Nobody writes nonfiction like Tracy Kidder. Author of arguably the best book ever written about computing (the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Soul Of A New Machine), Kidder has turned his inimitable pen to subjects as diverse as elementary education (Among Schoolchildren), the elderly (Old Friends), and his own experience in Vietnam (My Detachment). But his 21st century has been spent contemplating the work of Dr. Paul Farmer, founder of Partners In Health and the subject of Kidder’s 2003 bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains. With Strength In What Remains: A Journey Of Remembrance And Forgetting, he takes a different angle on the issues of medicine, poverty, and injustice by viewing them through the eyes of a refugee from the Burundian and Rwandan genocides of the early ’90s. And as always, the result is an intimate portrait of human beings in circumstances both incredible and ordinary, gracefully and unforgettably drawn.
The protagonist of Kidder’s tale is the fortuitously named Deogratias—Deo for short—who flees Burundi in 1994 and makes his way to New York through a bewildering sequence of airports, immigration officials, and taxi drivers. In the city, he squats in an abandoned building and works for an abusive boss as a grocery delivery boy. That isn’t the life Deo envisioned when he attended medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Then again, higher education isn’t the life he could have envisioned when he was a child walking twenty kilometers from his family’s mountain hut to their lakeside farm plot, starting before dawn and returning late with a load of cassava, all on bare feet. And in turn, who could have foreseen that the mysterious division of Burundi’s (and Rwanda’s) population into Hutu and Tutsi, a class distinction with ancient roots hardened into an ethnic hierarchy by Belgian colonials, would break out into genocide and force Deo, a Tutsi, on a 150-kilometer journey out of Burundi’s frying pan into Rwanda’s fire?
Deo’s desperate flight from the ubiquitous Hutu killing squads is full of indelible images, like a living baby Deo locks eyes with, then leaves behind in the arms of his butchered mother. But just as horrific and fantastical, in their way, are the stories of Deo’s unlikely rise from homeless Central Park resident to graduate of Columbia University and student at the Harvard School Of Public Health. All these strange tales turn on the help given to Deo by various friends and strangers, as much as they reveal Deo’s own preternatural determination. When Kidder accompanies Deo in 2006 to Burundi, a country still not stabilized after the genocides, and one of the poorest places in the world, Deo explodes in anger against the people he left behind. How can any good come out of such dysfunction, he rails, so much chaos that even traffic can’t be conducted with law and order? Yet working with Partners In Health, he and fellow American medical students arrive to build clinics and fight the poverty that lives inside Burundian bodies in the form of treatable parasitic and viral diseases. With inimitable clarity, Kidder illuminates the complexity of ethnic cleansing, immigration, global finance, public health, and especially the refugee experience, in an extraordinary feat of empathetic biography.