Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza told his listeners in Memorial Chapel Sunday night that turning his back on a problem was something he simply couldn’t do.
First-year student Kimberly Colbert was paying attention. She was impressed by how much compassion he still has after all he’s been through.
“You can’t just run away from the things that hurt you,” she said, summing up the message she heard.
Niyizonkiza is the founder of Village Health Works in Kigutu, Burundi, and the subject of “Strength in What Remains,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder. The 2009 book, the College’s 2014-2015 Common Reading, recounts his story.
VHW is a community-based health clinic and teaching hospital that serves about 24,000 people a year, providing programs for basic health care, HIV, nutrition and women’s health care. One of the non-profit’s most recent projects is the Women’s Health Pavilion, which it hopes to break ground on next year. Complete with an operating room for caesarean sections, which VHW cannot provide now, it will be the first of its kind in Burundi, Niyizonkiza said.
He wants Village Health Works to be a model not just for health care, but for peace-building in a country devastated by genocide and civil war.
Growing up impoverished in rural Burundi, Niyizonkiza was barely aware of the supposed ethnic differences between Hutus and Tutsis. He and his schoolmates didn’t know who was what — and they were too busy surviving to worry about it, he said. At the beginning of school they were “packed like sardines” in a classroom that would be half empty by year’s end. Some students died, but many dropped out to care for siblings when their parents perished from “purely treatable and preventable diseases.”
“We were thinking every single minute about the present, not the future,” he said. “That was my life, that was the life of everyone who was there, and what is absurd — what has always been difficult for me to understand — is for those who were lucky enough to make it to turn against each other and to kill each other.”
He and his family were among the lucky ones. He excelled in school and was admitted to one of the country’s best high schools and later medical school. He was a third-year intern doing rounds at a hospital in 1993 when it was attacked by Hutu rebels at the start of Burundi’s civil war.
He escaped and fled to Rwanda, only to witness the genocide there. In 1994, he returned to Burundi and with help from a friend, got on a plane to the United States. Alone and scraping by delivering groceries in New York City, Niyizonkiza was taken in by a couple who, he told his audience, became like his parents. He was nearly suicidal at the time, having utterly lost hope in humanity, he said.
He earned an undergraduate degree at Columbia and attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and worked at Partners in Health, Farmer’s non-profit organization. In 2005, while enrolled at Dartmouth to continue his medical degree, he went to Burundi and visited hospitals there. The war had finally ended after 12 years.
“I couldn’t put what I saw out of my memory and keep up with everything in New Hampshire,” he said. “I noticed that I left Burundi physically but Burundi never left my mind. Running away from a situation like this absolute lack of access to health care … I think is a lack of imagination.”
So he bought an L.L. Bean tent, pitched it in Kigutu near his boyhood home and began a grassroots effort to build his clinic by engaging the people who live there — Hutus and Tutsis — to work together to plan, build and run the non-profit. Village Health Works opened in 2007.
Niyizonkiza called the ethnic divide a “pure fabrication” for political purposes and said poverty, not hatred, allowed the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda to flourish.
“It is precisely the dehumanizing social conditions that we were born in and grew up in that dehumanized us. Nothing beyond that,” he said. “Then we lost dignity, we lost decency, we lost humanity and became desperate, and desperate people do desperate things.”
The clinic seeks to attack the root causes of poverty through a holistic approach, starting with access to quality health care, but including education, nutrition, clean water and community-building.
Today, Niyizonkiza spends much of his time fundraising and “friendraising” to bring awareness to his country’s plight. He noted early in his talk that Rwanda and Burundi are one country split in two, with the same people, same language and, until the 100-day genocide in 1994, the same history.
“Rwanda is a totally different place because after the genocide, the government and international community got together and cleaned up the blood that was almost like an ocean in that country,” he told his audience. “Burundi went through a nasty war for twelve years and no one paid attention to it.”
Niyizonkiza concluded with a strong call to action to students. He asked them to take advantage of what they have and to be “bridges” for impoverished people who “through an accident of birth” have no access to what many take for granted — such as education, health care and jobs.
Colbert, the first-year student who was struck by his compassion, heard that message too, not so much by what he said as by what he did.
“People were kind to him and he felt the need to pass it on,” she said.