Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness
By Tracy Kidder
Random House, 304 pp.

In the tiny African country of Burundi, just south of Rwanda, one is discouraged from speaking the names of the dead. If a person utters the name of a deceased relative, he is said to invite bad luck, a sort of mild curse called gusimbura. Far better, the traditional thinking goes, to leave unpleasant memories behind.

But after a brutal civil war that dragged on for over a decade, from 1993 until 2005, the people of Burundi live with the kind of “unpleasant” memoriesof rape and dismemberment, mass killings and enveloping fearthat can’t ever be left behind. Most of the Western world is now at least somewhat familiar with the contours of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which a Hutu majority government systematically butchered almost a million minority Tutsis, but very few people know much, if anything, about the equally bloody war between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi.

It is the story of that war and its equally devastating psychological aftermath that Tracy Kidder (the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 1981’s The Soul of a New Machine) recounts in his latest book, Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness. Well-known for his “fly on the wall” style of narrative nonfiction, Kidder delves into the conflict through the eyes of Deo (short for Deogratias, Latin for “Thanks be to God”), a young Tutsi medical student who narrowly escaped murder at the hands of machete-wielding Hutu gangs. He spent six months hiding in jungles and refugee camps in both Burundi and Rwandatrekking nearly 100 miles on footbefore finally escaping to the United States in May of 1994. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, Deo’s arrival in New York City might have signified an easy, happy ending to an unthinkably dark tale. But Kidder recognizes that Deo’s life in America necessitates a completely different kind of survival, and it’s where this story really begins.

Twenty-four years old, Deo touches down at JFK Airport completely alone, with no contacts, no knowledge of English and $200 to his name. He spends his first few months in New York delivering groceries, squatting in Harlem tenements and sleeping in Central Park. His life is so far outside the margins that, as he remembers it, the city “made you feel like you were simply not a human being.” Six years later, after meeting a series of well-connected strangers who recognize his intellectual talent and remarkable resiliency, Deo is a graduate of Columbia University, eventually headed back to medical schoolthis time at Dartmouth.

But Deo’s personal successes in the United States and his newly minted green card do little to quell his agony over the horrors he witnessed in Burundi or his desire to improve the lives of the Burundian people however he can. With fewer than 300 doctors in Burundi, a country of more than seven million people, public health and medical care are, for him, the best places to start. Working with Dr. Paul Farmer (the subject of Kidder’s previous book, 2003’s Mountains Beyond Mountains) and Farmer’s nonprofit organization, Partners in Health, Deo puts his own medical education on hold to fulfill a lifelong dream: the construction of a first-rate clinic for the Burundian poor in the village of Kayanza.

Building the clinic, which he names Village Health Works, is a long, sometimes arduous process of catharsis by which Deo finally puts his lingering nightmares and fears to rest. As the author describes it, the clinic is a way for him to “reach back to his former life and connect it with his new one.” Deo explains it this way: “How can we be healthy and a good society? We can train nurses in Kayanza and expand all over the country. Let the population know: ‘Look, this is what life is.’ And those people, they will teach other people, make people see what is right … And that would erase, not the history, but it would create a new world, make it peaceful …”

Like Mountains Beyond Mountains, Strength in What Remains is not a book for cynics. That a man who survived such a grim, cruel war would ever want to return to the site of it, much less help many of its perpetrators, would appear almost ludicrous if it weren’t true. And Deo’s astounding lack of bitterness would seem implausible if Kidder hadn’t drawn his character so effectively, and if his research had been any less thorough. At times, even the author struggles with his own incredulity about Deo’s perseverance and optimism, to which his protagonist can only reply, “It’s my country no matter what, you know?” And the community in Kayanza soon rallies around him to help put that country back together.

Out of a war that claimed so many thousands of lives and displaced so many thousands of others, Kidder has found one story that makes real what libraries of facts and statistics often obscure: The human need for progress and reconciliation, even for forgiveness, can supplant its need for vengeance. But for Burundians, the memories will never die, nor should they. That will take, as Deo says, all “the time the earth has left.”

Tracy Kidder appears at Quail Ridge Books & Music Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m.