MIDDLEBORO, MASS. — “Just don’t think about it, Manzi,” his buddy Gabe kept telling him as they sat on the bridge across the Nemasket River. “Just try not to think about it.” But on that New England spring afternoon, 17-year-old Jacques Manzi Kanobana couldn’t take his mind off his family in distant Africa. He could hear his mother, Immaculee, telling him why he had to leave Rwanda and live with his aunt in this town a few miles from Plymouth Rock. As a member of the minority Tutsi tribe, she said, he would be denied a decent education in Rwanda. But in America, he could go to a good school, get a job and help his family back home. As he fingered the thin gold chain his mother had taken from her neck and given him last September, he remembered her final word at the airport gate: “courage.”
Since then, Manzi has displayed plenty of pluck. He knew hardly a word of English when he arrived at Middleboro High School but was fluent in French and four other languages and proved to be a quick learner, a deft soccer player and, in the words of one classmate, “the sweetest kid you’ll ever meet.” Then, three weeks ago, came grim news from Africa: A plane carrying the president of Rwanda had been shot down, reviving the bitter war between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes and touching off waves of killings. Manzi, desperate to know how his kin were doing, tried repeatedly to call home but couldn’t get through. At Gabe’s house, he watched CNN’s Africa reports for hours, hoping in vain the short, chaotic reports would provide news of his family.
New fears. A week later came word. While Manzi was at school, his Aunt Laetitia in Middleboro got a call through to a Hutu home near the residence of Manzi’s mother. She was hiding there, it turned out, with her own mother, a brother and a cousin. She told Laetitia that gangs of Hutus were going from house to house, killing entire Tutsi families. Among the neighborhood’s dead were the two sisters’ uncle and aunt and eight cousins. “Now,” Manzi’s mother said, “I’m afraid we might be next.”
The next day, Laetitia phoned the neighbor, then rushed to Manzi’s school. She sat in the principal’s office, her eyes puffy, as Manzi arrived from his French class. “Manzi,” she said, “everyone is lost.” The Hutus had come to the neighbor’s home and killed Manzi’s mother, grandmother, uncle and cousin. The neighbor didn’t say how they died but reported “they were left for the garbage truck.”
Back in Manzi’s French class, students sat quietly as Chuck Bichsel, a history teacher who had befriended him early on, told what had happened. When the bell rang ending the class, the hallway filled with noise, but Manzi’s classmates sat stunned. How, several asked, can we help? Before long, friends filled his apartment with cards and flowers and began planning a fund-raiser for a memorial service.
Manzi, who walked with Gabe to the Nemasket bridge to lose himself in his thoughts, now can’t imagine ever returning to Rwanda. There is, he says pointedly, no one to go back to. He is intent on finishing the schooling he came here for. If he tries hard enough, he says, he might become an engineer. But more than that, he adds quietly, “I want my mother to be proud.” Manzi is not yet quite ready to cry. But he can’t help thinking about it.