“Darkness can only be scattered by light, hatred can only be conquered by love.” —Saint Pope John Paul II
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Review and Thoughts
Truly, Left to Tell is one of the greatest books I have ever read, not only from the perspective of a teacher, but also from the perspective of a young Catholic woman. This book has touched me more than any other Catholic nonfiction because of the simple and innocent testimony of Immaculee Ilibagiza.
This book tells the story of Immaculee and her family who are devout Catholics living in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. She is a member of the Tutsi tribe that is mercilessly hunted and murdered by the Hutus during what is one of the most devastating genocides in modern history. Immaculee is fortunate enough to find a hiding place with a nearby Christian minister and lives in his private bathroom with seven other woman. It is through her prayer and faith in God coupled with the bravery and charity of the pastor that she is able to survive and emerge from the bathroom a whole woman both physically and mentally.
Despite the sadness of the story, and the utter anticipation the reader feels while reading the truth behind this genocide, there is an overwhelming sense of faith in God that Immaculee is able to demonstrate to readers. She never doubts He is there. She prays to Him often. She reads the Bible and prays the rosary repeatedly while locked in the bathroom. She dreams of her family, who she realizes must all be dead, as they are in heaven. Despite the death and destruction, she knows that God is present and with her through it all. Truly, she was meant to live and tell her story so that the rest of us might see her strength of faith and be reminded of keeping faith amidst our own struggles and heartaches.
While Immaculee’s faith exudes through her story, the historical account should not be forgotten. Immaculee is an eye witness to the atrocities that occurred during the Rwandan holocaust. She tells of the tribal war and the reason for the fighting. She talks about the radio broadcasts from the Hutus that spread evil propaganda. She talks about the horrible murders of her family and friends. She talks about her own fears about being found, the suffering she endures while being locked in the bathroom, and the callousness of people she knows as they hunt for her and murder people of the opposite tribe.
Today, Immaculee works on forgiveness. She realizes that holding on to the hate will not do anything. So many acquaintances are those who murdered her friends and family; she knows the best she can do is forgive. Immaculee also has a charitable fund in Rwanda to help those who were orphaned in the genocide. She goes around the world telling people her story. She also helps spread the story of Our Lady of Kibeho, the first Marian apparitions in Africa that have been approved by the Vatican.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to be able to meet Immaculee. My school had all of the students read Left to Tell as a summer reading assignment and was able to have Immaculee come and speak to the students. Have you ever met someone who is pure joy? That is who Immaculee is. She is absolute kindness and beauty. You can sense her love for the Lord in just being with her. I imagine that is what it must be like to meet a saint. You just feel better for having met them a short while. I was able to have a short conversation with her and even though she has met thousands of people, and was meeting so many that particular day, she made me feel like I was one of the most important she’d meet in a long time.
I was also lucky enough to sit next to her as she signed books for people. People spoke to her with their whole hearts, pouring out their concern and worry and asking her to pray with them, which she gladly did on numerous occasions. She hugged so many and listened to everyone with such intense love. She signed books late into the night and gave each person the same loving attention regardless of where they were in line.
I highly recommend this book to every high school student. I hope parents read the book as well. In fact, I hope grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, and distant relatives read this book. Whether a person is Catholic or not, they can truly be moved by Immaculee and her story.
- There are many intense and violent scenes in the book. For example, the opening scene of the book has Immaculee hearing her killers calling her name and she wonders what it will feel like to have a machete rip through her skin.
- She discusses the murders of many people including the murder of her parents and family friends.
- Probably the most violent scene is when she talks about the murder of her brother Damascene. There is a VERY violent depiction of her brother having his head cut open so his murderers can “see what the brain looks like of someone with his master’s degree.” This scene can be difficult for a young high school student to read. Parents should definitely be prepared to discuss this with their son or daughter.
- The history behind the Rwandan genocide is important to understand and can be traced back to the French occupation of Rwanda. Their division of the tribes is what started a lot of the issues between the Tutsi and Hutus. (See lesson plan under General Teaching Resources.)
- Immaculee’s boyfriend is a Hutu. She is very much in love with him before the genocide begins and when he sees her after being locked in the bathroom for days, he comments on how skinny she is and how terrible she looks. He continues to live his life with little regard for her and her situation. During the time Immaculee is hiding in the bathroom, she reads 1 Corinthians 13 and reflects on what “love” really means. At the end of the book, she talks about putting her trust in God to help her find the right man to be her husband.. This is a good opportunity for parents to talk to their children about what love is and why waiting for the right person is so important.
- The value of prayer through suffering is evident in the book. This is a good opportunity to discuss others who have demonstrated prayer through suffering as well. For example, read the story of Blessed Chiara Luca Badano, the first person from Generation X to be beatified.
- Beauty can come from suffering. Immaculee has been able to spread her love more because of her suffering. She has been able to spread the story of Our Lady of Kibeho and she has been able to share the love of God with others. Speak to your children about how God’s beauty can shine through even the darkest of times.
- Read Immaculee’s other books.
- Learn the Seven Sorrows Rosary. Read through and reflect on Mary’s different sufferings as you pray this rosary.
1. This is an episode from EWTN Live. Father Mitch Pacwa, SJ, interviews Immaculee and discusses her witness to the genocide. There is also discussion of Our Lady of Kibeho.
General Teaching Resources
1. A great lesson plan for teaching kids about the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide is from the American University Washington College of Law. This lesson defines genocide and provides a wonderful jigsaw activity for students.
2. The following is a clip from 60 Minutes. It is a quick interview (about 12 minutes) with Immaculee and shows the bathroom where she hid. This is nice for students who have read the book because they are able to visually see what they have read about. WARNING: THERE ARE SOME GRAPHIC PICTURES. PREVIEW THIS VIDEO FIRST AND THEN WATCH IT WITH YOUR SON OR DAUGHTER.