One of the smallest countries in Africa, with one of the lowest per-capita gross incomes in the world, Burundi is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For this small nation, the 20th century has been marked by coups, conflict, child soldiers and massive rivers of refugees attempting to escape the genocide of both Hutu and Tutsi peoples.
The odds of surviving such a life are low. But in the May issue of Town & Country, and in the book Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, we meet Deogratias Niyizonkiza (“Deo”), a young man who has done just that–and more.
Deo was in medical school when the latest of Burundi’s conflicts forced him to leave the country. Against impossible odds, he found his way to the United States. Without English language, money, or a roof over his head, he found work delivering groceries and “eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and philosophy. After graduating from Columbia, he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at the medical nonprofit organization Partners In Health. He left Partners In Health to continue his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School.”
In 2005, with the civil war abated, Deo returned to Burundi. In the village of Kigutu, he established Village Health Works (VHW), where the treatment of patients is guided by a single word: Dignity. Along with 24-hour primary health care services, VHW integrates education, sustainable agriculture, and economic development programs, with a pre-school, demonstration gardens, and outreach services to 18 surrounding communities and more than 200,000 men, women, and children.
This is such a remarkable story about the triumph of one person’s determination and vision. Not surprisingly, Deo has been recognized worldwide with multiple awards, including the 2014 Wheaton College Otis Social Justice Award, the 2014 Dalai Lama Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, and many more.
The center is now building a 120-bed modern surgical hospital in Kigutu to provide expanded physical and mental health services. The hospital, which is slated to open in 2018, won’t happen by vision alone. Donations are welcome as Deogratias Niyizonkiza and his team continue to work against the odds in a country where a woman has a 1 in 23 lifetime risk of dying in childbirth and 54 out of 1,000 babies will die before they reach their first birthday.