Strength in What Remains (Burundi)

map of Burundicourtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

by Tracy Kidder

There’s no doubt that Kidder is a great writer–he won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Dr. Paul Farmer (although that isn’t always an indicator)! Dr. Farmer also comes up in this book–as the inspiration for a poor medical student from Burundi, who has the great misfortune to get caught up in not one, but two horrifying genocides.

The book swings back and forth between Deogratius’ new life in New York City and his old  one in Burundi and Rwanda. I think this was a smart storytelling choice–chronological order might have overwhelmed us readers with sorrow and anger. Deo speaks of unimaginable atrocities, like seeing wild dogs packing human heads around in their mouths.

“Deo Gratius” of course means “praise God” in Latin, a logical name for a grateful mother to give her infant son. A different custom in Burundi is to give children terrible names, so that the demons won’t want them. Growing up, Deo knows of a couple kids called Snarling Dog and Shit.

Remember Rwanda?

book coverA few memories, for a girl from Idaho–in the 90s, of Hutus and Tutsis killing each other on TV, and people killing gorillas in the national parks and chopping down all the trees for fires. Awful stuff, but it faded quickly. Not once do I remember Burundi being mentioned.

It turns out that the small kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi were lumped together under colonial occupation by Europeans, and that tensions between the native haves and the have-nots were exacerbated. But Hutu and Tutsi are not ethnicities. It used to be that if you had cows (were richer) you were a Tutsi and if you were merely a cow-less farmer, you were a Tutsi. Furthermore, people can’t tell by looking if someone is one or the other, like Americans can’t tell by looking at one another is someone is Jewish.

In Burundi, the Tutsis got the government and the military, and in Rwanda, the Hutus did. So their genocides kind of mirrored each other in a very sick way. Burundi happened first. Deo (who self-identifies as Tutsi) hid under his bed at the medical school in order to avoid being killed by machete-wielding Hutus.

A Caveat

pygmies in Burundi
The Twa in Burundi

It is only mentioned in passing in Kidder’s book, and this is the only fault I found with it, that there are also the Twa in both countries, the Pygmies. I seem to remember from reading about the Congo, that the Twa are the original inhabitants of these lands around Lake Victoria, and both the other groups are latecomers. What happened to the Twa during the massacres is not mentioned at all.

So Deo flees out of Burundi, helped by a Hutu woman he meets at the border, and survives in Rwanda for six months before the killing starts there. He flees back across the border and gets his half-French friend Jean, from medical school, and Jean’s father, to smuggle him safely to America under the ruse of working for the company as a coffee bean buyer.

Burundi mountains
A farm in Kirundo province, northern Burundi. Most rural Burundians are subsistence farmers.

They give him some cash, but when his money runs out, he finds himself living in Central Park as a homeless man. He’s got untreated PTSD, he doesn’t know which of his family members are still alive–if any–and he’s being ripped off by his employer, a grocery store that pays him $15 per day to deliver to New Yorkers. That is a 12-hour day, six days per week. His boss is sadistic. The highlight of Deo’s days are going to a nearby Barnes & Noble bookstore and looking up English words in one of the dictionaries he can’t afford to buy.

What will the rest of his life look like? Will he get to return to medical school? Will he ever meet Paul Farmer? Will Deo be able to return to his country and complete his dream of building a non-profit clinic there? (AIDS is on the rise…)


This was an excellent book, told by a brilliant writer, about a man with a heart as big as Africa. Five helpful ex-nuns called Sharon.

For more information on the violence in the region around Africa’s great lakes, see my blogs on the Congo and on Rwanda.


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