Watching the man on stage, his bright eyes and engaging smile make it difficult to imagine him as a child soldier. This image develops, however, as he recounts his childhood in the Congo when, as a five-year-old boy, he was abducted from a soccer field into a life of war. As I look over the faces of the audience I am evidently not the only one spellbound by Michel's tale. Nor could I be the only one wondering how he came to stand in front of the packed gallery today.
Michel Chikwanine, a charming and eloquent speaker, holds the crowd's rapt attention while his mother and two sisters sit beaming. The focus of his talk, though, is not on his personal tragedy, but on his inspirational message. This remarkable positivity shines through the pages of his book Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War , a beautifully illustrated graphic novel detailing his capture and grisly initiation into a rebel militia.
With the unfolding of his story, I notice a creeping mosaic of feelings likely familiar to many westerners hearing tales of third-world plight. The first is the guilt that comes from realizing that a tragic reality I had pushed to my mind's periphery now stands before me. The next is a feeling of awe, that something so profoundly difficult could be this heroically overcome. Then comes a hot indignation that such horrors are still present today, with over 250,000 child soldiers currently spread across the world. Daunting as this picture is, the one feeling I don't experience is despair. Perhaps Michel's enthusiasm is contagious. Or maybe it's hearing about the awful trials he surmounted. Whatever the cause of my optimism, the expressions of the crowd tell me I am in good company.
In all honesty, I had envisioned a dour occasion, but almost immediately I could sense that his was not a tale of horror but a story of hope. As in his book, the fabric of Chikwanine’s speech is woven together by two equal themes: courage and knowledge. Clearly he has adopted these traits from his parents; his mother's strength emanates from the audience, his father's presence is almost palpable on the stage.
Michel's father, a human rights lawyer, made many enemies speaking up against abuses by the corrupt Congolese government. The young Michel, catching wind of the threats against his father, once asked if he was afraid. His father replied that everyone dies, what matters is the legacy we pass on to our family and to the world.
Following his father's assassination, Michel moved with his family to Canada, seeking opportunity and safety. So improved was his situation that Michel recalls feeling baffled listening to children complain about their lunch food and cell phones. Today's youth can view the scale of global problems with a helpless cynicism; the question "what can I do?" becoming almost rhetorical. Michel's first-hand experiences gives him a unique capability to offer an answer.
Michel proclaims what Africa needs above all else is a restructuring of the education system. He explains that the current model is nearly an empty vessel, with many schools still using history textbooks written by British colonialists in the 1950s. Humanitarian aid must be refocused away from creating a culture of dependence and towards educational programs helping communities empower themselves.
While all human beings share an equal capacity for courage, Michel believes that Western peoples have prospered because we are equipped with knowledge. In particular, he points to the skills of critical thinking and entrepreneurialism, referring to them as the West's most desperately needed export. The aim, he says, is not to import a foreign culture, but for Africa to complement its historical identity with 21st century dignity. Michel believes that only through the alleviation of ignorance can we eliminate poverty, and with it, the tragic phenomena of child soldiers.
Deeper than the scars of war are the marks left by his loving parents. Michel's book is an uplifting portrayal of his hard-won lessons. It concludes with a roadmap to the future and to the renewal of a continent. Watching Michel accept an enthusiastic applause I can't help but believe in the possibilities he described, and in the human ability to transform adversity into real world change.