The East African country of Burundi is so poor and neglected it doesn’t even seem to be of interest to most aid organizations.
“We are off the map, almost completely ignored,” said Deogratias Niyizonkiza, an expat Burundian who thankfully just goes by “Deo.”
Maybe you know Deo’s story. It’s in a book by Tracy Kidder called Strength in What Remains. And maybe growing up in such a neglected place with such a violent past will explain Deo’s amazing story of survival, perseverance and ingenuity.
Maybe you want to hear more from Deo himself, which many did Thursday in Seattle at an event sponsored by Global Washington.
I wanted to talk to Deo because his story is a glimpse into a mostly neglected part of the horrific tale we may only know as the Rwandan genocide. But mostly, it’s an amazing story of how one man survived, thrived and now has returned to his forlorn country to help it rebuild itself.
“He hasn’t read it,” laughed Dziwe Ntaba, Deo’s long-time friend, physician colleague and co-founder of a project in rural Burundi, Village Health Works, aimed at addressing the needs of the poorest people living in one of the world’s poorest places.
“Yes, it’s true,” Deo admitted with a gentle smile. “I haven’t read it.”
Why not? Well, there is a Burundian word mentioned early on in the book, gusimbura, which roughly translates as the pain of remembering. In a place where life is so hard, death and suffering so common, it is considered ill manners to try to make someone recall bad times. And Deo had some amazingly bad, horrific times. Reading his own story is too gusimbura, perhaps.
Kidder’s book reads like a thriller, as Deo, at the time a young medical student, fled murderous militias in both Burundi and Rwanda, witnessed massacres, hid among corpses and eventually escaped on an airplane to New York City with $200 in his pocket. His troubles didn’t end there, since New York is hardly an easy place for a poor African immigrant who doesn’t speak English.
I can’t say much more without ruining the book for you, or Deo I guess, in case he ever does read it. Let’s just say his story is an incredible tale of both his own ability to thread a positive path through the murkiest of thickets – and also a tale about the kindness of strangers. It is just one man’s story, and not a new book actually.
But it has launched a new and ongoing story, that of Village Health Works.
“A lot of suffering comes from lack of understanding,” Deo said. So when he, Dziwe and others opened a clinic in 2007 in a rural community, Kigutu, their goal was to do much more than bring more basic health care services.
“Health is just the vehicle for change,” Dziwe said. “What we are really doing is teaching the community how to be empowered, how to take care of itself.”
The clinic, which since expanded to become almost a teaching hospital of sorts, now has something like 150 staff (nearly all Burundians), with 100 community health workers, midwives, laboratory and radiology technicians, a pharmacist and psychologist. It has become more of a community center than a health care facility, Deo said.
“It is the place where people come together,” he said. “It is a place where people come back to life.”
Burundi, in general, has some of the world’s worst health indicators, including high rates of child malnutrition and mortality. For a kilometer in every direction around Kigutu, Dziwe says, there are no malnourished children.
“Our focus now is on building a women’s health center,” said Deo. “Women are at the center of the health of a community…. We hope to become a model for all of Burundi, to teach communities how to help themselves.”
There are few places on Earth that need help more, he said. And because of the neglect from the international aid and development community, he added, there are few places more in need of learning to help themselves. If Deo’s story is any indication of Burundian initiative, we can look forward to some more amazing stories of triumph over adversity.
Here’s an artist’s depiction of one of the expansions planned for Village Health Works in Kigutu, Burundi: