Book 17; Continent: Africa

Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder

  • 277 pages (Acknowledgments begin page 259)
  • Read this book from start to finish on a transcontinental flight—Deo’s survival story will help you tune out the annoying guy in the seat next to you—but plan to think about it for much longer.

Tracy Kidder tells the story of a personal friend’s escape from the genocide perpetrated on Burundi’s Tutsi population less than a decade ago. His friend, Deogratias, is born in Burundi to a Tutsi family of cattle herders in the mountains above Lake Tanganyika (yes, the same lake that figures into Ben Rawlence’s Radio Congo). While his family is not wealthy, they can afford to send Deo to school, where he dreams of becoming a doctor. During his childhood, he is discouraged from asking about distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, or who among their neighbors are identified as one or the other. Consequently, he doesn’t think along those lines when he comes to the city for medical school.

Kidder and his friend reflect on the insidious nature of evil at this point in the Deo’s story. Now a medical student in the city, Deo begins to see a gesture meaning “at the level of the ear” even as life goes on normally around him. Classes continue and business is conducted. The gesture is used sometimes as a greeting, and he only later learns that it refers to the optimum place for a machete to strike for a kill. He is harassed some for his Tutsi background by a fellow student who is widely regarded as a jerk, but he is otherwise left alone until he begins his clinical work in a hospital at a different city.

That hospital is the scene of a massacre. On that morning, Deo tries to conduct rounds himself because the doctors have not shown up for work, and only a handful of nurses are present. People begin arriving to take home their inpatient family members. One patient and his brother, Hutus, warn Deo to get out as they depart themselves, but they offer little explanation for their advice and no suggestion as to where to flee. Deo is left to make his own way, narrowly escaping death. Specific images crystallize from the blur of a mind on the run: carrion birds and dogs scavenging for human flesh; the baby in the banana grove; the nightmare-inducing tableau seen through the window of a hut. Kidder’s care with point of view makes the immediate threat to Deo palpable, even from my couch.

Eventually, Deogratias is able to board a commercial aircraft leaving the country, which he does at a run as part of a mob of frightened passengers. His subsequent arrival in New York City begins a different sort of survival story for Deo. Plenty of frustration, post-traumatic stress and shabby treatment await Deo there, but there is also hope in the form of people who try to help him. A handful of remarkable individuals in America offer Deo help, most notably the SoHo couple who allowed him to live with them, rent free, while he completes his schooling.

The last few chapters of the book recount Deo’s return, years later, to an impoverished but politically more stable Burundi. He follows his dream of building a clinic there, and the author accompanies Deo to the sites where much his story took place. Kidder uses these pages to make the point that an older, accomplished Deogratias still suffers with his memories. Unfortunately, this is the part where an otherwise nicely organized and well-written story begins to drag and feel repetitive. Kidder gives us an account of the itinerary stop by stop, but they are not particularly distinguished with the descriptions he provides. Arguably, Kidder is making the point that the mass graves and memorials are commonplace in this nation of suffering and death. Even so, I wish he had instead picked one very representative stop, spent a lot of time describing it, and then closed. It would have taken a fraction of the space and had more dramatic impact in illustrating the idea that Deo’s struggles are not over.

I had never heard of Burundi when I found this book. Or, if I had, it was as a footnote to news stories on Rwanda, its neighbor. However, the two nations with mirror-image political structures have seen essentially identical struggles in the daily lives of their citizens. Because I didn’t come to the story of Deogratias knowing the relevant history, I needed to read the Historical Notes section at the rear of the book. The U.S. evening news coverage from seven or eight years ago was incomplete then and has not been improved with the haze of time. By contrast, Kidder does a nice job of summarizing the region’s relevant history in this last section. Waiting to provide the reader with this context underscores the universal nature of evil: suffering and death can occur at the hands of one’s neighbors anywhere in the world.

Photo credit: cindi_dar / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

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