The Road to Kigutu

Deogratias Niyizonkiza barely escaped the genocidal war in Burundi in the 1990s. Years later, he returned to the small African nation with a big idea. Can he heal what remains?

by Stacey Kors Published Summer 2014
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Photographs by Kristy Carlson

“Welcome to the heart of darkness. I’m home.”

Deogratias Niyizonkiza has hardly slept in forty-eight hours. Yet after a night in his New York office and a long trip to Burundi, his arrival at Bujumbura International Airport seems to have energized him. He is heading to Kigutu, a mountain village about sixty miles south of Bujumbura, but it is too dangerous to travel outside the city at night.

He is met by a member of his staff, and his bags are loaded onto a white pickup truck with armed soldiers sitting in its bed. The security detail comes courtesy of the Burundi government. Niyizonkiza ’01GS speaks to his staffer in a combination of French and his native Kirundi, and switches to straight Kirundi when he talks to the driver. “We had French drilled into us in secondary school,” he explains in English. “Even after our Belgian colonial masters left, we continued their education, and were taught that our ‘primitive’ language was inferior. So we default to French with others who speak it. We’re a confused country.”

The center of Bujumbura, the country’s capital, is dark; except for a few illuminated billboards and lights twinkling on a distant hillside, one would never guess that this is a city of five hundred thousand. The truck passes a brightly lit building, the Primus Brewery. “Another gift from the Belgians,” Niyizonkiza says with disgust. “That brewery never closed once during thirteen years of war. So the militiamen could get drunk, and fuel themselves for more raping and killing.”

It is the first time since leaving New York that Niyizonkiza has referred to Burundi’s civil war. Stoked by ethnic tensions between the usually dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority that had been simmering since independence in 1962, it became one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts, lasting from 1993 to 2006. When the spasms of killing finally subsided, more than three hundred thousand Burundians had died and eight hundred thousand had fled the country; rural villages were burned to the ground, the cities’ infrastructures nearly wiped out.

For Niyizonkiza, who is Tutsi, the war was life-altering. It uprooted him and carried him halfway around the world: from the bush in Burundi, where he ran for his life, to New York’s Central Park, where he slept, and, later, to Columbia’s School of General Studies, Harvard’s school of public health, and Dartmouth’s school of medicine. It was a journey so unimaginable that it moved author Tracy Kidder to chronicle Niyizonkiza’s experience in the best-selling book Strength in What Remains. Kidder’s book ends in 2006 with the birth of the idea for a nonprofit public clinic in the mountains of Burundi that would come to be called Village Health Works (VHW). Eight years later, VHW has five full-time physicians, fourteen nurses, and three lab technicians providing nonsurgical treatment to an average of 150 patients a day. People line up outside the gates hours before the clinic opens; some travel by foot from as far as Tanzania, or by canoe across Lake Tanganyika from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I’m eager to get to Kigutu,” Niyizonkiza says as the truck stops at the guesthouse where he will spend the night. “Not so I can fix things, but so I can show others how to fix things.”

To drive in Bujumbura by day is to negotiate an obstacle course of potholes, pedestrians, bicycles, and herds of goats. People carry fifty-pound bags of cassava, mattresses, and barrels of palm oil, either balanced on their heads or strapped to the backs of groaning two-wheelers, which are then often pushed to their destination, sometimes a half or full day’s journey uphill.

Located in the Great Lakes region of East Africa and roughly the size of Maryland, Burundi, with ten million inhabitants, is Africa's second most densely populated country and the world’s second poorest, with an annual per-capita income of roughly $240. More than 90 percent of the population lives in rural villages, without electricity or running water. Although the country exports coffee and tea, the agricultural economy is mainly domestic. When Bujumbura’s central market burned down in January 2013, the government estimated the loss to be 40 percent of the country’s national income.

“The city is much crazier now because of the fire,” says Niyizonkiza, as the white pickup weaves past women with baskets of mangoes and bananas perched on their turbaned heads. “People lost their businesses, so they’re selling things by the side of the road. Many borrowed money and then couldn’t pay it back. Some were so desperate that they committed suicide.”

South of the city, traffic quickly disappears as the road curves around the eastern coast of Lake Tanganyika. The lake is more than four hundred miles long and forty-five miles across at its widest point. Neighboring Congo, to the west, is invisible beyond the horizon. The impression is that landlocked Burundi, with Rwanda to its north and Tanzania to its east and south, sits on the shores of an ocean. Palm and fruit trees grow in this tropical valley, as do fields of rice, maize, and cassava, staples of the nutrient-poor Burundian diet.

Piles of bricks punctuate the road next to rows of tiny houses. “This land down to the lake is owned by the government,” Niyizonkiza says. “People can be kicked off at any time.” While some of the intrepid builders lost homes during the war and are reluctant to return to their villages, most are refugees returning from Tanzania, which closed its last camp early last year, leading to a sudden influx of tens of thousands of exiled Burundians. “The UNHCR built so-called peace villages for repatriation,” says Niyizonkiza, referring to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “But many people don’t want to live there because it feels like being back in a refugee camp.”

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Splendid article. Not surprising that Tracy Kidder wrote a book about Deogratias...

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