Friday, February 19, 2010

Thanks Be to God

Strength in What Remains: a Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness
by Tracy Kidder

Deogratias. "Thanks be to God." By some quirk of grace, a mother in Burundi named her child this (he now goes by the nickname "Deo") unique word. Twenty-four years later, that same child survives a genocide in Burundi and lives to tell about it. He witnesses unimaginable horror and several times only narrowly escapes with his life. Strength in What Remains is Deo remembering the atrocities of the 1994 genocides in Burundi and Rwanda, as well as his processing what living through something like that did to his emotional and spiritual health. It is a moving story about a remarkable person.

Through a combination of luck and fortunate human connections, Deo was eventually able to escape the violence in his home country and fly to New York City. The narrative moves back and forth between memories of the wars that began in 1994 and Deo's building a life here in the United States. Something that stuck out to me about the narrative as a whole was the startling numbers of ways that we humans find to dehumanize each other. The Hutu rebels in Rwanda and Burundi called the Tutsis "cockroaches." To diminish the Tutsis in such a way probablymade it easier for the Hutus to slaughter them. Even though Deo was physically safer in New York City, he still endured slights and humiliations and people who seemed to think he had no right to exist just because he was born somewhere else. He also suffered the gradual erosion of his own ambitions and dreams, and began to lost hope that his life would ever include companionship or joy or intellectual stimulation. He thought he was going to work the same dead end job forever, and that if he disappeared no one would notice. I am not equating the busyness and apathy of American citizens with intentional slaughter, but I do think that looking through another person (and other ways of treating them like a non-person) is dehumanizing. If we do not engage with another person, we do not have to bother ourselves about what is happening to them.

Deo was lucky. He made friends with a small group of people who did care about him. They gave him a place to live, helped him get an education, and helped him navigate the labyrinth of becoming a US citizen. Deo has paid that forward by becoming involved with Partners in Health and working in Burundi to build accessible medical clinics. He still struggles with survivor's guilt, questioning of God's presence and goodness, and other issues related to the genocide that he lived through, but his survival story is amazing - as is his ability to move forward in a healing and productive way.

This is a great story, but I am not sure it is Kidder's best - that is probably Mountains Beyond Mountains. Still Tracy Kidder is incapable of writing a bad book. His eye for detail and ability to penetrate the workings of his subjects' minds make all of his books a window into the ways that other people live. What I most took away from Strength in What Remains is a confirmation of the power of relationship in the lives of people who are hurting. One person truly can make a difference in the life of another. We know that, of course, but it is a joy to have it affirmed so powerfully.

The book's title comes from a poem by William Wordsworth, a portion of which I will leave you with now:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;


Reverent Reader


At 3/1/10, 2:31 PM , Anonymous nancita said...

had read about this and want to read it. Earlier this year read his Old Friends about life in a nursing home. Interesting insights. Will loan it to you if you haven't read it.


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