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Book Tells of African Tragedy, American Rebirth

Tracy Kidder’s powerful writing style and moving themes are reasons alone to read “Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness.— But as striking as the prose is, Kidder also offers the chance to witness nobler things — effective altruism, the power of the human spirit and kindness — all in a true story.

A literary journalist, Kidder again delivers again with his latest work. Kidder’s wife, Frances, connected him to the story of Burundian genocide survivor Deogratias, or Deo. “It took awhile for me to digest his story,— Kidder said. “It also took Deo a considerable amount of time to grow comfortable telling it to me.—

Deo is a modern-day Ellis Island immigrant, whose flight from Burundi in 1994 — during the year of the outbreak of war and genocide in East Africa — and eventual return are the focus of the book. A medical student whose life was turned upside down, Deo’s is one of thousands of stories from that tragedy, but it is also one that offers hope.

From the outset, Kidder employs “an excess of caution,— changing every name and place in Burundi. In an interview, Kidder said that not only had Deo asked for the changes, but it also just made sense. “Burundi is a country with a long history of violence and is also one of the poorest countries in the world,— Kidder said. “You have to make a decision in that kind of situation, and it would have been irresponsible otherwise.—

A landlocked country in East Africa, Burundi is only slightly smaller than Maryland, bordered by Rwanda, Congo and Tanzania. Much more attention in recent years has gone toward genocides in Rwanda and Sudan. Burundi’s equally gruesome past is less notorious, but it only ended with a 2006 cease-fire. The legacy of almost a dozen years of ethnic violence in Burundi left nearly 200,000 dead.

With 85 percent of the country belonging to the ethnic Hutu group and the remaining population Tutsi, Kidder describes how Burundi’s genocide was a case of ethnic civil war between the minority Tutsi government and majority Hutu rebels. The causes of ethnic violence in Burundi are contrasted with Rwanda, where genocide is instead attributed to the ethnic scapegoating of Tutsis by Hutus.

Through Deo’s story, we see the horrors of survival and the hope of the living. Hardly a gratuitous recounting of the past, Kidder’s work uses the power of memory to connect us to Deo’s plight and to some extent the wider genocide. Fleeing Burundi to New York City does not free him: “The smallest coincidence could draw him back. Simply opening up a text to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and seeing the word ‘April’ did the trick, because that was the month in which Rwanda’s genocide had begun.— Kidder reveals just how ungovernable and wearisome memory can be.

Kidder also shows how history, even more than memory, can distort the present. Nowhere is that more clearly shown than when Deo mistakes gestures of genocide for new, friendly greetings. Only in retrospect does Deo understand the political significance of raising one hand in a fist and saying, “Inivo nu gutwi,— or, “At the level of the ear.— He also overlooks the relevance of greeting others by saying “Susuruka,— “Warm them up.— Such ominous gestures, which caught on before the outbreak of genocide, lost their meaning in the preoccupation with the present. Only later does Deo realize saying “at the level of the ear— meant lining up one’s machete properly, or that the connotation of the phrase “warm them up— was to pour gasoline on Tutsis and set them on fire.

In the first part of the book, “Flights,— Deo’s story is told through a narrative that traces his departure from Burundi and adjustment to life in New York, with bursts of his past in between. The second part of the book, “Gusimbura,— sees a switch to Kidder’s own voice to sketch Deo’s life and the Burundi genocide in full-blown portrait.

But any temptation to think of the book merely as one man’s reflections on another man’s story would be misplaced. Another prominent theme of “Strength in What Remains— is effective altruism. It is uplifting to see how Deo’s new life in America is transformed through charity, from moving off the street into a home, connections to a job and enrollment in Columbia University, and eventual entrance back in medical school.

In connection with Partners in Health, a social justice and health organization, Deo returned to Burundi several years ago to set up a clinic, Village Health Works, which provides free medical care to poor Burundians.

In July, Village Health Works shut down temporarily because of the killing of a clinic volunteer. It has since been reopened. “The clinic was shut down to show that it matters — killings matter,— Kidder said. “There is a great need for security by the Burundian government and support for public health.—

But, surprisingly, Kidder said awareness of Burundi’s grim plight was not one of his overriding goals; instead, he was more intent on telling a story of meaning and forgiveness. “I would be happy if more people learned about Burundi from the book, but so many people just don’t know,— he said. “Burundi does occupy an important geographical position, and we know how easily catastrophes can spill over.—

To that end, Kidder said he remains hopeful that the Obama administration will bring greater understanding to the need for effectual aid to Africa. “Taxpayers would be appalled to know how their money is often spent in aid,— he said. “It is something that is impossible to change overnight, but [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton and President [Barack] Obama are invested there.—

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