Talemwa on how a difficult upbringing shaped his attitude towards life

Benon Talemwa is the author of a book ‘Mysterious Privilege: The Power of Faith and Resilience,’ a memoir that walks you through his tragic experience of a life under siege and deprivation.
It is a representative story of one Rwandan, among others, who had lost touch with their heritage, to become a stateless and hypothetically “citizen of the world”.

The 36-year-old economist and gender specialist spoke to Sunday Magazine’s Sharon Kantengwa about the need to document his life.

Why did you feel the need to document your life?

The turning point was that I grew up in a typical environment of deprivation, living a life of the past in the present. We are in the 21st century but the life we lived is of the 19th century.

I realised that the only way I could add value to myself but also my society was to document the lessons I have learned from my life for the future generation to draw some lessons on how to manage constraints in life.

I wanted to consolidate the lessons I have learned to the life I have led so that pressing questions I had a young child could not be the same questions that my children and great children will be asking.

Also because of the limitations of memory it was going to be possible for whatever I gone through, to disappear when I leave the world. I wanted this to be a reference point for generations that will come after.

How long did it take you to write the book and how was the experience like?

It took me approximately three years up to the time of print. The experience was challenging because, this being a memoir, I had questions like how much of the information I should give the public, and how I could serve the interests of more than one reader drawing from my life’s journey.

The trade between much and less is always challenging especially when you’re writing this kind of memoir. Also, being a first time author with my background, I learned a lot while writing.

In your first section of the book, you talk about the mind of a young boy that has lived in a typical cultural setting. How were you able to capture what it was like to be a child?

The fact that I made this crossover by luck, from the cowboy lifestyle to a life of a school going child, when I started comparing my own experience and that of my peers at the time, I realised that there is an embedded inequality that I walked with and I began asking myself questions about how this has come about.

I realised then that my people chose the kind of life they lived because of the conservative ties to the past that married tradition which opposes the ‘drums of change’. They were too resistant to change, too selfish to transition and they paid an exorbitant price.

You talk about conservatism a lot in your book, how has it shaped your present?

I have always said that I don’t expect any big challenges in the remaining years of my life, more than I have gone through. Like the sub title of my book ‘The Power of Faith and Resilience’ suggests, the vigour and resilience in the face of barriers along the way of life has been primarily a result of the life that I have lived.

I walked six hours to and from school in primary school, which was a life of a warrior. It also shaped my personality and attitude towards failure and I realised that what we think is failure are mere constraints.

What was your favourite part in writing this book?

I think it was joining university because it was like crossing the bridge. To me it was transitioning from the basic necessities to luxuries because joining university to me was a luxury.

It was my dream but it was also then that I began sensing a feeling of emancipation because I joined the fraternity of the learned by miracle.

And your worst?

It was the middle of high school and the transition to university. That was when I had the most difficult struggles that turned out to be the most rewarding. I dropped out of school and I had no hope for the next step in life because I had a dream that could not come into reality.

What was your reaction upon the release of your book?

I had mixed feelings. A part of me thought the book could attract attention from the public that could relate to my story but the other side, being a first time writer, I am not sure of how the market will appreciate my writing, I’m waiting for the readers to judge.

What do you want the readers to pick from your book, mostly?

The most important message is for the youth and their parents that young children are like gold mines, which cannot be useful until they are extracted.

As parents and caretakers, we must do everything to expose them to opportunities for them to shine.

The other message is that we have the opportunity to rise, in modern Rwanda and that we have a peculiar form of wealth in the country, that we must exploit. This means carrying out national service even outside political appointment.

What is next for you?

After I shed off this fatigue of the first one, I will work on my next book about gender. I’m trying to repaint the picture of gender and gender agenda because I have realised that there are some design failures and some elements of misinterpretation of the original intention of the gender agenda.