Story Untold: “What Is It About Modern Life That Makes Us Crave the Wellness Industry?”

Story Untold with Brigid Delaney

Photo of Brigid Delaney by James Brickwood.

These days, wellness is everywhere — an industry so large, it now outpaces the pharmaceutical industry. It’s captioned in Instagram posts, sold in smoothies and yoga classes, and nearly universally agreed-upon as something we could all use more of. But what is wellness, and how does one achieve it, anyway? Why do we want it so badly? Such is the premise of author and journalist Brigid Delaney’s Wellmania, a glimpse into the now multi-trillion-dollar industry.

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“I really noticed a rise in spa culture, retreats, wellness packages,” says Delaney, a senior writer for Guardian Australia, “and I wanted to know what was driving that industry.”

“There’s this guilty feeling, and this feeling of, ‘I need to have more control over how I live,’” she adds. “And so, the wellness industry — whether it’s a 30-day detox, or meal-replacement shakes, or gym memberships — gives us that sense of control back.”

In Wellmania, Delaney’s third book, she sets out to explore the most extreme and noteworthy trends of the wellness industry, trying them out and teasing apart the tried-and-true from the pseudo-science.

“One of the challenges with the wellness industry is to sort out what’s real — what’s actually helpful — and what’s complete B.S.,” says the Melbourne-born author. “What was really interesting [in] doing this book was the huge gap […] between the science and what wellness advocates actually say.”

“One of the challenges with the wellness industry is to sort out what’s real — what’s actually helpful — and what’s complete B.S.” – Brigid Delaney

One of the first things Delaney tries is a 101-day detox — the same that Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull credits with losing weight — in which the first two weeks, dieters are allowed only a mixture of herbs.

“The sales pitch says, ‘you’ll be treated with Chinese herbs that will keep you feeling full and give you all the energy and nutrients that you need.’ And then you actually experience the detox, and it’s horrendous,” she says. “I could barely get out of bed.”

Later, she visits a wellness retreat that claims to condense years of therapy work into one week.

“They’re quite confronting,” says Delaney. “In front of the group, you had to tell them what your biggest shame was. There was primal scream therapy. There was hitting things with rubber bats, lots of yelling… it was the most intense week of my life.”

Some claims are more harmful. She points to Australia’s Belle Gibson, a blogger who falsely claimed to have cured her brain cancer through eating more healthily. She signed a book deal and released an app, The Whole Pantry, only to admit in 2015 that she had never had cancer in the first place.

“That’s where the wellness industry has its darkside. You’ve got people who are desperate for some sort of answer, or cure, or a remedy that doesn’t involve chemotherapy or drugs, then you have someone come along and exploit that need.”

As for what helps? Delaney has an idea or two.

“If I could go back to 2007 and make sure the iPhone never got invented, it would be a different world.” – Brigid Delaney

“It’s very boring, but the kind of well and well-adjusted people are the people that just do kind of what our grandparents did a few generations ago: get a decent amount of sleep, spend time with your family and friends, spend time outside… give up social media,” she says. “If I could go back to 2007 and make sure the iPhone never got invented, it would be a different world.”

Along with that, she suggests, perhaps it’s time for a little less focus on the self — and in turn, greater focus on the whole.

“We have to return to a more communal way of living our lives,” says Delaney, “and nothing feels as good as helping other people.


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Story Untold: “There Are No Bad Places If the Reason You Are Travelling Is to Meet People”

Story Untold with Stephan Orth

Photo credit: Mina Esfandiari (http://www.minaesfandiari.com/)

Stephan Orth has a rule when travelling: say yes to any and all opportunities. So it is that when the award-winning travel writer continued to hear stories from fellow travellers about Iran, he decided it was time to see the country for himself.

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“Iran was interesting, because everyone who had been there said something about some incredible, surprising experiences with the hospitality [of Iranians],” says Orth. “They told of a country that’s completely different from what you’d expect from the media stories.”

By then, working as an online travel editor for Germany’s Der Spiegel, Orth had already devoted years to travelling the world, and had written the bestseller Opas Eisberg about an expedition to Greenland in his grandfather’s footsteps. Looking for stories that would provide a glimpse into a country often shrouded in mystery, Orth decided to spend his time couchsurfing — staying with locals that offer to host visiting travellers for free.

“If you’re really interested, and if you ask lots of questions, I think you can learn much more than expected about a place, even if you’re not fluent in the language.” – Stephan Orth

“I had a very interesting talk with a famous Russian traveller once, who said that you should think about how much of your travels you spend with people who are paid to be friendly to you — who are working in the tourism industry in some way, and they’re just paid to do what they do for you. If you think about that, and try to reduce this number, it’s probably a pretty good idea to get a more authentic trip,” he says.

Over the course of two months — twice, renewing his initial three-week visa — Orth covered nearly 8,500 kilometres, heading from busy Tehran in the country’s north, to the laid-back island of Kish in the Persian Gulf, to the pilgrimage city of Mashhad near the Turkmenistan border. In total, he stayed with 22 hosts across the country, always following his golden rule of saying ‘yes.’ One time, he was invited to stay with a wealthy prince who bottled his own wine; another time, he was invited to a meeting of sadomasochists.

“I got into a lot of situations where I was surprised what kind of things happened secretly, as soon as nobody is watching,” says Orth. “In public, it’s a kind of masquerade: you follow the rules of the Islamic Republic. But as soon as the door is closed […] everything you can imagine that young people do in Western countries, it also happens in Iran.”

“I got into a lot of situations where I was surprised what kind of things happened secretly, as soon as nobody is watching. Everything you can imagine that young people do in Western countries, it also happens in Iran.” – Stephan Orth

During his two months in the country, Orth received more than his fair share of Iranian hospitality, and also learned the vital art of declining such grand gestures of generosity — once, having to rebuff an offer from a host to take home his $10,000 carpet.

“I told him how much I liked this carpet, and just after that, he said, ‘Oh, that’s great! I’m so happy that I will give it to you as a present.’ If I had started rolling this carpet up and walking out of the house with it, I think it would have very quickly changed my friendship with this guy,” he laughs.

“[One host] took me to a wedding the second day I was there, but also kind of treated me like a social experiment the whole time,” adds Orth. “He was sending me [out to] talk to people […] He would stand behind and watch the situation, and just see how people react to me, to this weird foreigner.”

Along the way, says Orth, he fell in love with a country many often neglect:

“Of course, there are some issues about religious leaders, and the government, and freedom of the people. It’s not an easy place to travel to. But then, on the human level, if you just meet the everyday people, if you take part in everyday life, it’s something so different.”


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Story Untold: “I’m Always Looking for Hope”

Story Untold with Shad

On a damp Wednesday morning in Toronto, Shad is standing barefoot in the driveway of his stacked townhouse complex, decked out in shorts and his ubiquitous Manifesto hoodie. He is doing so because an interviewer is lost, having already knocked on the wrong door once. Upon meeting, he smiles and apologizes that first, he need to check on a friend’s house around the corner — then looks down at his feet and explains, “I don’t really wear shoes in the summer.”

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Back inside, he introduces a visitor to his wife and takes a seat at a stool in the kitchen, offering a cup of tea. The furnishings are sparse — not out of some determined effort towards minimalism, but from an impending move to another place nearby. A book about prenatal yoga sits on the island counter. The two are expecting their first child later in the year.

Welcome to the life of one of Canada’s most accomplished hip-hop artists, one of only two — the other one being industry favourite Jazz Cartier — to beat out Drake for a Rap Recording Juno. It all seems so normal, especially considering Shad — born Shadrach Kabango — is enjoying something of a career year at the moment; in 2017, his latest project, the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution, won both an International Emmy and a Peabody Award. Soon, the London, Ontario-raised emcee will make his musical return with A Short Story About a War, a full-length project due out October 26th.

“It’s quite a thing to think about, you know? Because when I made my first album, I really didn’t know if I would make any more,” he says. “I didn’t anticipate five years, ten years, let alone maybe even a second album.”

“Now, when I look back, it’s kind of crazy to me. I’ve just been able to do a lot of things that I feel grateful for every morning when I wake up. I got to share so much of my story and say so many things, and I did not anticipate any of it.” – Shad

When Shad made his debut in 2005 with When This Is Over, he was in his early twenties and wrapping up a business degree at Wilfrid Laurier University. He recorded the album with the winnings from a contest hosted by 91.5 The Beat, a local radio station based in Kitchener-Waterloo.

“I was wrestling with what a lot of kids wrestle with in school, which was ‘what am I going to do next?’ And ‘what do I actually have the most to contribute to?’ And a part of me suspected that that was music or something creative, but of course, you never know,” says Shad.

He kept the news of the contest and progress on the album mostly to himself, afraid of falling short of others’ expectations. If Shad was modest about his talents, however, his friend and classmate (now longtime manager and business partner) Gaurav Sawhney saw potential.

“As he tells it, one day in fourth year, someone was like, ‘Hey, have you heard Shad’s album?’ And he was like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Shad laughs. “He got it, and we kind of started working together and started learning it all together.”

“I was wrestling with what a lot of kids wrestle with in school, which was ‘what am I going to do next?’ And ‘what do I actually have the most to contribute to?’ And a part of me suspected that that was music or something creative, but of course, you never know.” – Shad

With the help of Shad’s older sister, they began booking shows throughout Southern Ontario, then across Canada — at times, performing for crowds of two or three; other times, opening for the likes of Sadat X and Common in front of massive crowds.

“If we booked a little mini tour, like five shows, generally one would be good,” Shad laughs. “Two out of five would be terrible, and then the other two were somewhere in the middle.”

By 2007, the crowds had grown. Shad’s sophomore effort, The Old Prince, was shortlisted for a Polaris Prize and earned him a Juno nomination for Rap Recording of the Year — an award he would win three years later for his follow-up TSOL, beating a debutant Drake who was hosting the award ceremony and widely expected to claim the prize.

“That’s a hilarious moment to think back on,” says Shad. “I’m walking out of that gala with G (Gaurav Sawhney), and as soon as we get out of the gala, we burst out laughing — just rolling on the floor, laughing.”

“If we booked a little mini tour, like five shows, generally one would be good. Two out of five would be terrible, and then the other two were somewhere in the middle.” – Shad

At last, Shad had arrived. Tour dates in the United States and Europe would follow, and by 2013 — the same year as his Flying Colours release — CBC Music had listed Shad as the second-greatest Canadian rapper ever, behind only Maestro Fresh Wes. He might not have found the same audience as Drake (and really, who has?) but he was every bit the Canadian favourite: praised for his wit and beloved for his personality.

At the same time, Kabango was ready for something new.

“There was this sense of, like, ‘Okay, cool. What am I going to explore next?’ Music is here, and I’m going to keep doing that, but I was kind of looking around a little bit, too,” he says.

His first public opportunity would come with CBC Radio’s popular ‘q’ program in 2015, following previous host Jian Ghomeshi’s ouster in the midst of a sexual assault scandal. Shad took the reins in the hottest of hot seats, looking to win over an audience that — in some parts — had still remained loyal to his predecessor.

“I remember, I had my first day [at CBC’s ‘q’], and it felt like a living funeral — not in a sad way, [but] there was so much tribute being paid, and I’m like, ‘this is crazy.’ Because to my mind, I was just starting a job, you know?” – Shad

“I didn’t expect [getting the role] to be as big of a thing as it was,” he says. “I remember, I had my first day, and it felt like a living funeral — not in a sad way, [but] there was so much tribute being paid, and I’m like, ‘this is crazy.’ Because to my mind, I was just starting a job, you know?”

The union was brief; by 2016, Shad was replaced by CBC Radio 2 host Tom Power. Still, he had found a new outlet and audience beyond music — something that would resurface with his next project, the documentary series Hip-Hop Evolution. A group of Canadian filmmakers approached Shad about serving as the host, and he eagerly agreed.

“I love getting this view of hip-hop — really starting to understand how the music travelled from person to person and place to place,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a better film document about the origins of hip-hop that exists.”

“I love getting this view of hip-hop — really starting to understand how the music travelled from person to person and place to place. Like, I’m at 1520 Sedgwick with Kool Herc. This is wild.” – Shad

The series was a hit with critics and fans alike, featuring interviews with such seminal figures as Grandmaster Flash, Russell Simmons, and N.W.A. In addition to an International Emmy and Peabody Award, it earned two Canadian Screen Awards and was added to Netflix’s international roster. Already, it has been renewed for a second season, although Shad remains mum on which artists will be involved.

These days, the Toronto-based songwriter is gearing up for his latest creative endeavour, the full-length A Short Story About a War. Featuring appearances from familiar collaborators such as Eternia, Ian Kamau, Ric Notes, and DJ T.Lo, the album explores the concept of fear, among other things.

“The impostor syndrome never goes away,” he says. “The work is, I need to find something pure to give people, and I can’t do that if I’m distracted by myself.”

Along with fear, there’s hope. Gratitude, too.

“Now, when I look back, it’s kind of crazy to me,” says Shad. “I’ve just been able to do a lot of things that I feel grateful for every morning when I wake up. I got to share so much of my story and say so many things, and I did not anticipate any of it.”


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Protected: The Midnight Train

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4am in Máncora

The bus arrives at a dusty stretch of road at the loneliest and most hallowed of hours, long after most decent folks have gone to sleep and well before most will wake in the morning. A flash of unwelcome light spreads throughout the bus as the fluorescent overheads come to life, rousing any passengers from the last meagre remnants of their slumber. After eight hours and two stops at the border crossing between Ecuador and Peru, we’ve arrived in Máncora, home to endless waves and a popular stop for travellers making their way through South America. A friend of mine had been here months before and told me I had to visit.

The timing wasn’t my choice, but then again, there are only so many buses running between Ecuador and Peru. It’s either a day wasted on the bus or else a night spent in discomfort. This time, it comes with a 4am wake-up call.

Much has been made of four o’clock in the morning in our culture. It’s referenced in the songs we listen to, the movies we watch, the books we read — a universal shorthand for the hour at which no-one wants to be awake, an hour which I vowed never to see again after working early mornings in the past. And yet, here I am, brain half-functioning, stepping off a bus into the dark and quiet streets of Northern Peru at four in the morning.

The tuk-tuk drivers descend on our bus instantly. As far as I can tell, they’re the only other people awake at this hour. They hold laminated leaflets with hotel options in town, promising to drive us anywhere we need for $5 USD — a bit of an oddity, as Peruvian soles are the default currency here. It’s close enough to walk, but the drivers are telling us it’s not possible — either for safety or accessibility, I’m not sure — and it’s too late to argue at this hour. I confer with the other backpackers on my bus and agree to share a ride with a German girl headed to the same hostel as me.

The ride leaves the main road for dirt laneways moments later, and we shuttle past stuccoed homes where dogs roam the streets and glass shards form deterrents atop fences made of brick and mortar. A right turn takes us to a longer dirt road, where fences morph to wooden walls too tall to scale. We ride for another minute or two, until our driver announces our arrival — he points to a door ajar in the wall. I collect my bags in a daze as the tuk-tuk speeds away, off to collect another fare. The German girl and I look at each other and shrug.

The hostel grounds are quiet, except for the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. A trail of footprints leads through the sand to a building that would likely serve as reception during reasonable hours of the day. A pile of beer bottles is clustered at a round table by the open-air kitchen. Nearby, a row of hammocks sit empty.

I’ve come to this hostel because of the dogs. Back in Cuenca, a pair of Australian sisters raved about the place, telling me there was a litter of puppies to spend time with. They’re nowhere to be seen at this hour, but I spy my first pair of dogs on my tour of the grounds, blocking the path to reception. I worry about the greeting I might receive, but they yawn and let me past without so much as a murmur.

My newly-made German friend tells me she’s heard we can sleep in the hammocks until morning, when check-in begins. We come across a staff member cleaning up in the kitchen, and he confirms what she’s heard. We let our bags drop to the floor and collapse into the hammocks, too tired for words.

I look up at the sky for the first time and see a thousand constellations, my first starry night after nearly two weeks of cloudy weather. Four o’clock in the morning, and all is well.

Things I’ve seen:
1. Laguna de Quilotoa


2. Waterfalls in Baños


3. Sunsets in Máncora

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Lost in Translation

In Quito, the clouds arrive at your doorstep. In three days in Ecuador’s capital, the second-highest capital city in the world, they signal the day’s arrival as surely as the sun crests over the mountains each morning. From my view out the sliding doors of my friend’s living room in lofty Guapulo, the fog rolls in until nothing is left to see of the valley below. It’s dry season now, but you wouldn’t know it from the forecast; I’m greeted with showers often enough to be on a first-name basis with my umbrella. I learn the words for rain (lluvia) and cloud (nube), words I’ll repeat often in the days to come.

I arrive in town on a brisk Tuesday — although to be fair, the temperature doesn’t change all that much; near-constant highs of mid-teens to low twenties are pretty much the norm here, with single-digit overnight lows. From the airplane window, I look down at a country carved with deep valleys and sheer rock faces, as if at any moment, the very Earth might fold in upon itself. Tall, skinny trees line the roadside, and giant cacti cling to cliff edges as though hanging on for dear life. Most everything is bathed in rich hues of green, fitting for a country famous for its biodiversity.

To travel in South America as an Anglophone is to undergo a crash course in language learning. Unlike other places where tourists are found, English is less common here, and you either learn to adapt or fall behind. The adjustment isn’t without its growing pains; on my ride into Quito’s historic centre, I tell my taxi driver that “I want the mountains,” although really, I wouldn’t know what to do with them if I had them. I’m made aware of my foolishness just hours later, when my friend explains the difference between yo quiero and me gusta.

Undeterred, I produce my own “Ich bin ein Berliner” moment a day later. Strolling through Quito’s Parque El Ejida, I come across what appears to be a bathroom, but in order to make doubly sure, I ask a woman standing at the doorway: “Soy un baños?”

Ecuador: 1, Pride: 0

Things I’ve seen:
1. Historic Quito


2. Otavalo


3. Cotopaxi

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Story Untold: “It’s a Miracle That I’m Here”

Story Untold with Michel Chikwanine

Photo from Michel Chikwanine via Instagram (@michelchikwan)

Michel Chikwanine didn’t set out to tell his story. Memories of being held captive as a child soldier, witnessing his native Congo go through two civil wars in the late 1990s, and fleeing with his family to become refugees in Uganda were painful ones to revisit, much less retell. Some stories, however, are too powerful to be held in. Sometimes, fate intervenes.

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Long before becoming a United Nations Fellow for People of African Descent, before becoming an author, human rights speaker, and peace advocate, Chikwanine was a grade 10 student in Ottawa facing a moment many students dread: being called out by the teacher — all because of a desk and a chair.

“He points at me and says, ‘everyone who sits in that seat has an amazing story to tell,’” Chikwanine recalls. “I’m like, ‘what are you talking about?’”

The assignment was for each student to write about a pivotal moment in their life. In Chikwanine’s case, the real challenge would be in selecting just one.

Born and raised in Beni, a city of over 230,000 in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he was just five years old when he was abducted after school and held captive by rebel soldiers. In the early 1990s, as Chikwanine tells it, the country was in a “moment of chaos.” Under a military dictatorship led by Mobutu Sese Seko, the country’s army had been stretched thin by war, fighting battles on all fronts. The military imposed a curfew: no-one was allowed on the streets after 7PM.

“When I was five years old, I was abducted. Just playing with my friends. Something that was so normal for us every single day.” – Michel Chikwanine

“As a kid, you know, I’m four, five years old, I’m growing up [in] this era of uncertainty. And when the military puts in this curfew, my dad turns around and he puts a curfew in my house. He tells us that we need to be home before 6PM,” says Chikwanine. “And so, the little five-year-old kid that I was, like any child, you don’t necessarily understand the bigger ramifications of things; you just see military all the time, so for me, it was an opportunity to test the boundaries of my curfew.”

At the time, Chikwanine would walk to school each morning and wait around for his older sisters to finish school before walking home together again. With no bus system to take kids to and from school, the walk would take two hours. One day, despite his father’s warnings, he decided to postpone his return home, opting to play soccer with his best friend, Kevin, instead. On that day, rebel soldiers surrounded the field, capturing Chikwanine and his friend and putting them in the back of a truck. They drive for hours.

“We arrive at this clearing after hours and hours of driving on a bumpy road, and we basically get told that we’re going to be trained and put into this military. I’m panicking at this time — a five-year-old kid, I don’t know where I am,” says Chikwanine. “There’s people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.”

“There’s (sic) people with AK-47s yelling at all of us. Kids are crying. The smell of decay [is] all around you.” – Michel Chikwanine

Chikwanine and his friend are separated, and the rebel soldiers begin to divide the children into two groups, giving each a number. They’re told they are going to be initiated into the rebel army. Someone slashes Michel’s wrist and smears a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder into the wound. As his head begins to pound, he’s blindfolded and handed a gun.

“They start yelling at me to shoot,” he says. “Yelling louder, and louder, and louder for me to shoot. At this time, I’m feeling so woozy — literally, like [I might] faint — and so I pull the trigger.”

When the firing ceases, the soldiers remove Chikwanine’s blindfold. His friend, Kevin, is lying on the ground.

“As I keep shaking him, he’s not moving,” he says. “The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’”

“The soldiers behind me are laughing, and they tell me, ‘You’ve killed your friend; now your family will never take you back. We are your only family.’” – Michel Chikwanine

Chikwanine remained a captive of the rebel soldiers for two weeks. He was drugged and led through military training drills, told that he and the other children would be part of the army that would liberate the country.

“Every morning I’d wake up, and I was still in the same situation, so every day became this sense of hopelessness,” he says. “In many ways, this is the tactic with [creating] child soldiers. They try to break you down, and then rebuild you up in their own image.”

He finally escaped during a raid on a neighbouring village. The children were sent out in front of the other soldiers, intended as a shield meant to give the enemy pause before firing. As the crossfire began, Chikwanine ducked to the ground and lay still, waiting for the fight to pass him. He ran for three days and three nights through rainforest, surviving on bananas and mangoes.

“To this day, to be honest with you, I don’t know how I survived,” he says.

Chikwanine eventually arrived at a village he recognized from his mother’s and father’s business trips, Butembo, about 60 kilometres south of his hometown. The last thing he recalls before passing out is telling a shop owner who his parents are. When he woke up, he was in the hospital next to his mother and sisters. They were crying.

“I start to cry, and I say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and I start to apologize,” says Chikwanine.

Still, the story continues. Chikwanine’s voice catches as the memories come back.

For three years, from 1996 to 1998, he was sent to live with his aunt and cousins in Goma. His father, human rights activist Ramazi Chikwanine, was forced to flee the country for criticizing the government and its motives for war. When Chikwanine returned to Beni, soldiers broke into his family’s home, looking for documents his father might have left behind. At 10 years old, he was forced to watch as soldiers raped his mother and sisters.

“They grabbed a machete, and they slashed my left cheek — I still have a scar to this day,” he says. “And as I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.”

“As I’m bleeding, they look at my face, and they tell me that this will be a day that I’ll never forget, and that this was brought down by my father, and I should never forget that.” – Michel Chikwanine

No longer safe in Congo, Chikwanine and his family are smuggled out of the country to Uganda, reuniting with his father in the north of the country. For the first time in their lives, they were refugees.

“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through,” he says. “We left everything that we had ever known in the middle of the night. No choice of our own.”

The family slept together under a plastic tent, often surviving on little more than bread and water.

“We had no mattress; we had no bed. We slept on a mat that my mom had made out of grass,” Chikwanine recalls. “For our pillows, she had her flip flops, and she put her bikwembes on top of them. That’s how we slept. At night, there were no TVs — we’d tell stories. And the only way that you survive a refugee camp, really, is that you have to band together as a community.”

In time, Chikwanine’s father was able to contact a connection in Kampala where the family could stay, in order to be closer to the United Nations.

“We knew that if we had any chance of getting help or someone giving us an opportunity to survive, we had to get in touch with the UN. And the best chance was not in the refugee camp, but in Kampala,” says Michel. “My mom and dad would wake up every morning at 3AM and walk for hours in some of the most dangerous streets for anyone to try and get us a refugee number.”

“The experience of being a refugee is one of the most heartbreaking experiences a human being can go through. You’re dehumanized to the point that you do not even exist in the eyes of many.” – Michel Chikwanine

In 2001, tragedy struck again. One day, while looking to secure his family’s place on the refugee list, Chikwanine’s father was poisoned. To this day, his family believes it was because of his political activism. That day, he had returned home complaining of severe chest pain. Michel recalls returning home to see his father in tears. Before passing, he left his son with one final message:

“He grabs my hands and he says, ‘Never forget that we are Congolese. That we have a home. That we have a culture. That we have a people. But most important of all, always remember that great men and great women throughout history have never been described by their money nor their success, but rather by their heart and what they do for others.’”

In 2004, Chikwanine and his family are granted entry into Canada as refugees, arriving in Ottawa in the dead of winter. (It is a cruel irony that it took his father’s death to expedite the process.) He learns to get used to the cold. He joins a school and makes friends. Some kids tease him for being an immigrant. Life goes on. Some years later, he becomes a student at St. Patrick’s Catholic High School in southeastern Ottawa, and in grade 10, sits at a desk that opens everything back up again.

“I never really wanted to tell my story,” he says.

Chikwanine remembers a classmate’s response to the assignment. Tasked with describing a pivotal moment in her life, one student had written about wanting a pink Motorola Razr, but getting a black one from her parents instead. She saw it as a lesson for parents to listen to their children.

“It was in that moment [I realized], they don’t actually understand what it’s like to live through a war — a war that actually feeds the minerals that create the cell phones that people have,” says Chikwanine.

It was a moment that stuck with him. Later, after joining Free The Children and becoming an “O Ambassador,” Chikwanine decided it was time to tell his story as a means of driving change. His first speech was delivered to a packed arena at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum.

“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them.” – Michel Chikwanine

“I was told, ‘You’re going to be speaking to 5,000 people for four minutes, so choose your words wisely,’” he laughs. “I was a nervous wreck.”

Since then, Chikwanine has made sharing his story his mission, writing Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls are Used in War and speaking to audiences around the world — sharing the stage with the likes of Dr. Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama, and K’naan. In the last decade-plus, his speeches have reached over 800,000 people.

“Retelling my story became a sort of way of letting go of these huge things that I felt were on my shoulders, and I just didn’t even know how to express them,” he says.

More importantly for Chikwanine, it’s a chance to change minds — and one day, to ensure that no other child endures his fate.

“I want to end the issue of child soldiers,” he says. “The world isn’t just our little bubbles that we live in; the world is very open. And when we only see the world through the screens that we have, we lose out on our ability to see the humanity in others.”


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