Excerpt from: “Strength in what remains”
Author: Tracy Kidder
Random House / New York (2009)
For the rest of the summer of 2006, Deo worked on the underpinnings of a clinic in Kigutu. It seemed to him that he awoke every day with a list of ten things to do and was lucky if he accomplished one. When he returned to medical school, he tried by email and midnight phone calls to manage the project. Both endeavors suffered. In November, he withdrew from Dartmouth. He told me once, “If people say, ‘Before he died, Deo became a doctor,’ that would be all right.” In 2009, he would resume that dream, else-where. In the interim, he threw himself into clinic-building.
On his trips to and from Burundi, Deo had always dreaded the moment when he had to pass through U.S. Immigration. One time, agents took him to a room and grilled him, trying, he thought, to make him angry, trying, he imagined, to create pretext for rescinding his green card. And they succeeded in making him angry, but he managed not to let it show. On another occasion, an agent said she’d never heard of a country called Burundi. “Are you sure it isn’t Burma?” she asked him. But before he could catch himself, Deo had replied, “Well, it was Burundi yesterday when I left.” But she didn’t seem to sense that she was being mocked, and let him pass eventually.
Deo had been greatly taken with the myth of Sisyphus when he’d encountered it in Columbia. “Pushing the rock” was his term for trying to build a not-for-profit medical facility in a desperately poor country. But the task was more nearly like the labors of Hercules, a succession of varied obstacles. He had to get title to the land, permits to import equipment and medicines, and nonprofit status in Burundi as well as in the United States, and to accomplish any of those tasks, he had to overcome the suspicions, even at first the hostility, of several Burundian officials.
Buildings had to be designed. Materials had to be purchased and trucks rented to transport them, and the trucks were always breaking down. Masons had to be hired. They also had to be supervised. So did one enterprising driver, who would siphon gas from his truck and resell it. And the person hired to supervise the work had to be supervised himself, and eventually fired, because he kept disappearing in the middle of the day to drink banana beer, taking the work crew with him. (One of Deo’s brothers, all of eighteen years old, took over the job; he had no experience but could work for free.)
Deo often complained that progress was slow. To me, it looked rapid. In what seemed like no time at all, he had made allies with many government officials, who on one occasion scotched an attempt by a group of soldiers to appropriate one of the clinic’s just finished buildings. Later, after a group of rebels –bandits, really– tried to raid Kigutu, the government provided a constant security detail. It was reported that the president himself had good words for the project. Friends at Partners in Health offered good counsel and help with every conceivable problem and also training for nurses and community health workers. Members of Deo’s family did various jobs. A host of Deo’s American friends came over to work while others raised money back in the United States. As for the villagers, Deo often said they were what kept him going – their misery on the one hand, and their wild enthusiasm on the other.
He had established a committee of villagers and given them a real say in the affairs of the clinic. Women and children were the majority in the community, so he figured that women, and through them children, should hold the majority in committee. But the men dominated the meetings anyway. So, over vehement protests from the men, he abolished the committee and created a women’s committee and a men’s committee, and since then the women had taken over. It wasn’t as if many men didn’t pitch in, but it was the women’s committee that mainly organized volunteer work crews, advised Deo on the village’s needs and desires, and, perhaps most important, managed relations between the clinic and the village.
Speaking at a fund-raiser in New-York, Deo told this story:
“This past summer, we needed some help to make a road that goes to our site passable. A friend of mine told me, ‘Well, Deo, there’s a great Belgian construction company that builds roads in Burundi and Rwanda and the Congo,’ and I was so excited. So I went to talk to the representative of the company. He sent someone to look at the road and estimated a cost of at least fifty thousand U.S. dollars. Not to pave the road, but just to widen it and make it passable. I went back frustrated, wondering how to tell the Kigutu community this bad news. As I was explaining this to them, one woman with a baby crying on her back said to me, ‘You will not pay a penny for this road. We become so much sick because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy. We will work on this road with our own hands.’ The next day a hundred sixty-six people showed up with pickaxes, hoes, machetes, and other tools. One of the volunteers was a woman who came to work with a sick child. When a friend of mine and I looked at the baby, we saw the baby was sweating. I then asked the mother why she came to work with a child that sick. And she said to me, ‘Well, I’ve already lost three children, and I know this one is next, whether I stay at home or come to work here. So it’s better for me to join others and make my contribution, which hopefully will help to save someone else’s child, who will be sick but alive when you have a clinic in Kigutu.’ (…)”
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