Book Review – Strength in What Remains – A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder
Tracy Kidder’s latest narrative is entitled, “Strength in What Remains-A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness,” (Random House, 2009). In May 1994, 24 year-old Deogratias Niyizonkiza (aka Deo) boarded a plane from his native country of Burundi in East Central Africa; bound for JFK Airport in New York City. He had two hundred dollars to his name, spoke no English and had no American contacts. He fortunately escaped the Rwandan genocide accountable for an estimated 800,000 deaths that year. Tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis initiated the killings (Kidder provides historical notes to comprehend their conflict). Deo had been a third-year medical student in his homeland. He arrived stateside with the herculean dream of becoming a doctor.
Immigration authorities questioned Deo upon landing; alarmed by his French-only dialect, and paltry funds. Deo benefited from this pre-911 era. Muhammad, a French-speaking baggage handler interpreted Deo’s story for the officials; and offered him a place to stay. Immigration agreed and Deo began his American life. Muhammad, originally from Senegal, planned to return home; and lived in a Harlem tenement to save money. Deo slept on the floor in a destitute, doorless room. Muhammad introduced Deo to the New York City Subway; showing him areas that included Manhattan’s Upper East Side. There, he secured a job at a supermarket, working twelve-hour shifts, six days a week, for fifteen dollars daily pay. He had no lunch break. Soon, Muhammad returned to Senegal, leaving Deo alone. Deo disliked his Harlem residence and discovered people slept in Central Park. He joined the ranks.
Deo’s grocery delivery route introduced him to prominent New Yorkers; some of whom became instrumental in helping him achieve his career aspirations. Their cash, connections, and shelter enabled him to enroll in an English as a Second Language class. Deo graduated with a General Studies degree in 1995. He worked in a hospice at a New York City hospital to keep his medical ties.
In 2001 Deo pursued public health education in Boston. He met Paul Farmer, founder of Partners in Health (Kidder profiled Farmer in his 2003 story, Mountains Beyond Mountains). Farmer befriended Deo and helped him advance his medical career. In summer 2005, Deo worked for Farmer’s organization in Rwanda. He became inspired to build a clinic in Kayanza, a town in his native Burundi. In 2006, Deo withdrew from his medical education to address clinic-building full-time (He would return to his schooling elsewhere in 2009). Deo became a United States citizen in 2007, another defining moment in his illustrious life.
Deo’s story is remarkable given the tribulations he experienced during his Rwandan exodus. Dogs roamed the streets feasting on human heads. An infant continued to breast feed from its dead mother propped up against banana trees. Families were found slaughtered in their huts. Deo avoided detection by Rwandan militiamen by hiding under his bed. A Hutu woman befriended Deo (a Tutsi), and secretly helped him cross the Rwandan Border; and US Immigration officials trusted his story upon arriving at JFK Airport.
Kidder is known for immersing himself in his subjects’ lives to authenticate his story. In 2006, he and Deo revisited his nascent American days while living in New York City. They toured the Harlem tenement where he’d slept, rode familiar subway routes; and walked Central Park where he also slumbered. From there they traveled back to Burundi where Deo relived his six-month exodus during the genocide. Deo’s native language colors Kidder’s narrative. The book’s Part Two is titled “Gusimbura.” It means to avoid using a person’s name when talking about their death to loved ones, to relieve heartache. During his return visit to Burundi, Deo practiced much Gusimbura.
Amidst myriad global concerns, Kidder writes a novel of hope; and reminds us of the power of one.