A tale of ethnocide, exile and healing by a master of narrative nonfiction.
Deogratias, Deo for short, is a young African man who would be easy to lose in the busy streets of New York—timid, unsure of which subway goes where, speaking only halting English. So he arrived more than a decade ago, one of many with a sobering story. From Burundi, he narrowly escaped being massacred for being Tutsi, then fled across the border to Rwanda, where he narrowly escaped death in many guises. In New York, he was befriended by a kindhearted Senegalese who invited him to join a community of squatters from West Africa, Jamaica and other foreign lands. But when his friend returned to Africa—“it’s so hard here,” he told Deo—the young Burundian was on his own, living on the streets, sleeping in parks and libraries. From there, by virtue of hard work and personal charm, he steadily rose in a way that would do Horatio Alger proud. He gained admission to Columbia and worked to finish the medical degree he was earning back home, all the while sending hard-earned money to relatives and taking elective courses in literature and the humanities. When Kidder (My Detachment, 2005, etc.) picks up the tale in the first person, he accompanies Deo on a return trip to a remote part of Burundi, where the former refugee built a hospital. Upon seeing this place, called Village Health Works, one Hutu man who had pledged to killing Tutsis remarks, “I wish I had spent my life trying to do something like this.” The moment, Kidder makes clear, does not portend forgiveness, for the graves of untold hundreds of thousands are still too fresh—but it does speak to the possibility of remembrance and, one hopes, reconciliation.
Terrifying at turns, but tremendously inspiring—like Andrew Rice’s The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget (2009), a key document in the growing literature devoted to postgenocidal justice.