Survival Despite All Odds: It Takes a Village, Literally

Survival Despite All Odds: It Takes a Village, Literally

I was fortunate to spend Saturday with a new friend, and a real hero, Dr. Deogratias Niyizonkiza (Deo), and even more fortunate when he agreed to share his story (in-person) with our Mazzetti Team, just yesterday.

Growing excitement in Kigutu through ongoing meetings with community members about building a clinic

Growing excitement in Kigutu through ongoing meetings with community members about building a clinic

Deo is the founder of an organization called Village Health Works (VHW), but these words fall so far short of trying to encompass who he really is. (More about VHW and why I’m sharing this story on the Mazzetti blog, later in the post.)

Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder told Deo’s story in what some say is his best book ­Strength in What Remains. The author describes his initial reaction… “When I first heard Deo’s story, I had one simple thought: I would not have survived… I wanted to address the question of how one survives the torment of memories like Deo’s, memories with a distinctly ungovernable quality.”

(With apologies to both Mr. Kidder and Deo, I will give you MY version of who he is.)

Dr. Deo sharing his story at our San Francisco office

Dr. Deo sharing his story at our San Francisco office

Deo grew up in Burundi. He was a medical student when the war broke out there between Hutu and Tutsi people. I remember having a vague awareness of this going on, during those (13) years, but it was so far away and had so little direct impact on my life. I’m embarrassed to say, I knew very little, really, of what was happening, and I did even less to respond.

I did not live it, but I did read Deo’s book. My wife Laura read the book, too, but she said she had to skip much of it, and go to the end, because it was too difficult (emotionally) to keep reading.

Deo was a very fortunate person, in that he escaped death, and he escaped his country. He was an unfortunate person in that most of the people he knew and loved did not.

Pure luck that I made it. But the initial survival process was hard than being killed…If I could make it, I’d learn the skills to save lives – Dr. Deo

He told me that all of his childhood friends, all of the people with whom he shared memories, were gone. He had new friends, but he had no old friends. Nobody with whom to share old memories. Mr. Kidder’s book ends with, “In European countries, people try to remember the past; in Burundi, people try to forget.” So, Deo, carrying these memories, carrying the knowledge that he survived what so many did not, can only cope by acting; by trying to bring medicine, hope, community, and love back to his people.

Deo is the first person I have ever met who also has a degree in philosophy and a degree in science (in his case, its biochemistry). After graduating he connected with Dr. Paul Farmer, a co-founder of Partners in Health. He learned from Dr. Farmer and created Village Health Works, a nonprofit providing quality, compassionate, dignified healthcare to rural Burundi, East Africa.

1st VHW clinic: The Sharon McKenna Community Health Center in Kigutu, Burundi

1st VHW clinic: The Sharon McKenna Community Health Center in Kigutu, Burundi

Deo’s work is amazing. He has a clinic now, and really, the core of a small village. He is raising money to build the first women and children’s hospital in Burundi, the 4th poorest country in the world. His village contains both Hutu and Tutsi people, and, in the rest of the country, there is still tension, still memory. But, when he went to start his clinic, people came to help. They shed their Tutsi-ness, their Hutu-ness; they became Deo’s people, building their own clinic; they became a community.

Hearing about the impact of Deo’s new clinic, I’m reminded of our work in Haiti, where a hospital is THE LIFE of the community. It is the source of energy, source of employment, source of health, the market for farmers, the place for those needing transportation. I remember, when we won the Kaiser SHBI competition–Michael Bardin (at the time, of Perkins and Will) talked about Healthcare as the “new civic architecture”. Michael was right, and I have never seen it so true as with Deo’s Village Health Works. Deo has brought more than just medicine to his country. He has brought community. He has brought hope. He has brought love. He has brought a sense of pride.

The community comes together to build a road to the hydro power site. (May 11, 2015)

The community comes together to build a road to the hydro power site. (May 11, 2015)

So, our Sextant Foundation has been looking for a next project. Deo’s clinic has a 10 kW solar system and a 130 kW micro hydro system. But, they need more; they need water treatment; they need more power; they need engineers; they need equipment; they need money. We created the Sextant Foundation knowing we could not solve all the problems of the world; we could only do what we could do, but we were determined to do what we could do. Doing our work, though, has always required that we find someone doing the work on the ground who we could help. If we put an energy and water system into a place that falls apart after we leave, we will have wasted everyone’s time.

In Deo, I have found our next great project: http://sextantfoundation.org/cause/village-health-works/

I ask for your volunteer assistance, your solar, electrical, and water purification equipment. Buy a Ton of Hope. We have agreed to work with Deo and Village Health Works to help them develop a new campus. Help us, help these people.

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