One Man’s Walk Through Hell

Most of us are familiar with the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994, one of the major foreign policy failures of the Clinton administration. Fewer people are aware of the much more lengthy genocide in Burundi, beginning in 1993 and continuing pretty much up to the current day. The numbers massacred in Burundi are fewer than those in Rwanda—no doubt the reason why Burundi has been largely ignored by the international community. It’s a tiny country and one of the world’s poorest, with a recent per capita gross domestic product of about $80.

The country’s medical needs are some of the worst in the world: “an average life expectancy of about thirty-nine years; one in five deaths caused by waterborne diseases or lack of sanitation; severe malnutrition for 54 percent of children under five; for women, a one-in-nine lifetime risk of dying during childbirth; and fewer than three hundred doctors to serve a population of about seven million. And most of those doctors practiced in the capital.” (226)

These statistics are central to Tracy Kidder’s riveting account of a young man who escapes the genocide in Burundi, manages to flee to the United States, and then—years later, after he has acquired an education–decides to return to Burundi and build a medical clinic for his people. This story of courage and determination is not typical at all. Most people who have fled their homelands under such traumatic conditions never want to return. And there are plenty of good reasons why Deogratias, the subject of Kidder’s powerful story, might more likely have decided to stay in America.

When the genocide began in 1993, Deo was already a medical student. He had almost completed his third year of medical training at the country’s lone school of medicine and was spending his vacation working at a hospital in Mutaho. Hutus went on a rampage, beginning to kill Tutsis, and Deo was Tutsi. The harrowing account of his six-month flight to safety takes him through the countryside as he avoids roads and cities where he knows Hutu militiamen are waiting. He believes that if he can flee into Rwanda he will be safe, but he soon discovers that the situation there is just as bad. Finally, Burundian soldiers rescue Tutsis and, by a minor miracle, one of his wealthy friends from medical school gets him out of the country on a flight that takes him to New York City.

It is in New York City where Strength in What Remains begins. With $200, no friends, and virtually no English (he’s fluent in French), Deo initially shares an abandoned building with another African. But soon that man returns to his own country and Deo sleeps in Central Park, while spending twelve-hour days delivering groceries, earning $15. The exploitation he experiences in New York City is unbelievable. He’s robbed; his possessions are stolen; he rapidly loses weight; he finds almost no one to talk to him or teach him English.

After half a year of his misery, a French-speaking woman at a Catholic rectory begins to assist him. Among other things, she tells him about the New York City Public Library, where he begins to work on his English. Later, she finds him a proper place to stay: in the apartment of a retired professor and his wife. They, along with others, quickly recognize Deo’s intelligence and resolve. They help him enroll at Columbia–but as a freshman, because he has no papers to document his medical studies. Unfortunately, Deo’s eventual fluency in English and his exposure to the media, including the internet, simply make him more aware of appalling conditions at home in Burundi, and increased his agony about his family’s situation. With diligent study and continued support from others, several years later Deo enters Dartmouth’s medical school. Perhaps more importantly, he meets people who work for international medical agencies, including Partners in Health.

All along, Deo’s dream had been to return to Burundi to help develop medical facilities for his impoverished people. A series of trips home—eventually with Tracy Kidder, who learned about Deo and decided to chronicle his life—culminate in his decision to abandon medical school in the United States and work full time in Burundi as a health activist, campaigning for free medical care for his people. By 2007, when Deo became an American citizen, he had also begun traveling between the United States and Burundi for extensive fund-raising with international donors. Finally, in November of the same year, his first clinic opened.

Kidder structures his biography dramatically, avoiding chronological order, alternating between past and present, at times ratcheting up the tension of his narrative to an almost unbearable level. His portrait of Deo is nuanced, but often painful to read—especially when the two men return to Burundi–which is still unstable–and where Deo continues to confront the ghosts of his past as he revisits the sites of his early life, including numerous places where massacres of his people occurred. As Deo tells Kidder on one of these trips, “I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane.”

By the end of his compelling story, Deo has more than lived up to the name given to him by his Catholic parents: Deogratias. He’s survived and given thanks, but so has his inspired biographer: Tracy Kidder.

Strength in What Remains
By Tracy Kidder
Knopf, 272 pp., $26

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.