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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Niyizonkiza’s family was extremely fortunate, with both parents and all seven children surviving the war. When he returned to Kigutu in 2005, Niyizonkiza had a new three-bedroom brick home constructed for his parents in the compound where their two previous houses — both burned to the ground — once stood. Lush landscaping decorates the front; inside, the rooms are spare, with concrete floors and minimal furniture. High on the walls of the receiving room hang family mementos: a portrait of Niyizonkiza’s late father, with images of a medieval Madonna and a tropical beach tacked around it in the shape of a squat cross; snapshots of grown children and small grandchildren; a souvenir plate of the Statue of Liberty; a photo of Niyizonkiza in blue cap and gown, arms folded, a proud and smiling Columbia graduate.

Niyizonkiza gives his mother a gentle kiss. Small and pear-shaped, with a high, sloped forehead, receded hairline, and glasses, Clémence is in her sixties, he guesses, but looks older. She speaks softly, and with consideration; a benign brain tumor has made her prone to debilitating headaches.

The next day, hundreds of people started at the bottom of the hillside, cutting down brush with machetes to clear the way for the seven-mile road to the clinic.

Deogratias Niyizonkiza examines an expectant mother at Village Health Works.While her first name is French, Clémence’s second name, Mkikiri, is Kirundi. There are no surnames in Burundian culture that link a family; children are given two names when born, at least one in Kirundi, and often tied to the circumstances of the birth. Nearly dying in labor, Clémence named her second son Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the former Latin for “thanks be to God” — the one phrase she remembered from attending a Latin mass — the latter meaning “God, you are my savior” in Kirundi. His father, born during a calf boom, was named Buhembe, or “Little Horns.” “We don’t have to tell our stories,” says Niyizonkiza, “our names tell so much.”

After the war, Clémence added a third name to her others: Mpozenzi, which means, “I am quiet, but I know.” When his mother was ready to tell her story to her sons, Niyizonkiza, sobbing, turned and walked away, unable out of filial love to hear his mother recount her suffering. He still doesn’t know what his parents endured during the war; his mother, in turn, doesn’t know what happened over the dozen years her son was absent from her life. While Western psychology promotes sharing traumatic experiences as a means of catharsis, Burundians don’t ask even those closest to them to relive the pain and shame of the past through retelling. The belief is so strongly ingrained in the culture that there’s a term in Kirundi for this sort of emotional coercion: gusimbura.

Promising to visit again, Niyizonkiza leaves his mother and arrives back at the clinic just in time to catch a dress rehearsal for the forum’s musical performance. Men and boys in traditional Burundian drumming uniforms of red, white, and green beat on giant barrel drums while young girls sing beside them. The idea for VHW’s afterschool music program arose from necessity: with parents working on the clinic, children were usually left to fend for themselves. “It was a way to bring children together and keep them out of trouble,” says Niyizonkiza, “and then hopefully get them to school.”

As a group of boys begin to dance, their arms moving as if rowing a boat, Niyizonkiza translates the words of their song: “We’re going to make the hospital shine, and be an example to the rest of the world. And we can only do this if we join hands and link arms, and work together.”

The boys sing, arm in arm, as their bare feet dance on the grass covering one of Kigutu’s many mass graves.

A couple of days later, hundreds of people arrive for the forum, packing the three-hundred-seat community center and spilling onto the adjacent covered patio, which is outfitted with a flat-screen and loudspeakers. This year’s gathering is focused on early-childhood education and mental health. Concerned about the stigma of mental health, Niyizonkiza didn’t advertise the topic, yet once the subject is announced and microphones are passed around, the stories don’t stop: a woman struggling to care for her sister’s family after the mother died in childbirth; a mother tired of seeing girls thrown out of their homes; a widower whose second wife burned his children alive because she didn’t like them.

But along with the tragic tales come words of deep thanks. Abandoned for so long, the people of Kigutu are grateful for anyone willing to listen and help. They have tasted hope and dignity, and are eager for more. By the forum’s close, there are already plans to form both women’s and men’s mental-health groups.

The ceremonial drumming is in full swing as people exit the forum. “They’re singing ‘Come to Kigutu, and see what we are!’” exclaims Niyizonkiza to his American guests. After a series of highly acrobatic solos, two men emerge from the arc of drummers and dance together, embracing and shaking hands. “One’s Hutu, the other Tutsi,” says Niyizonkiza, grinning. “It’s amazing.”

The afternoon is filled with more tours and stories. Niyizonkiza, ever the pitchman, works to win additional support. Satisfied with the day’s work, he takes a late-afternoon walk to his favorite spot at the top of the mountain. Considering the location where he has imagined building a home, he suddenly dismisses the idea. “It’s a pipe dream,” he says. “How can I have that for myself when the villagers still have so little?”

But he does have at least one plan for himself: a long-postponed return to med school next year, with the hope of entering academia, and, down the road, transforming VHW into a teaching hospital.

Given the scope of his vision, it’s difficult to imagine Niyizonkiza taking a step back from Village Health Works, even for something that would ultimately benefit the clinic and community. “I love this clinic like I love my own heart,” he says, “but it can’t just be about Deo. I want to train people so there can be more and more Deos, doing this in different places.”

Niyizonkiza grows quiet. Sitting down on one of his benches, he stares fixedly at a point in the center of the glistening lake, lost in thought. “You know,” he says, “after I built that house for the security guard, he came to me and said that he needed to talk. He brought me right here. We sat on this bench, and he started crying. He said, ‘I love you, but I also hate you. You’re the only person in my life to really love me, and I could have burned you, killed you slowly. Every time I see you, I am reminded of what I did, and I realize that everything I was taught was wrong. And it makes me want to kill myself, thinking about how many more Deos there could have been.’”

He pauses, running his hand over his scalp as if caressing the memory. “When the guard was done,” Niyizonkiza continues, “he stood up and hugged me, and said, ‘Thank you. Now I’m healed.’”

Stacey Kors is a freelance arts writer.

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

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