8 a.m., Sept. 24, 2010----Deogratias Niyizonkiza's incredible odyssey began when he boarded a plane in Bujumbura, Burundi, in 1994, leaving behind a country being ripped apart by genocide and civil war.
On the latest leg of this personal journey, Deo, as he is called, visited the University of Delaware on Wednesday, Sept. 22, to share his vision of hope and renewal. His visit was sponsored by UD's First Year Experience program.
Speaking to an audience of more than 600 students, staff and faculty in Mitchell Hall, the founder of Village Health Works in Kigutu, Burundi, and subject of Strength in What Remains, a book by Tracy Kidder, said that access to clean water and safe food is crucial in a country where people often have no other place to turn for help.
“A person is only fully well when he has a strong body and a strong mind and a strong spirit,” Deo, who is continuing his medical school education at Columbia University in New York City, said. “What we have done is provide much-needed health care to more than 30,000 persons.”
Deo said that a true picture of the results of the civil war that lasted from 1993-2005 could only be obtained by a first hand experience.
“Words are based on what we see around us,” Deo said. “There are things in Burundi that only the eyes can tell.”
While words may not match the atrocities committed, Deo said he believes the rest of the world has the power to say no to what happened in Burundi and Rwanda.
“What we need to do is feel compassion, to feel the pain of others,” Deo said. “This is what makes us human, and we can all do that.”
A major factor in health care situation in Burundi is a “user fee policy,” where hospitalized people who can't pay are physically detained until payment is made, Deo said.
“People run away from hospitals and die in the hands of those who practice witchcraft,” Deo said. “We believe there is something that can be done.”
Deo also related the story of villagers who teamed up to build a road that a Belgian construction firm estimated would cost $50,000 in U.S. dollars.
“One of the women said, 'we are not poor because we are lazy,'” Deo said. “The people, including women with children on their backs, and men, joined together to work for a common cause. When you get people who are suffering, they will build things, and they will be your friends.”
While education and volunteerism and donations are crucial, Deo said that the world as a whole has to do more to improve the lives of people so that situations that occurred in Burundi and Rwanda are consigned to history.
“The world has been wrong by doing something small, when it really needs to be doing so much more,” Deo said. “The fight for global social justice will be won.”
Before taking questions, Deo closed with a quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who said, “The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
Relationship with Tracy Kidder
When asked what it was like working with author Tracy Kidder, Deo said, “He [Kidder] knows what he is doing, and he was doing a lot. I think the process really took off when we were in Burundi. It was very different to talk to a human being who was not just a writer, but who was opening up his heart to me.”
Kidder's book was the University's First Year Experience common reader, and the author visited campus earlier this month.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photos by Evan Krape