Having survived the horrors of genocide in his home country, a young man named Deogratias fled Burundi only to live as a homeless refugee in New York City, spending his nights sleeping in Central Park. “Deo’s” journey from homelessness to realizing his dream of founding a health clinic in Burundi was the inspiration behind Pulitzer-Prize winning author Tracy Kidder’s latest book, “Strength in What Remains.”
In his lecture held in Cook Auditorium on Monday, Kidder described how he empathized with Deo’s struggles and admired his ability to rise above a traumatic past.
“I could imagine myself in his place, fearing the eyes of strangers,” Kidder said.
After a period homeless in New York, Deogratias, whose last name was omitted from the book and talk because of privacy issues, was adopted by an American couple. Within two years, he matriculated at Columbia University and then attended Dartmouth Medical School, later returning to rural Burundi to found Village Health Works, an organization that has since established a medical clinic.
Kidder described Deo’s story as “a window to enormity.” By telling Deo’s story, Kidder was able to confront issues of war and genocide, specifically the conflicts in Eastern Africa, he said.
“I couldn’t tell Deo’s story without attempting to explain some of the history of violence in Rwanda and Burundi,” Kidder said.
Instead of trying to expose and analyze problems on a large, theoretical scale, Kidder sought to “organize the world’s chaos” through Deo’s individual experience, he said.
“I understand the world best through stories,” Kidder said.
Kidder’s approach to investigative journalism, in which he often follows individuals for years at a time, has allowed him to explore a variety of topics.
“What I aspire to is art,” he said. “Art has the great power to transform experience of suffering and injustice into something beautiful.”
Speaking on his approach to writing the book, Kidder explained that he sought to “allow readers to experience [the facts of war and genocide] not as truisms but as we experience them in our lives.”
Kidder said that he believes a storyteller’s job is to catch “something more” than simply a narrative, adding that the writers he most admires “make the world new” in their works.
In addition to Deo’s individual story and the larger ideas of war and genocide, “Strength in What Remains” addresses the question of “dealing with memories like Deo’s,” Kidder said.
The founding of Village Health Works was a way for Deo to “weld back together his life, a life that was torn in two by war,” Kidder said.
He added that he hopes Deo’s story will “humanize Burundi” and bring attention to New York’s homeless population “the part of New York that is designed to be invisible.”
“This is the story of a person not all that different from most of us,” Kidder said.
Kidder was first introduced to Deo through Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, the subject of Kidder’s previous work and the recommended reading for the Classes of 2009 and 2013, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.”
“I was interested initially not in the issues that interested those two men, but in the outlines of their lives,” Kidder said of his experiences with Farmer and Deo.
College President and PIH co-founder Jim Yong Kim helped bring Kidder to Dartmouth, executive director of the Ethics Institute Aine Donovan said in her introduction to the lecture. Kidder is the Ethics Institute’s Spring 2010 Dorsett Fellow.
Kidder’s lecture was accompanied by a slide show portraying the construction of the Village Health Works clinic in Burundi and the patients treated there since its completion. Kidder encouraged audience members to donate to the organization and cautioned against “self-serving aid organizations.”
“Americans have tremendous power to help purchase better lives for people in places like Burundi,” Kidder said. “What’s required is that we invest wisely.”