Courtesy of Zanga Ben Ouattara

“I’d like to kiss your girlfriend.”

Freshman Ngosa Mupela recalls a funny memory of his friend Emmanuel Manirakiza.  “He came into my room one day and then he [looked] at me and [said] something really inappropriate but really funny.”  Mupela and Manirakiza were friends and hall mates at African Leadership Academy (ALA), a secondary institution that educates high-achieving African students.  Mupela had recently begun going out with, as he refers to her, a “pretty girl,” who worked at a student business Manirakiza ran.  “I’ll probably never forget that because it was real funny,” Ngosa said.

An incident in July, though, ended tragically for Manirakiza.

The Rwandan native, who was to begin his freshman year at UR this fall, drowned while swimming in a pool with friends on July 15, according to Mupela and freshman Ben Ouattara, who also knew Manirakiza from ALA. Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jonathan Burdick also made a post about the incident on the University of Rochester Class of 2016 Facebook page on July 26. Manirakiza was taken to the hospital, but by the time he arrived it was too late.

Ouattara describes Manirakiza as open, happy and relaxed.

“He was always smiling,” Ouattara said. “I never saw him sad. I don’t know how, but he was always, always happy.”

Freshman Boubacar Diallo, another of Manirakiza’s ALA friends, mentioned his generosity. One time when the two boys were to go to a surprise party at a restaurant, Diallo could not afford his share. When the moment came for him to chip in, Manirakiza came to his aid, despite the fact that he was hardly rich himself.

“I remember him saying that what makes him happy is that even if he gives out everything he has for the sake of helping people, then he’s fine,” Diallo recalled.

Mostly though, Manirakiza is described by friends as simply being a normal teenager.

“The easiest way to describe Emmanel is he was just really cool,” Mupela said. “He was the type of guy that when you talked to him you’d have never guessed what he’d been through.”

In a personal statement Manirakiza wrote entitled “MY STORY: Uphill Climb,” which he read aloud at an assembly at ALA, he gives a detailed account of his life story, from his birth “in nineteen ninety something, on a date and at a time that nobody now knows” to his beginnings at ALA.

He spares no detail in the account; it is raw, honest and reads with wisdom that one might not expect from a teenager. Not to mention, an unexpected level of optimism. The speech garnered a standing ovation, according to Mupela.

“Not long after Emmanuel’s birthday, the crust of the earth opened up to drink the blood of the innocents and swallow the bodies of the blameless,” he writes. “Yes, the genocide started in Rwanda.”

The Rwandan Genocide touched Manirakiza in a personal manner. He was forced to leave home and escape to a United Nations camp with his mother and four sisters, most of whom were soon lost to war and disease, along with many of his other family members. Manirakiza and his only remaining sister, Patricia, fled to the Congolese bush. He was just five years old.

By 2001, though, his luck began to change. He was brought to The Sonrise School, an institution intended for orphans affected by the genocide, HIV and war. It was hardly an easy transition — Manirakiza explains how he had to learn how to “socialize and speak the language.”

Eventually though, he excelled, working jobs in the city, and even winning enough money with top exam scores to build a small home for his sister and then enrolling in ALA in September 2010.

“Emmanuel understands that history has ruined his past but he refuses to live under the umbrella of its ruins,” his speech continues.

Burdick shared Manirazika’s story with the entirety of the University’s Enrollment division as well as others on campus.

“I can’t think of any other time I’ve ever invited the entire staff to read an incoming student’s story, and many on the staff were as inspired as I was,” he said.

Ouattara, Mupela and Diallo were all quick to explain, though, that Manirakiza hardly ever spoke about his childhood.

“[He] won’t try to make you feel pity for him,” Diallo said.

There have already been a few memorials for Manirakiza since the start of the 2012-13 academic year. A candle was lit in his honor at the Candelight Ceremony held during freshman orientation on Aug. 23 and Burdick, who met Manirakiza when he visited ALA in December 2011, spoke about him at Convocation.

Diallo, Ouattara, Mupela and freshman Xavier Joaquinho, who also attended ALA with Manirakiza, have begun planning a race, a T-shirt sale, and a website.  They hope to send money they raise to Manirakiza’s sister, who still lives in Rwanda.

Ouattara perhaps captured the sudden, unexpected nature of this tragic accident best, though, when he recalled the last time he saw Manirakiza.

“I didn’t want to hug him … I just shook his hand that’s how we left it … I wish I would have hugged him that day, if I just knew,” Ouattara said.

Goldin is a member of the class of 2013.

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