HUNTSVILLE, WALKER COUNTY The voice in Gilbert Tuhabonye’s heart is that of a champion, a motivator, an inspiration.
When he visits the Sam Houston State University campus as the fall President’s Speaker Series guest on Sept. 25, he will share that “voice”—one that led him out of extraordinary circumstances to achieve extraordinary accomplishments—with members of the Bearkat and Huntsville communities.
Born in 1974 in the southern county of Songa in Burundi, a small, mountainous country in east central Africa, Tuhabonye grew up as thethird of four children of Tutsi tribe farmers.
During his youth, he forged a love of running, which became a preferred method of travel as he ran to the valley’s edge to get water for his family, to school five miles away, and in racing his friends and herding his family’s milk cows.
Tuhabonye began running competitively while attending a Protestant school in Kibimba, where running barefoot, he won an 8K race while only a freshman. As a sophomore, he met a man who taught him how to change his running technique and encouraged him to work hard and strive for the Olympics, and he became the national champion in the 400 and 800 meters as an 11th grader.
As a senior, Tuhabonye worked to get a scholarship to an American school, with the goal of getting an education and returning home to Burundi.
But fate had another plan.
In October 1993, the centuries-old war between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes erupted in horrific reality.
One afternoon as Tuhabonye and his classmates were in school, the Hutu classmates at the Kibimba school, their parents, some teachers and other Hutu tribesmen forced the Tutsi children and teachers into a small building where they beat and burned them to death.
After eight hours of being buried under the corpses of his beloved friends, Tuhabonye, himself on fire, jumped free of the burning building and ran into the night, surviving one of the most horrible massacres in the long Tutsi-Hutu war.
Nineteen years later and more than 8,000 miles from Burundi, Tuhabonye is a celebrity in the world of running.
After coming to America in 1996 as one of the select members of the International Olympic Committee’s development training camp, a program for athletes from developing nations, Tuhabonye earned the honor of carrying the Olympic torch and participated in the Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta.
He moved to Abilene in 1999 to attend Abilene Christian University, where he overcame language and cultural challenges to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree.
During that time, despite being covered with scar tissue from his extensive burns, he was also a national champion runner. He also was honored in Washington by President Bill Clinton as the recipient of the Giants Steps Award on National Student Athlete Day in 1999, received the Courageous Student-Athlete Award from the National Consortium in 2000, and met life long idol Muhammad Ali.
Tuhabonye now lives in Austin, where he is the award-winning coach of Gilbert’s Gazelles, a training group consisting of hundreds of dedicated runners of all skill levels.
His Gazelle Foundation works to improve life for people in Burundi and offers educational assistance to children in Austin.
In addition to coaching and training runners, Tuhabonye is a national speaker, presenting to groups of all ages and backgrounds. He speaks English, French, Swahili and his native Kirundi.
His life story is captured in his book, This Voice in My Heart, a testament to the triumph of the humanspirit as Tuhabonye emerges from the scars of his unimaginable ordeal to live a life of optimism, grace and victory.
Tuhabonye and wife Triphine have two daughters: Emma and Grace.
Created in 2002 by SHSU President Emeritus Jim Gaertner and originally underwritten by the estate of the late Huntsville resident Lu Ellen Gibbs, the President’s Speaker Series is designed to bring prominent leaders to the SHSU campus.
Speakers are chosen for their ability to deliver messages ofsubstance with the potential to significantly impact the student body.
Previous speakers have included Gene Stallings, Debbie Fields, David Robinson, Ken Jennings, J.C. Watts, Drayton McLane Jr., Sherron Watkins, Bob Dole, Marcus Luttrell, Lech Walesa, Tony Dorsett, Ann Compton and NolanRyan.
The event, which is free and open to the public, will end with a question-and-answer session from the audience.