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Gilbert's Gazelles travel to coach's homeland of Burundi

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Even if you train with Gilbert Tuhabonye, the jovial, drum-thumping, "run with joy"-shouting Austin coach, and you know his story of traveling miles every day to fill jugs from creeks, it's hard to imagine living someplace without easily accessible water.

It's even harder to comprehend the genocide Tuhabonye survived in 1993, shortly after civil war erupted in his homeland of Burundi, in Central Africa.

That's why 16 people from Austin, most of them current or former members of the Gilbert's Gazelles running group, traveled to Burundi last month. They wanted to see for themselves where their coach came from, and learn more about the water systems the nonprofit Gazelle Foundation he created is building there.

Now that they're back, they say they're inspired to do more for what they describe as Africa's forgotten country.

"It's just a known thing for me now; it's tangible," says Elissa Jackson, who met Tuhabonye through a training group in 2003 and is godmother to his youngest daughter. "You have to be a pretty hardened person not to want to do something after that experience."

The travelers, who paid about $2,800 each, jostled through Burundi for 11 days in what they dubbed the "mzungu bus." ("Mzungu" means "white person" in the native tongue.) Tuhabonye didn't accompany the group; he is waiting for his wife to get her U.S. citizenship so they can travel together.

The group visited an orphanage and coffee plantations, drove past the site of a massacre where Tuhabonye almost died, and met his friends and family. They also watched as villagers turned the tap on the latest water project funded by the Gazelle Foundation — a $120,000, 12-kilometer network of pipes, spigots and collecting tanks that serves villagers.

"You learn how good we have it here, and we can't take that for granted," says Jackson's 17-year-old son, Coleman, who also made the trip.

Tuhabonye, 36, who also coaches track and cross country at St. Andrews High School, grew up as a fleet-footed son of farmers. He ran everywhere — to get the family's water, to school, and even after the cows and gazelles. In high school, he ran competitively, becoming national champion in the 400 and 800 meters.

Running also saved his life. When a Hutu mob attacked the school Tuhabonye attended, he and other Tutsi children and teachers were marched a mile and a half to an abandoned building, forced into a room, tortured and burned. More than 100 people died. Tuhabonye lay for hours under a pile of bodies, finally breaking a window and running into the night. (A book about his experience, "This Voice In My Heart: A Genocide Survivor's Story of Escape, Faith and Forgiveness," was published in 2006.)

Tuhabonye eventually moved to Texas and became an All-America runner at Abilene Christian University. The skin on his legs, back and arms still bears scars from the fire.

He has never forgotten his impoverished homeland, where relative peace prevails but tensions remain high.

About 8.5 million people live in Burundi, a country the size of Maine sandwiched between Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. A half-million residents died during the civil war that raged between 1993 and 2005.

"Burundi is beautiful and rich in so many ways. But the people are really, really poor," Tuhabonye says.

According to a report by the U.S. Agency for International Development, nearly 1 in 5 children in Burundi dies before the age of 5. Nearly 20 percent of those deaths are due to diarrheal disease, and nearly three-quarters of all reported illnesses are due to a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation.

More than half of the people of Songa, the region where Tuhabonye grew up, don't have access to clean drinking water. Women and children hike for miles several times a day to fill containers and lug water back home.

"It's the same water cows drink," Tuhabonye says.

Kids miss school or arrive late; often they're exhausted.

When he created the Gazelle Foundation five years ago, Tuhabonye wanted to make sure other people in Burundi had easier access to clean water. The foundation has spent about $205,000 to build three water projects that serve more than 8,000 people, a combined population of Hutus and Tutsis. The projects tap natural springs on hilltops and use gravity to move water to storage chambers closer to where people live.

"The foundation has eased that burden for them," Elissa Jackson says. "Now they can walk a few meters instead of miles and miles and miles and get fresh clean water from a collection tank that runs out of a water spigot."

On average, it costs $25 to secure clean water for life for one person in Burundi, Jackson says. "So many people do that at Starbucks in a week. A few coffees or a lifetime of water?"

As the days ticked by for the Austin travelers, they got quieter, says Michael Madison, 26, administrator of the Gazelle Foundation and race director of Run for the Water, its biggest fundraiser. "When you come back to the United States after being exposed to complete poverty, small things don't seem to matter," he says.

Madison hopes the trip becomes an annual event that raises awareness about Burundi's plight and strengthens the bond between Austin and the country halfway around the world.

Tuhabonye says he is thankful for the changes that already have taken place.

"I look at the distance I used to travel to get water," he says. "These people don't have to do it anymore. ... People don't get sick like they used to, because the water is clean."

Yet he brushes off the idea that he is responsible for saving those lives.

"It's the Austin people," he says. "It's not me. It's the people who believe in our mission."

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994

Registration is open for the 2011 Run for Water, scheduled for Oct. 30. Athletes can choose from a 10-mile race, 5K or Kids K. Registration is $39 for the 10-miler, $17 for the 5K and $12 for the kids race until Sept. 30, when prices increase. For more information about the Gazelle Foundation, go to www.gazellefoundation.com .