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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Families gather at Village Health Works’ annual community forum in December.

As the sun sets over Congo, Niyizonkiza sits down on a rotting wooden bench, one of three he built after he returned. So many years later, it remains his special spot, the place where he allows himself moments of contemplation. He says he hopes someday to build a house there with 360-degree views of the countryside. Stars fill the equatorial sky, and hundreds of lights illuminate the lake, as fishermen set out in small, lantern-lit boats for the night, hoping for a catch to sell the next morning.

“Life is beautiful,” he says, staring straight ahead. “But it’s been very hard.”

Sundays are quiet at the clinic, a time for families to visit and gather at the pavilion constructed for them, with its open-air cooking space. Beyond the clinic gates, however, Kigutu is alive with activity and song, as villagers return from services at the local Catholic and Pentecostal churches — the former left over from Belgian rule, the latter brought by post-independence missionaries.

Like most Burundians, Niyizonkiza used to attend church, but was put off by the religious hypocrisy he witnessed during the war. “These pastors talk about loving one another and don’t practice what they preach. Many of them were complicit in the killing: they’d tell people to gather in the churches, that they’d be safe there, and then signal the militia, who would burn the church down.”

Passing through the clinic’s security gate, Niyizonkiza gives the guard a big hug, says something to him in Kirundi, and laughs. “I built that guardhouse for him a little over a year ago,” he says, pointing to a turret-shaped building between the entrance and exit gates. “He was always standing out there in the rain!” Walking away, he adds, almost in passing, “He was one of my killers. He’s a Hutu, and is known for killing a lot of Tutsis.”

To the unaccustomed eye, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two ethnic groups. They speak the same language, practice the same religions, and, with the exception of a difference in height — Tutsis, on average, are taller than Hutus — there are few obvious physical differences. Tutsis, however, tend to have greater wealth and social status than Hutus. Burundi’s past kings were Tutsi, and, under Belgian rule, Tutsis were kept in control of the government. Tutsis also prefer cattle ranching to farming, which is the typical livelihood of Hutus and considered a lower-class occupation.

But in a country as destitute as Burundi, even slight economic differences can feel significant. By local standards, Niyizonkiza’s parents were well-off, owning three pieces of land in different parts of Burundi and able to pay the roughly one-dollar annual tuition to send their son to boarding school. Yet theirs was still a hand-to-mouth existence: Niyizonkiza’s father was usually traveling, buying goods in Tanzania that he resold in Burundi, leaving his eldest sons to tend cattle. “We were all poor,” Niyizonkiza says. “And we all used to get along. The war was about an overall scarcity of resources. Poor villagers were taken advantage of — by politicians, by church leaders — and told whom to blame for their suffering.”

Walking down the road, Niyizonkiza is greeted by villagers, who wait in line to grasp his hand and say amahoro, a greeting that means “peace.” In a rumpled white T-shirt and cargo khakis, with a personal security guard on his heels and a golf umbrella at the ready, he can seem like a pop star. But Niyizonkiza never puts on airs: he is of the community, known by young and old simply as Deo.

As he takes the hand of one middle-aged woman he knows well, Niyizonkiza becomes transfixed by her palm, which is rough and calloused, scored with deep lines. He asks if he can photograph it, and quickly snaps a shot with his iPhone. She, in turn, looks at his palm, which has grown soft and smooth during his twenty years in America. “She’s asking me, What happened?” he translates with a chuckle. “So I told her that if we worked side by side for one day, my hands would look like hers.” As they part, he pats her on the shoulder and says with a big smile, “I’m laughing, crying on the inside.”

Niyizonkiza crosses the soccer field and heads down a dirt path, away from the village, into the bush. In Kigutu, as in America, it is hard for him to find time for himself, though his roles in each country couldn’t be more different. Here, he is in charge, presiding over a large staff, making things happen, listening to the villagers’ stories and requests. In America, he is the one telling the stories, the one who needs to ask for help.

“People ask me to speak, and want me to talk about the genocide, but then not to show any photos of dead bodies. It’s ‘too traumatizing’ for the audience. Even when I talked about helping my mother deliver her baby when I was five, a woman came up to me afterward and said that I shouldn’t mention that anymore, because she found it too upsetting.”

A couple of goats bound across the path, followed by a young boy with a herding stick. “That was me a hundred years ago,” Niyizonkiza says. “Tending animals in the fog and rain, alone.” He greets the boy, then kneels to examine his heavily calloused feet. The heels are badly infected. “He needs a pathology lab to figure out which antibiotic would be right to treat him. But we don’t have that yet.” Niyizonkiza asks the boy some personal questions, which he answers shyly, eyes averted. “He’s in the second grade, the top of his class. His father died two months ago.” Niyizonkiza shakes his head slowly, and walks on. “I told him that I know it’s hard, that we all grew up in the same conditions, and that he shouldn’t give up hope, shouldn’t despair.”

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

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