- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 7, 2009



By Tracey Kidder

Random House, $26, 277 pages

Reviewed by John Greenya

Ever wonder just how much one human being can endure and yet survive? This powerful book, an account of one man’s journey through myriad hells, will give you a very good idea. And, because it is written by one of the country’s best writers of nonfiction, you can be sure it is an accurate account of an amazing period in the life of one amazing human being.

Of all the ironies to be found in “Strength in What Remains” (the title comes from Wordsworth’s ode “Intimations of Immortality”) perhaps the most telling is that the full name of Deo, the protagonist, is Deogratias, as in thanks be to God. It’s ironic because for most of the story, Deo has very little for which to be thankful.

Somehow, over a period of six months on the run, he has survived the horrific genocidal wars in his native Burundi by escaping through Rwanda, in the mid-1990s even more of a killing field.

Eventually, Deo finds himself in New York City with no home, no job, no belongings worth anything and unable to speak the language. What he has is his incredible will to survive.

In Burundi, Deo, a member of the Tutsi people, had been a very promising medical student, thanks to his intelligence and his diligence, which earned him scholarships. In the United States, the best job he can find is delivering groceries to highrises on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for which he is paid $15 for a 12-hour day, plus the few tips that aren’t pocketed by a greedy supervisor. Yet Deo perseveres.

He joins a ragtag bunch of other homeless refugees who seek shelter in an abandoned tenement building in Harlem, only to find this arrangement so dangerous and scary that, after discovering a dead body in the street near the tenement one morning, Deo opts to sleep in Central Park.

He is still scared, but not as badly: “He found places that felt private, spots of grassy or leaf-covered ground hidden by bushes. Lying on his back, looking up through leaves and branches at the stars, he felt almost at home, almost as if he’d been restored to his proper element.”

Eventually, Deo meets a good Samaritan who understands French, his main language, and he tells her parts of his story. Through her, he meets other goodhearted people who, on learning of his earlier education, help him enter Columbia University. There, despite language difficulties, Deo again rises to the challenge and earns a degree over the course of several years.

In 2001, Deo moves to Boston, where he enrolls in the Harvard School of Public Health and one day attends a lecture by the noted infectious-disease specialist Dr. Paul Farmer. Enthralled, he introduces himself to Dr. Farmer, who immediately becomes the young African’s mentor and friend.

Approximately 2 1/2 years later, Deo also meets Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author (“The Soul of a New Machine,” “House,” and “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” among others) and the seed for this book is sown.

In the first half of “Strength in What Remains,” chapters alternate between Deo’s new world and his old, America and Africa. They are the most gripping, for Mr. Kidder puts Deo’s thoughts and experiences in the protagonist’s head and voice, which makes the horror of the African’s months on the run all the more powerful. In the second half, also presented in alternating chapters, the author steps forward, and though, predictably, the drama diminishes (and then really diminishes when he presents the tortured history of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict) it hardly disappears.

Deo goes to work for Partners in Health (PIH), where one of Dr. Farmer’s assistants tells us, “I was just very worried about him. It seemed like he never slept, it seemed like the genocide was such a part of his every day. Not that any of this defied understanding, of course, but I didn’t know how a person could possibly cope with it.”

As Deo learns more and more about public health, it rekindles a dream he has had since childhood of starting a medical clinic back home in Burundi, and in 2006, the author accompanies him on a journey to Burundi and Rwanda.

Mr. Kidder writes, “I had known Deo for several years now, and had spent a large part of the past six months in his company. I had begun to know him well enough to realize there were things about him that I couldn’t know. But I hoped I could get closer to an understanding by seeing Burundi and Rwanda with him.” And so he does - both see the country with Deo and get closer to an understanding.

That summer, Mr. Kidder and his subject retrace the route that began on the night of Oct. 22, 1993, when Deo began his six-month hegira through hell.

Again, Deo manages to survive the secondhand emotional battering, not to mention some brand-new dangers. (The author, who had packed “anti-anxiety pills” keeps them close at hand.) Then, wonder of wonders, Deo is reunited with his aging parents and the few other family members who, miraculously, made it through the killings.

Finally, with the help of others from PIH, Deo begins to build Village Health Works, his clinic. “By the summer of 2008,” Mr. Kidder writes, “Village Health Works had begun administering AIDS medications to fifty-seven patients. The clinic had an ambulance, beds for ten patients, and thirty-three community health workers to bring health care to villagers’ homes … a growing vaccination program, a deworming program, and a program to curb malnutrition. It had six nurses, a Burundian doctor, as well as Deo’s American medical friends, and it had a new building for them to sleep in, in beds. The clinic was seeing an average of forty-seven patients a day, and sometimes as many as ninety - about sixteen thousand individual patients in its first eight months of operations.”

How’s that for a living symbol of strength in what remains?

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer and critic.

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