25th anniversary on April 26-27 at Notre Dame University in northern Indiana.

Kalima, who grew up playing volleyball and soccer, started playing basketball after the genocide. He traveled to the United States to play basketball, trying out in Savannah, Ga., then playing high school ball in Chicago and college ball at Indiana University in South Bend, using basketball as his refuge.

Kalima, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, for many years was angry at life. But he made the choice to rise above and become a mentor and began talking publicly about his survival experience in 2006. 

Kalima attributes Holocaust survivor Eva Kor of Terre Haute to his walking a path to forgiveness. “She had a lot of impact on me, to reach out and to encourage me to do what I’m doing,” he said. “....I respect her so much. I feel like she’s the one who gave me courage.”

Kalima met his wife, Stacey, here in the United States, and adopted two orphaned teenage daughters, now 24 and 26, who are also survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

“It gets much better every day that I talk it out,” said Kalima, who has spoken and many schools, including Carmel Clay Schools in Hamilton County, and who has been writing a book that he’s hoping to publish in 2020. This columnist first met and interviewed Kalima in April 2013, for an article in The Indianapolis Star, just before the 19th annual memorial event in Indianapolis. Since then, he’s spoken in front of thousands of students.

“I remember more because I’m able to confront my fear, and once I overcome the fear, it gives me a chance to remember the whole details, how I lived 100 days….I was by myself.” He plans to return to Rwanda this year to go back to some of the places and people that he remembers.

Kalima has turned his horror story into an agent for peace and reconciliation through Peace Center for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, an Indianapolis nonprofit of which he is executive director. He works with youth to end violence in their communities and the world, using his basketball skills to coach and mentor ages 10-18 in the refuge community he now serves.

Kalima arrived at NEMS with an empty cargo van, and departed with the vehicle filled with bed linens, new and gently used, donated by students who turned in their donations to their social studies teachers for a service project to benefit the Peace Center. The bed linens will be distributed to refugees in the Indianapolis region that he serves. Kalima is genuinely thankful.

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com. See more photos of the Kizito Kalima visit at www.thetimes24-7.com.