Arts, Culture & Media

New novel about surviving Africa's ethnic violence

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In Tracy Kidder's 2003 book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” told the story of a doctor’s mission to revolutionize healthcare in Haiti. Kidder profiles another extraordinary man in “Strength in What Remains,” the true story of a man, Deo, who survived the ethnic violence between Burundi and Rwanda and managed to find his way to the United States.  He was 24 years old and working at a hospital when the horrors began.

"He escaped first the onset of ethnic civil war in Burundi but unfortunately for him he escaped to Rwanda where six months later the genocide began. He escaped back to Burundi. At that point he ended up… It’s too complicated to explain. But he ended up flying to New York City.

"So he arrived in New York City with $200 in his pocket, a visa obtained under false pretenses, no English, no friends or relations, memories of horrors so fresh that he sometimes confused past and present. He had a bad time there for a while. First ride on a subway he was lost for most of the day. He eked out a sort of living delivering groceries for $15 a day. He lived in tenements, abandoned tenements in Harlem and then in Central Park and yet less than two years after that he was a student at Columbia University.

"And I think even more improbable and interesting than that, he’s gone back to Burundi, built a remarkable medical facility and public health system in a rural village which they sort of hope will be a beacon for the rest of the country."

So in a sense there are many chapters there. There’s Deo and his coming of age in Burundi. Becoming a medical student. There’s his becoming embroiled, engulfed, in the ethnic violence of that period in both countries – in Burundi and Rwanda. His flight to New York sort of getting through all kinds of things and then this other chapter of returning to Burundi and building a clinic. The book starts with the flight to New York, fleeing the violence.

The story is as much about memory as it is about the account of survival either from the genocide or in New York. In the prologue to the book Kidder talks about this Burundian term gusimbira.

"A linguist friend of mine said he knew of no language that had a single word for this...Gusimbira means to remind people of something unpleasant in particular by naming the dead. And it’s not a good thing to do. It’s a very rude thing to do. But I was introduced to this word by Deo as we drove to the place where he was born and raised. Suddenly he was warning me not to mention the death of this childhood friend when he was a little boy. And it stuck with me.

"You know I found myself writing late in this book lines to the effect that of course we need these memorials to genocide, of course we need to remember, or else this business of never again will never be anything more than an empty self-enhancing platitude. But I also feel like too much remembering can choke a person, even a culture, and a feeling that there was also something to be said for a culture with a word like gusimbira."

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