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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Helping Burundi has its own set of challenges. Although the war officially ended in 2006, armed militias could be found in the bush until 2009; they continue to be active in nearby eastern Congo, an area from which many crossed the lake to join in Burundi’s bloodshed. (Because it is so easy to reach, the area around Kigutu was especially hard hit.) Travel advisories remain in effect from governments around the globe. Hutu president Pierre Nkurunziza won a contested election in 2010 and in 2013 passed a law banning media criticism of the government and another amending the power-sharing provision in the country’s peace accord. In spite of the constitution’s term limits, Nkurunziza still plans to run again next year, heightening concerns about Burundi’s continued stability.

For Niyizonkiza, who maintains a good working relationship with the government and eschews politics, these are abstract issues. “It’s not about the government,” he says. “It’s about the people, about social investment in a post-conflict country. The people here feel so abandoned, so betrayed; by giving hope to them, we’re restoring our greatest resource.”

When Niyizonkiza first came to New York, he squatted in an abandoned building in Harlem with other African immigrants. With the help of one of them, he got a job delivering groceries. But the building’s conditions were so awful that the once-promising med student moved out, preferring to sleep in Central Park, which at least reminded him of Burundi’s bush.

“The minister of health calls me the ambassador for Burundi, because there’s no one to speak for us. But I’m only one man; it’s very isolating and exhausting.”

One day Niyizonkiza made a grocery delivery to a church rectory. He was greeted warmly by a former nun, Sharon McKenna, who, after his poor attempt to speak a couple of words in English, asked the skinny twenty-two-year-old if he spoke French. Excited by the human connection, he chatted briefly with McKenna; as he left, she gave him a substantial tip, and, more importantly, a hug. It was the first act of genuine warmth that he had experienced since escaping the war.

A second delivery followed, and Niyizonkiza soon found himself telling his story. Having heard about the ordeal of this homeless refugee, McKenna worked to help him. After an extensive search she found a couple, Charlie and Nancy Wolfe, who were willing to take him in. With the support of McKenna and his “American parents,” coupled with his intellect and determination, he thrived. In less than two years after arriving in America, Niyizonkiza had learned English and was attending Columbia’s School of General Studies.

“None of this could have happened without her,” he says, pointing to a banner on the side of the clinic’s original building that reads Sharon McKenna Health Center.

As he walks away from the clinic, he spots VHW’s education director and suggests a tour of the site for the planned early-childhood development facility. Even though it will be many years before his ideas can be fully implemented — Niyizonkiza has raised only a fraction of the $3 million required to build the women’s health pavilion, which is his current priority — he has a rendering of the proposed campus to show anyone who’s interested. In true Niyizonkiza fashion, it’s an elaborate, multifaceted design: classrooms configured in an arc (“It’s like arms stretched out in an embrace,” he says, “hugging the children”), an outdoor performance pavilion, an arts pavilion, and a children’s instruction garden, where even the youngest villagers can learn about nutrition.

So far, though, the site doesn’t do much to inspire. Dirt and scruffy grass surround three large, white UNICEF tents usually used for refugee housing, equipped only with floor mats, each of which holds thirty children. “How can they learn in that kind of environment?” he says. “UNICEF spent all this money on latrines for the primary classrooms that don’t even have running water. It’s unsanitary and dehumanizing. I had to add a spigot outside so the children could wash their hands.

“We want to do things our own way,” says Niyizonkiza, who takes no salary from VHW. “I want to build something with dignity.”

It’s not that Niyizonkiza is ungrateful for the support, but his desire to make every aspect of his clinic the best it can be, to heal the people of Kigutu and give them hope, is so powerful that no one can ever do enough to satisfy him, including himself.

Niyizonkiza’s suitcase is waiting for him at the new staff residence. With all his travel, Niyizonkiza lives like a nomad, staying in his old room at the Wolfes’ when in New York and any available bed when in Kigutu. It’s a frenetic existence that comes at considerable cost to Niyizonkiza, who has little time for a private life. “But what’s the cost of doing nothing?” he says, pulling out his pajamas. “And what kind of life would I have anyway, knowing others are suffering and not being able to lift them out of their misery? Just because I had the good fortune to have gotten out.”

Once unpacked, he steps out onto the covered balcony, sits down at a bistro table, and gazes at the spectacular views of the lake and Congo. But within a few minutes, he loses interest in the scenery and starts complaining about problems with the building’s design. Growing restless, he decides to take a short hike to the top of the mountain to watch the sun set over the lake.

Partway up the hillside, he stops. To the left of the path is a raised white-tiled grave, typical of this rain-soaked region. Below the simple wooden cross is a cracked glass display window with a faded photo of a man smiling under a fedora: Niyizonkiza’s father. “Every time he needed to go somewhere to think,” says Niyizonkiza, “he sat in this spot.” Niyizonkiza isn’t sure of the cause of his father’s death in 2009, but he attributes it to complications from years of alcohol abuse, an all-too-common problem during the war. “People lost everything,” he says. “There was so much shame for the men, not being able to take care of their families.”

This land at the top of the mountain once belonged to Niyizonkiza’s parents, who gave it for the clinic. As a boy, Niyizonkiza grazed cattle here; at night, under the stars, he listened to his grandfather’s stories. “I used to write poetry about the beauty of this place,” he recalls. “My mother told me I was too romantic.”

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

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