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JEB SHARP: A young man named Deo has memories as disturbing as those of the Afghan refugee we just met. Deo is the subject of a new book. It's called ï¿½Strength in What Remains.ï¿½ The author is Tracy Kidder. His 2003 book, ï¿½Mountains Beyond Mountainsï¿½ told the story of a doctor's mission to revolutionize healthcare in Haiti. Kidder profiles another extraordinary man in ï¿½Strength in What Remains.ï¿½ Deo was born to a poor rural family in the central African country of Burundi. He was 24 years old and working at a hospital when the horrors began.
TRACY KIDDER: 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 upï¿½ 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.
SHARP: 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 ï¿½ 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. But I wonder. You start the book with the flight to New York. Tell us a little bit of just what it is to flee the kind of violence he fled.
KIDDER: I'm not a great expert on this because I didn't live through it. But I do believe in being able to extend one's imagination. The way I chose to do this was to tell the story as he told it to me over many, and sometimes rather painful, sessions of talk. But this is a book in part about memory. The idea is to see him in the throws of these memories. I mean that's one of the costs I should think for any survivor.
SHARP: What were those memories? What's most striking about some of the key things that happen to him?
KIDDER: Well I think the first and strongest one is of being in the hospital where he was working as an intern. A big hospital in a pretty rural part of Burundi and it was the day after the president, the first elected president of Burundi, had been assassinated. And, for lack of better term, militia men had come to the hospital and they were, as near a Deo could tell conducted a rather indiscriminate slaughter. And he ran to his room and hid under his bed but he forgot to close his door. And it was for that reason when they came to his door they decided he had left. So he lay there and listened to the massacre and then when they had left he set off on foot. That's indelible memory of course. And there were others. When he was crossing the border into Rwanda there was a woman, a Hutu ï¿½ he's a Tutsi ï¿½ who saved him.
SHARP: She pretends he's her son.
KIDDER: Her son. Yeah.
SHARP: And there's a terrible, terrible moment in a banana grove where he comes across a dead woman whose baby is still alive.
KIDDER: Yes. The baby is still alive and he is utterly exhausted and the place is just full of corpses. He remembers saying to himself I can't help that baby. I can't. I can't do anything and he sort of got up and staggered away until he couldn't see the baby and then went to sleep for he didn't know how long ï¿½ whether it was a day or two days. And [INAUDIBLE] doesn't know what happened to the baby but almost certainly it died. And he still feels a bad about that you know althoughï¿½ I mean one does I suppose.
SHARP: As you say the story is as much about memory as it is about the account of survival either from the genocide or in New York. And in the prologue to the book you talk about this Burundian term [PH] gusumbria.
KIDDER: It's a veryï¿½ It's unusual. A linguist friend of mine said he knew of no language that had a single word for this.
SHARP: What does it mean?
KIDDER: [PH] Gusumbria 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 gusumbria.
SHARP: So Deo goes back to Burundi to build a medical clinic in the place where his parents have ended up after the war. Tell us about that. Tell us about what it was like for him to go back to Burundi and how he found meaning in the work there.
KIDDER: Yeah my trip to Burundi with him was just incidental to what he was really up to. This was 2006 and he was beginning the foundations of this public health and medical system. With an enormous amount of help ï¿½ he's quite a charismatic guy ï¿½ and he'd rallied a very large number of American friends and the number of which they've grown and grown. The clinic is fully functional now. They saw 20,000 patients the first year. It's about 30,000. They comeï¿½ People come from all over Burundi because the care is good and it's free to all those who really can't afford to pay. People even come from as far away as Congo and Tanzania. And my favorite story is of the one man who showed up that didn't really need medical help to come from a long distance. Deo said why have you come? And he said to see America. Which actually I've sometimes thought that was misconception for us to live up to but in a sense this is a good side of America, a really good side of America, this clinic. And it has tremendous support from our State Department and from a lot of Americans.
SHARP: Tracy Kidder's most recent book is ï¿½Strength in What Remains.ï¿½ Tracy Kidder thank you so much.
KIDDER: Thanks for having me.
SHARP: You can find a video of Tracy Kidder talking about his new book on our website. That's The World dot org.