Monday, February 28, 2011

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

Rating: 3 & 1/2 Stars

It seems like there’s not a lot of good news coming out of Africa recently. It’s normal to get fatigued when then there’s nothing but a spate of misery gushing from the second largest continent in the world;  normal to shrug hopelessly about conditions that we cannot change; normal to turn our attention to more pressing concerns where we can make a difference. Is it ever normal to stop caring? That’s neither normal nor possible when we read Tracy Kidder’s, ‘Strength in What Remains’.

This is both a book about a man, Deogratias, and his country, Burundi.  Burundi is a tiny country just south of the equator, lying adjacent to Rwanda. Of course, most of us have heard of Rwanda, but the recent history of the two countries has been inextricably connected. Both countries have a mixed population of Hutu and Tutsi people, whose ethnic identities are so convoluted and obscure that they defy simple explanation. In Burundi, the minority Tutsi held the reins of power; in Rwanda it was the Hutu. In 1993, after Burundi’s newly elected Hutu President, Ndadaye, was assassinated, the country erupted into Civil War. Six months later, Rwanda started a government- sponsored genocide.

In 1994, Deogratias, who is identified here only by his first name, landed in New York, from Bujumbura in Burundi. Till very recently, he had been a top-ranking medical student, who dreamed of one day building a clinic for the people of his rural settlement – Butanza. That was before the Civil War sent him into a spiral of terror, when he spent months on the run, avoiding all human contact. To see other people meant probable death, or images of impossible, inhuman cruelty.

Deogratias spoke no English, only French and his native Kirundi; and had a meager amount of dollars when he landed in New York. This intelligent and idealistic young man was soon reduced to minimum wage, and virtual homelessness. Yet about twelve years later, not only was he again enrolled in medical school, he was an ardent volunteer for Partners in Health, an international organization committed to better health in the developing world, and in the process of continuing his interrupted dream for his people. His short term goal was to build a medical clinic in Kigutu, and for the long term - improved public health for the whole country.

“health in his country was dreadful…an average life expectancy of 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, 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 these doctors practiced in the capital…”

Deo survived the holocaust that overtook his country; he survived under the grimmest conditions in Harlem, which appears no less a Third World than much of Africa; he resumed his dream of medical school. Yet none of this is extraordinary in itself. Survival and success are both mysterious gifts of an inscrutable Providence. What is remarkable is what he is doing with those gifts. 

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