“YOU’D NEVER hate a person whose story you know.” That’s the motto Michel Chikwanine says he has carried through years of authorship and activism. It’s also the driving force behind his motivational speaking, which has seen Michel deliver his harrowing story to students and conference guests across the world.
The success is no surprise – he has a shocking tale to tell. The Congolese-Canadian was kidnapped by rebel soldiers aged five, while innocently playing football. From this moment, life was never the same. Like the 30,000 children who have been recruited into conflicts since 2012, Michel faced exploitation and early exposure to horrors no child should see.
Tiny Michel was handed a gun, blindfolded and ordered to shoot as part of a ruthless training regime. He lifted the blindfold to see his best friend, 12-year-old Kevin, lying in a pool of blood.
Incredibly, Michel escaped – driven, he says, by fear of what his father would say. He ran through the jungle for three days before being reunited with his family. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Michel and his family would go on to seek safety as refugees in Uganda and later Canada.
Perhaps even more incredibly, his buoyant personality hasn’t been broken down. Michel warns that the displacement of people will “become even more common” if we fail to act on climate change, but remains hopeful that stories can inspire action.
“It is truly incredible how many barriers can be broken by simply choosing to listen to another person’s story of survival and perseverance,” he says.
His words come as Turkey’s president has threatened to send “millions” of Syrian refugees into the EU; an act that could reignite old tensions. But Michel is keen to point out that many refugees have stories just like his – and, he says, they never chose their fate.
“I know that many refugees today are vilified and attacked,” says Michel, who initially struggled with Canadian life.
“Anyone that moves to a new place always faces the challenge of trying to adapt to a new society’s norms and quirks,” he explains, thanking his teachers for the support they gave him.
“They helped me enrol in a soccer programme at school which helped me meet friends who related to the experiences I had as well,” says Michel.
The stories they shared at soccer club proved vital for helping Michel stay away from the violence he experienced so early in life. “Humans are social creatures. We genuinely cannot survive without others,” he observes.
So, when high school bullies singled him out, teenage Michel didn’t break down. Instead, he started telling his harrowing story – and he didn’t stop. The natural raconteur has since published a graphic novel for children about his plight. With British children being lured into knife crime gangs at an alarming rate, this type of education has never felt so necessary.
“It is the experiences we have in life that allow us to empathise, grow and learn from each other,” explains Michel. “I have seen many others empathise and find their own purpose through my own story.”
Michel believes stories can turn fear into hope, which in turn can drive progress. “It is ultimately through the power of storytelling that you can illustrate just how much one can achieve if we stop listening to the doubts and fears in the back of our minds,” he says.
Michel hopes stories about great African innovators will also drive progress on the continent.
“While it’s easy to feel disheartened by the news of the issues going on in the world, I think it’s important to highlight the work that communities are doing to address the issues they are faced with.
“Whether it is my friend James Thutch Madhier creating a solar powered irrigation system to help invigorate agriculture in his community in South Sudan or Roy Allela from Kenya inventing a glove that can translate sign language into speech, the world is full of amazing human beings inventing and advocating for a more equitable world.”
Michel hopes these stories will inspire “coalitions of working class people” to find solutions to problems and an antidote to gloom. The professional storyteller seems to radiate positivity, which may seem surprising for someone who has been through such an ordeal. But, he remains hopeful that positivity will ultimately heal Africa, the homeland that remains close to his heart.
“Nelson Mandela once said: ‘courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’”
Michel hopes the fears that drive conflicts can be conquered with a combination of grit, talent and hope – and perhaps his vision isn’t just a pipe dream. After all, if a five-year-old can flee grown men with guns, then perhaps we can all reassess the boundaries of what’s possible.