Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

Location of  Burundi  (dark green)in Africa  (grey)  –  [Legend]Before I read this book, I knew very little about Burundi. After reading this memorable narrative nonfiction, I feel more educated about this part of the world. Landlocked in the middle of Africa, Burundi is in the middle of Africa. It is one of the five poorest countries in the world with one of the lowest per capita gross domestic products. Germany and Belgium occupied Burundi and its neighbor Rwanda at the beginning of the 20th century, and the colonists contributed greatly to the divide and hatred among both countries' native Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi peoples. Burundi has had two mass genocides--one in 1972 (killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army) and one in 1993 (killings of Tutsis by the Hutus), resulting in around 250,000 deaths. The war-torn country is also the hungriest country in the world.

As a third-year medical school intern, Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza fled the genocide in 1994. He arrived in New York City with $200 to his name and no English, and ended up sleeping in Central Park and eking out an existence by delivering groceries to rich New Yorkers for a few dollars a day. He spent any spare time he had trying to learn English by hanging out in bookstores (until he got kicked out). When someone first took him to a library, he was overjoyed!

Helped by a few kind people, he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and philosophy. Then he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at Partners in Health.

Deo helping an impovered child in Burundi
Tracy Kidder tells Deo's extraordinary story with vivid detail. I found myself entranced with Deo's tale of his early New York days and how he transformed himself through the help of others. He was haunted by his can you see so many people murdered by hand, with machetes, including children, and ever have a normal life? He felt great ambivalence when he received so much financial help from others, but without it he would have been back on the street.

In the last part of the book, Tracy Kidder writes about traveling back to Burundi and Rwanda with Deo, as he was establishing Village Health Works, a community-driven health center. (This last part of the book was a bit hard to follow at times.) In the first four years of operation, the center saw more than 50,000 patients, installed solar panels to power the facility, established an Internet system for electronic medical records, and built a 14,000-gallon water collection cistern to provide potable water to the center and surrounding communities. Amazing!

Deo now frequently lectures on global health and has received numerous awards. Most people do not return to Burundi after they leave, but Deo has dedicated his life to helping the poor in his native land. His life and story are astonishing.

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