COVER STORY

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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Early in the morning, people wait outside Village Health Works for the gates to open. Patients come from as far as one hundred miles away.

The road was eventually re-graded by the government, after the president made his first visit to VHW in 2011. “The government was slow to get onboard,” Niyizonkiza says. “We started talking to the government before building the first structure, and submitted the proper documents, but got no response. So we decided we had to do it without permission. By the time the minister of health arrived for a site visit, unknown to him, he was coming to the opening.”

Niyizonkiza asked his friend Dziwe Ntaba, whom he’d met at Harvard, to join him as a cofounder and head up the clinic’s medical staff. The government sent two salaried nurses in 2009; a doctor followed in 2011. “The more visits government officials pay here,” Niyizonkiza says, “the more help I get. Because they can really see what it is.” The government is now so impressed by his accomplishments that they’ve asked him to bring the VHW model to other parts of the country.

A dense fog rolls in, and Niyizonkiza hustles back toward the road, hoping to dodge the impending rainstorm. He meets his younger brother Peter, who handles procurement for the clinic. The deluge hits, and they dash into a nearby store: a wooden counter and two shelves displaying a meager collection of tea, batteries, and a handful of fruit. “It’s downtown Kigutu!” shouts Niyizonkiza to his brother, trying to be heard over the roar of rain on the corrugated metal roof. Over the last couple of years, a row of tiny shops and restaurants has popped up outside the clinic, catering to patients and visiting families.

After the rain subsides, Niyizonkiza walks into the heart of the village. He stops in at a yellow house with a thatch fence. “This is the compound where it all started. And this,” he says with excitement, as a woman with heavy-lidded almond eyes appears in the doorway, “is Cécille, who said that incredible thing about the road.” He gives her a big hug, then fills her in on the earlier discussion, as curious children quickly appear around them. “That Christmas was the best day of my life,” she says, “and at the right time. Things had been so hard.”

Near the end of Strength in What Remains, Tracy Kidder acknowledges that, despite having spent many months in Niyizonkiza’s company, there remained a side of the man that he would never know. Niyizonkiza may share the facts of his story for the sake of Kigutu and his clinic, but much of his emotional suffering stays hidden, an enduring darkness.

Heading back through the security gate, Niyizonkiza is stopped by an elderly woman, who hugs him and then blesses him. “Every time I see you, I feel that God is here,” she says. “I remember how horrible it was here before. I just wish you had somebody,” she adds. “You always come alone.”
 

All of Niyizonkiza's trips to Burundi are busy, and the time around the annual community forum is especially chaotic. Board members and other guests from America are invited, as are dignitaries and government officials from Burundi. While preparations are underway, Niyizonkiza makes several more trips to Bujumbura, trying to wrangle a last-minute meeting with Burundi’s minister of health to discuss changes to the clinic’s drug-purchasing protocol. “It’s why I like the Rwandan government so much, despite its issues,” he says, after a promised meeting fails to happen. “They’re organized and get things done.”

Only after returning to Kigutu midweek does Niyizonkiza find the time to visit his mother, who lives near the clinic. After escaping to America, it took him several years to locate his parents. With houses burned down and people living in the bush, finding loved ones, especially from abroad, was next to impossible.

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

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