No matter how much you read or study, it's impossible for us as Americans to truly comprehend trying to survive civil war and genocide in countries like Rwanda or Burundi. Author Tracy Kidder, however, makes it very real.
His biography Strength in What Remains tells the story of Deogracias, a Tutsi from a small village in Burundi. After narrowly missing death during the country's ethnic genocides, Deo escapes to America. Broke, alone and unable to speak English, he struggles, living as a squatter in an abandoned building in Harlem and as a homeless man in Central Park.
With a mixture of hard work, determination and luck, Deo returns to school as a medical student at Columbia. After years of work and study he accomplishes his dream of creating Village Health Works, a nonprofit medical clinic in his native village.
This book is one that once you open, you can't put down. The most emotional and disturbing part, as you can no doubt imagine, is the recounting of Deo's horrifying journey of survival. Deo runs for four days, hiding from machete-clad militia men, unable to trust anyone, constantly stumbling over charred and decapitated bodies and barely escapes death on more than one occasion. When learning about a historical or current event, I've always been more interested in the personal accounts and experiences of persons who lived through the event. It's much more fascinating...and real...to me than reading an article or history book. While Kidder does go into some historical background, his main focus is on Deo; which is exactly what makes the book so powerful.
Throughout the story Kidder portrays Deo as an obviously shaken but strong and even optimistic man. I'm not a religious person, but I was struck by Deo's religious views, despite all the horrors he'd been through:
"I do believe in God. I think God has given so much power to people, and intelligence, and said, 'Well, you are on your own. Maybe I'm tired, I need a nap. You are mature. Why don't you look after yourselves?'...And I think He's been sleeping too much."
One of my favorite books is another of Kidder's works, Mountains Beyond Mountains. In both works, the two men Kidder writes about can make any book interesting, yet it's impossible to deny Kidder's writing skills. The man knows how to tell a story!