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Man Tells Story Of Journey From Child Soldier To U.S. Marine


How does a person go from being a child soldier in the Congo to a decorated U.S. Marine? We speak to Tchicaya Missamou about his new book "In the Shadow of Freedom, A Heroic Journey to Manhood and Liberation."

How does a person go from being a child soldier in the Congo to a decorated U.S. Marine? We speak to Tchicaya Missamou about his new book "In the Shadow of Freedom, A Heroic Journey to Manhood and Liberation."


Tchicaya Missamou, author of "In the Shadow of Freedom, A Heroic Journey to Manhood and Liberation"

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Right now on stage at the La Jolla playhouse, a Pulitzer prize winning drama, Ruined, is on the bill. The play by Lyn Novige tells the story of how war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has brutalized and degraded a generation of women and men. One man who experienced that brutality in real life is telling his story, Tchicaya Missamou is a former child soldier in the DRC, he witnessed and participated in the violence of war at an age when most kids are playing basball and video games. His remarkable journey lead him to America and service with the US marines. He says he's telling the story of his childhood as a debt to the people Lee did not survive. The author of in the shadow of freedom, a heroic journey to manhood and liberation. He's here in San Diego speaking to a group of students at San Diego university.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Thank you very much. An honor to be here.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You're from the Democratic Republic of Congo originally, and as you first scribe in your book, your early years were very kind of idylic?

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Well, when I was a child in the Congo, we -- we were thinking like a child. We were acting like a child. So when I become a man, I knew what was wrong, what was wrong, what was right of so I chose to do the right thing.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Before you became a child soldier, you had a life with your family and with your friends. And you -- you went to school. And then what happened? Tell us how you became a child soldier.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Well, I volunteered to become a child soldier. Why I volunteer? Because some people was forced to become a child soldier, and if you refuse, you know, part of the game, you be killed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it's naturalistic really volunteered.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Well, in my way, I wanted to be part of the group, because remember, I grew up in a family of 16 children, my dad had seven wife. So it was my way to belong to something 'cause I was lost, and I thought -- I have this group of people, these elders, they told me to do whatever was possible to do, and I just follow them, without knowing that it was wrong fair child to carry a weapon. It was wrong for a child to brutalize people. So it was our way to demand respect. As we speak right now in the Congo, the mother is being brutalized,s we speak right now in the Congo, a child have lost hope, as we speak right now in the Congo, a father cannot even dream for a better future for his children.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's very important, as you point out, to realize, this is not something that is over. This is something that continues to go on to this day. Now your life as a child soldier, Tchicaya, was, a kind of a nightmare for any parent who wants to protect their children, and keep them from harm, and keep them from the kind of brutality that you had to witness in your life. I'm wondering as you look back at that time as a man now, how do you think you were able to survive all those experiences.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Well, we have no choices. And in the Congo, we live day by live. That's what I was saying earlier, we don't dream in the Congo. When I came to America I learn one thing, it's by talking that you're gonna hear. In the Congo, we don't express our feelings, we keep everything inside of us. How I was able to survive all those atrocities, we don't know better. This is -- if you ask a child in the Congo, what would you like to be one day, he's gonna tell you, I want to be a soldier. Because that's the only thing that we see, war war war war, killing killing killing and killing. A child does not go to school to have fun. Yeah? A child does not even have the opportunity to go to school because there are no schools. Even though you go to school, okay, what are you going to learn? 'Cause in a couple empties, a couple seconds, you don't know who's gonna bust through that door. Okay? And I saw teachers being brutalized, okay? And sometime a child, those who were going to school were 1207ed, beat down, send them back home. Soap the reason why we fight in the Congo, the reason why there is genocide in Africa is because of a lack of education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And yet if you're stopped going to school, then that education stops.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Yes, if education stops, people can use you -- remember, a person who'd educated is a person that can know the defense between right and wrong. So when they stop your education, you are only gonna listen to those people who are giving you orders.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Tchicaya Missamou who is the author of In the Shadow of Freedom, a Heroic Journey to Manhood and Liberation. Tchicaya, you said that people in the Congo don't have dreams. But you had a dream. You risked everything to try to get out and to come to the -- to America. Where do you think that dream came from?

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: The first white man I met in my life, I was working on the golf course, was a marine. I was about seven years old. And I saw this gentleman, and I asked him, hey, how can I become like you? He slapped me in the head, he said, you are never gonna become like me, I am a U.S. marine. [CHECK AUDIO] like star wars, and he said, get out of here, and go over there and play African, so since that day, I have this image of this gentleman that is part of me. So during the civil war, and after the civil war, I joined the military. And during our training, I saw the movie calmed full metal jacket, NOW I knew what a marine does. So that day, you know, I said, one day I will become an American because America is the greatest country on the planet. American planet are the most giving people on this earth. When there is a crisis around the world, people look for America. America is the only country that I know that stands for freedom. And I know me coming to America, I will stand for freedom, I will fight for freedom, so one day I can go back to Africa and tell them, this is what freedom is all about.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I must tell our listeners, as you sit here, you're sitting here in your U.S. marine corps uniform.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: That's correct.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you did in fact become a U.S. marine, you are a U.S. marine. And you served where.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: I served in Iraq, we were deployed all over the world to fight terrorism.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what was having that dream come true like.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Wow, I'm still dreaming. And I would say, if I'm dreaming please do not wake me up.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, you are actually living a civilian life now, you are I businessman.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: That's correct. That is correct.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you have become a sort of physical fitness; is that right.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: That is correct.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell uses about that.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: I created the warrior fitness camp. It's part military, part civilian. So I use a third world country mind set.


TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: It's all about a mind set. So I use that. So my training is Congo style. So I use whenever we have around us growing up in the Congo, like tires, wheel baro [CHECK AUDIO] of course I have a full equipped gym, but that is just for the look, I train my client on the street.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And why do you choose to do that.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Because I believe a warrior lives in open, because every time you train somebody in the open, you inspire other people to do the right thing.


TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: And not only that, are the person that you're trache right now is inspiring other people on the same time, he has a lot of people watching him or watching her, so she doesn't want to fail so she's pushing herself to the limit. So she's fighting for herself. Because the [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I see. I see what you're saying. I know that you've written this book in the shadow of freedom, and you're speaking to students today, you're speaking about this book because you want people to know what has gone on and what is going on in the Congo, and you also want people to know about your perform story. And I'm wondering, when you go and speak with students, when you talk about this book, what kind of questions do you get from people.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Well, they are thigh ask me so many questions. Most of the questions ask me what's my name mean? [CHECK AUDIO].

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The flower that heals problems.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: That's correct.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's a beautiful name.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Thank you. And they ask me also about my family in the Congo and my family here, and what's the message I'm trying to send.


TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: And I always say the message I'm trying to send in Africa is a message of hope. I'm trying to help shape the African consciousness because Africa don't need aids, we need trade. Because how much money we spend or we invest in Africa, but that money goes to the pocket of those people who's -- who are the head of a government. If we do trade and build schools and hospitals, I guarantee you, we will no longer live in the shadow of freedom. Do you know, in Africa right now, the black person thinks that a white person is a superior race? There is a saying in Africa, [CHECK AUDIO] which means the white person is God. They don't know that everybody is created equal. What differentiates us is what we call education.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly. And you went back to the DRC in 2004, you were arrested. You had to escape. Do you have any plans, I mean, is it safe for you to go back to Africa now?

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: It's -- it's never safe enough. About you you know, I can be here sitting and watching my people dying. I must do something. After I reached my goal, I am very successful with what I do, I came to realize, there's more things to do, and what's the best thing to do is share freedom, because knowledge is only good when you share it. A person would know and shire his knowledge is right. A person who knows and stipulate want to share his knowledge is wrong. Y so I believe what America gave me, America gave me freedom, opportunity, and a liberty. I want top go back to Africa and tell them, this is what freedom is all about. But we can only be free if we believe in ourselves, and if we help our brothers and sisters, because we are our brothers' keepers, we are our sisters apartment keepers.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you talk, and you heal yourself, and you want to help heal the country as well.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: I have to. I have no choice.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are out of time. But I want to thank you so much for coming in here and sharing some of your story with us.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Thank you very much. And I can't wait to be on the Oprah show.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I can't wait to see you.

TCHICAYA MISSAMOU: Thank you very much.



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