“In the face of nightmares born of surface distinctions—of power exercising all of its destructive prerogatives—the seeds of mankind’s survival lie in unexpected acts of kinship and kindness.”
—Ron Suskind in his review of Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder, The New York Times Book Review.
The remarkable book I am about to share with you is not for the faint of heart. It describes human violence on a scale that’s hard to believe, understand, and accept. But like so many things in life, it also tells about the saving graces some can bestow on others.
Strength in What Remains, by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder, published last year, recounts the modern odyssey of 24-year-old medical student Deogratias (Latin for “thanks be to God”), known as Deo, who in 1994 escaped to New York City from the genocide in the central African countries of Burundi and Rwanda.
Deo, who was born a Tutsi, grew up in a large and loving family that raised milk cows and had to walk across three mountains every day to attend elementary school. An exceptionally bright student, he decided to become a doctor. He had completed three years of medical school, where he studied along with Hutus, and was doing an internship in a hospital when the brutal civil war erupted. It went on to claim at least one million lives of Tutsis and Hutus and came very close to claiming his.
On the surface, it is difficult to tell the physical differences between members of the Tutsis and Hutus tribes. As Ron Suskind writes in his favorable review of Strength in What Remains, “Through Deo’s eyes, we see how the all but indiscernible differences between Tutsi and Hutu make a harrowing mockery of the supposed distinction of ethnicity. Hutu and Tutsi begin to slaughter one another, farm to farm, house to house…”
For six months, Deo was on the run—traveling from Burundi to Rwanda and back again—hiding deep in forests, fording rivers red with blood, pushing through piles of corpses, and witnessing the massacre of other refugees. He struggled to survive, moving from one location to the next in the countryside, struggling to avoid the weapons of mass destruction, machetes and bows and arrows.
Along the way, Deo saw the aftermath of a dreadful act of sexual violence. After the massacre of an entire village, he crept up to one of its small mud huts and peered into a hole in the wall. There inside the hut, he saw the dead bodies of a family; the husband’s genitals had been cut off and stuffed into his wife’s mouth.
Yet Deo survived because of others small acts of kindness and courage. A Hutu woman pulled him from the brush in which he had hid and saved him from a beheading by telling a Hutu border guard that he was her son. The guard didn’t believe her and instead measured Deo’s nose to see if it was broad enough to make him a Hutu. With his narrow nose, Deo failed the test. The guard tied a black piece of cloth around Deo’s arm and pointed him toward a group of other Tutsi refugees marked for decapitation.
The woman led Deo away. Under the protective cover of her shawl, she untied the cloth and pushed him to a group of Hutu refugees going in a different direction. Deo was saved by the kindness of a stranger whose name he will never know.
This was not the last act of kindness that came his way. The wealthy father of a medical school friend bought Deo an airplane ticket to the United States and gave him $200 to start life anew. An African baggage handler at the New York City airport befriended him and found a place for him to sleep in a decrepit Harlem apartment frequented by drug addicts. Way led onto way, and Deo moved on to sleep in a leafy bower in Central Park, because it reminded him of Burundi’s forests.
The only job Deo could find was delivering groceries to wealthy apartment owners on the Upper East Side for $15 a day. Eventually, he met a nun, who introduced him to an older couple, who offered Deo a room in their SoHo apartment. They eventually paid his way through Columbia University’s School of Graduate Studies and supported him while he took classes at the Harvard School of Public Health. There he met Dr. Paul Farmer, who runs Partners in Health and helped Deo get accepted to Dartmouth Medical School, in New Hampshire.
After his incredible ordeal, Deo needed to reconcile both the extreme human cruelty he experienced and the acts of kindness he received. To help accept the inexplicable gulf, he decided to drop out of medical school and return home to Burundi to build a health clinic in Kayanze which he names Village Health Works. Since its opening in 2007, 28,000 men, women, and children, many of whom have traveled great distances for help, have been treated for a variety of illnesses.
Surface distinctions—like those measured by the length and breadth of a nose in central Africa—can lead to horrible human disasters or cause pain on a smaller scale. Just look at what’s happening right around us: kids bully other kids on the school bus; teens hurl insults like “faggot” and “dyke” at other teens.
Yet small acts of decency and kindness persist, even on a national scale. Just this week, President Obama signed an executive order requiring hospitals that receive public money through the Medicare and Medicaid programs to permit the same visitation privileges for same-sex partners that they offer straight couples.
Unlike this policy or Deo’s clinic, most of us cannot hope to perform acts of kindness on such a grand scale. But, perhaps, we can up our number of acts of random kindness on a smaller one.