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Powerful, but would have been better if Kidder hadn't inserted his own story
on October 23, 2011
Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, but the misery suffered by its population goes well beyond profound poverty. As is well known, both Burundi and the neighboring country of Rwanda had gruesome civil wars in the late 1990s. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in fighting between the two main ethnic groups in these countries, the Hutu and the Tutsi.
"Strength in What Remains" is the story of Deogratias--or "Deo"--a young Burundi medical student and a Tutsi. When the Burundi war breaks out in 1994, Deo escapes to New York with $200 in his pocket and finds work as a grocery store delivery clerk. Living on the street, he almost gives up in despair, but he befriends a politically active nun who finds him a home in Lower Manhattan with an older, childless couple, who later pay his way through Columbia. Deo subsequently finds work with the global health organization founded by Paul Farmer, the subject of one of Kidder's earlier books, "Mountains Beyond Mountains." With the experience he gains at PIH, Deo eventually returns to Burundi to build a health clinic there.
Tracy Kidder's true story of Deo's life has two parts. The first part tells Deo's story from the time he is a small child to the time he graduates from Columbia and starts to work at PIH. It's powerful, indeed frequently overwhelming. But the second half of the problem is problematic. Here Kidder describes the trip he took with Deo back to Burundi, to retrace the path Deo's took while escaping the violence and to make plans for the health clinic. Reading this section recalls watching a Michael Moore movie: you just wish that Moore would get back behind the camera and make his movie, without inserting himself into it, and the same seems true of Kidder. His reactions to the killing fields of Burundi aren't what should matter, and yet there he is telling you about his inability to feel the appropriate feelings.
There's also another problem with the second half of the book: sometimes it seems that Kidder has forgotten what he already wrote. For example, one of the most memorable moments in Deo's experience occurs when he's been on the run for weeks, and, exhausted, is about to give up just short of the Rwandan border. A Hutu woman sees him, coaxes to keep moving, and lies the border police saying that he is her son, in order to save him. Kidder tells this story in detail, in the first half of the book, writing: "'I'm too tired,' [Deo] told the woman. `I'm just going to stay here.' `No, no,' she said. `The border, it's nearby.'". In the second half, when they revisit the scene, Kidder describes a conversation he has with Deo: "'What was it you told her?' I asked over the noise of the plane. Gazing out, Deo replied `I'm too tired. I'm just going to stay here.' And she said `No, no. It's not too far to the border.'"
I happened to read this book shortly after reading Chimamanda Ngozi's "Half the Yellow Sun," a fictional account of a different African civil war: the Nigerian war that predated Burundi's by about 30 years. Both books pack an emotional wallop, but somehow Ngozi's fiction had an immediacy for me that Kidder was approaching in the first part of his book, but upset in the second.