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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The facilities, while basic from a Western point of view, are shiny and clean. There’s new medical and lab equipment; solar electricity with generator backup and plans for a micro-hydroelectric system to take advantage of the nine-month rainy season; fresh, filtered water piped down from a mountain spring to the clinic and to spigots distributed throughout the community; even satellite Internet for electronic medical records.

But VHW’s approach to healing has moved beyond the medical. In the last couple of years, Niyizonkiza has transformed his clinic, and the surrounding village, into a grassroots utopia. In addition to a small demonstration garden with programs on nutrition, and a multi-acre production garden growing fruits and vegetables, there are seven life-skills co-ops that train villagers in vegetable and fish farming, animal husbandry, baking, sewing, weaving, and honey production, with a coffee co-op in development. For the village children, professional musicians lead an after-school music program: 150 students are learning to play drums and other African instruments.

“I’m eager to get to Kigutu,” Niyizonkiza says. “Not so I can fix things, but so I can show others how to fix things.”

“It’s not just about medicine,” Niyizonkiza says. “It’s really about building a society, one that’s ready for hope, for change that matters.”

As Niyizonkiza’s vision grows, so does the budget needed to fulfill it. With nonprofit status in Burundi and the United States, VHW receives assistance from the two governments, from aid organizations such as UNICEF and the UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund), and from American donors, whom Niyizonkiza attracts through regular talks and fundraising events in the US. “I make noise wherever I can,” he says. Though he has been honored with People to People International’s Eisenhower Medallion, as well as an Unsung Heroes of Compassion award, presented by the Dalai Lama this past February, such honors interest him only inasmuch as they generate interest in his clinic and the country. “There’s been an amazing lack of media attention,” he says. “Hardly anyone talks about Burundi, except when we talk about ourselves and no one is around to listen to us. We’re off the map.”

In Kigutu for barely two hours, Niyizonkiza hits the road for the ninety-minute drive back to the capital for a meeting with the minister of health. The next morning, on his way back to Kigutu, he stops at Bujumbura University’s Faculty of Medicine. The government pays students a stipend to attend the public institution, and, with no advanced training programs, sends the best out of the country for specialized training. Most do not come back.

Niyizonkiza traverses the campus with a slight swagger, a lifetime away from the self-consciousness of his student years, when he was a country bumpkin who patched and re-patched the pair of pants he wore daily. He shakes his head as he wanders the halls, pointing out the crumbling concrete, the daylight shining through holes where emergency-exit doors were ripped out of the structure. “It was beautiful when I was here,” he laments, peering into a classroom with trash littering the floor. “Now look at it. And they’re still using textbooks from the 1980s. For medical school!”

The early 1990s were a promising time. After twenty years of relative stability, Burundi held the first democratic presidential elections condoned by the Tutsi-led government, electing Melchior Ndadaye, a peace-preaching Hutu, in 1993. Within a few months of taking office, however, Ndadaye was assassinated by a small band of Tutsi soldiers. The retaliation was swift and severe, with twenty-five thousand Tutsis, mostly civilians, slaughtered by outraged Hutu radicals. It took almost ten years before the UN deemed the massacre a genocide.

Niyizonkiza was then in his third year of medical school, interning at a rural hospital in northern Burundi, happy to leave the chaos of the city behind. Unaware of the president’s assassination the night before, he woke up one morning to an eerily quiet hospital, with no doctors to be found. While he was doing the rounds alone, a patient told him about the attack, and that Tutsis all over the country were being targeted.

Soon Niyizonkiza heard the sounds of trucks, and of whistles and drums outside the hospital. Inside, patients were wailing, running when able, locking the metal doors to their rooms and praying for their lives. He rushed to his room and crawled under his cot, clinging to the rusted springs of the frame. Hearing the sounds of shattering glass and doors being kicked open around him, Niyizonkiza realized that he’d forgotten to lock his own. He saw it open, saw a man’s legs and feet, and heard him say, “The cockroach is gone. He ran away.” The legs and feet then disappeared.

The story of the hospital massacre and Niyizonkiza’s subsequent months on the run are powerfully recounted in Kidder’s book, the descriptions of what he witnessed — people beheaded and burned alive — so dreadful that they’re almost unreadable. Niyizonkiza hasn’t read the book, and won’t discuss the experiences it chronicles. “It was excruciatingly painful,” he says. “I was in tears, trying to talk about these things. I almost walked away.”

Back on the rural roads leading to Kigutu, Niyizonkiza is in a more relaxed mood. He points out sights along the way: a rock commemorating the two nights Stanley and Livingstone spent there, in 1871; the spot where the pope’s envoy to the 2003 peace negotiations was assassinated; a hippo swimming in Lake Tanganyika. Seeing more refugees building shelters by the road, his mood changes. “If, God forbid, I was ever in politics,” he says, “I would do this differently. But,” he adds with conviction, “I’m not interested in that; I’m a US citizen.”

While Niyizonkiza may have no political aspirations in Burundi, he remains one of its most influential diplomats. “The minister of health calls me the ambassador for Burundi,” he says, “because there’s no one to speak for us. But I’m only one man; it’s very isolating and exhausting.”

With scant media attention paid to Burundi, both during the war and after, most Westerners haven’t even heard of the country, much less its conflict. The Tutsi genocide in Burundi occurred one year before Rwanda’s, but the sheer scale and speed of the latter atrocity, and the subsequent international guilt over failing to prevent it, pushed Burundi into Rwanda’s shadow. Even now, with gleaming modern hospitals and mirrored skyscrapers in its capital, Rwanda continues to receive considerably more international development assistance and humanitarian aid than Burundi. Even an emergency appeal by the International Red Cross in 2012 failed to raise enough money for the basic needs of Burundi’s returning refugees.

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

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