texasmonthly.com: How did you learn about Gilbert Tuhabonye’s story?
Michael Hall: A woman whom he coached had lunch with Evan Smith, our editor, and told him about Gilbert—his past, his present at RunTex, and how he is training for the Olympics.
texasmonthly.com: How did the subject matter and your relationship with Gilbert affect how you wrote and reported the story?
MH: I joined one of his running classes just to get a feel for how he coaches—and also because I’m a runner—so I got to know him pretty well. Just about everyone Gilbert coaches becomes his friend, and I did too. That probably affected some of my finely honed journalist’s objectivity, but it also allowed me to see beyond the typical reporting that a reporter sometimes is forced to do.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
MH: Keeping it out of merely the realm of the inspirational. Gilbert’s story is very inspirational, but I wanted to get the down-to-earth stuff in there too—his past, his coaching, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict.
texasmonthly.com: Does Gilbert frequently share his story with his students, or does he let his scars from the fire speak for themselves?
MH: He’s very comfortable with who he is, so he’s not ashamed of his scars. He tells the story if people ask, but generally they don’t. I don’t think he tells the story in as much detail as he told me—it took two and a half hours just to tell the events of that terrible night.
texasmonthly.com: How does he communicate his feelings about his suffering and his survival? Is he angry or resentful?
MH: He’s not resentful, but he does sometimes get angry. He’s still very much a Tutsi, and one of the reasons he wants to tell his story is so that people will know what the Hutus did. (Of course, the Hutus have legitimate gripes too—Tutsis in the area around Kibimba went on their own murderous rampage after the fire, killing many Hutus.)
texasmonthly.com: Was it difficult for you to relate to a young man who has lived through that nightmarish experience to accomplish so much?
MH: No, one of Gilbert’s strengths is that he makes you feel like his struggle is an amplified, much more horrifying version of the struggles that you and everyone else around you inevitably go through.
texasmonthly.com: After surviving torture at the hands of a mob made up of his classmates and teachers in 1993 and fearing violence during his 1999 visit, why does Gilbert want to run for the Burundi Olympic team?
MH: Partly because he still loves his country and his family and would like to return but realistically knows he’ll never be able to. Almost all Burundi athletes live outside the country—in Europe or the U.S.—and train to run for the Burundi Olympic team. A couple of reasons they want to run for Burundi as opposed to their host countries is that they aren’t citizens of their host countries, plus it’s harder to make, say, the U.S. Olympic team than the Burundi Olympic team.
texasmonthly.com: Why does an individual who successfully encourages so many other runners struggle with negative thoughts when he races?
MH: Because he’s human, and all humans doubt themselves, no matter how good or inspirational they are.