Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strength in what remains

Deo was in his 20s when he arrived in NYC. He was Burundian and spoke his native tongue and French but no English. He had less than $2oo in his pocket. He knew no one. In two years he had enrolled in Columbia and was working on a medical degree. His goal was to return home and be part of the rebuilding process that was needed after the devastating civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis. When Deo fled Burundi (borders Rwanda and shared the genocide with it), he was completing his studies to be a medical doctor. His first job in NYC was delivering groceries for a few bucks an hour plus tips. He lived in a abandoned tenement for awhile until he was robbed at knife point. Then he moved into Central Park. His life was marked by amazing instances of Providence.

He lived through some of the worst and most brutal killings. He saw horrific violence. His life on the run for six months was surreal. For years afterward he would suffer nightmares and stomach pains. He escaped death, barely, many times. Each time there was someone there to help him. A Hutu woman (he was a Tutsi) who shepherded him past the Hutu militias that were slaughtering Tutsis; a French student friend whose father bought him a ticket to NYC; an African who was working at customs in the airport and helped him find a place at the tenement and begin to learn to navigate NYC; a Christian woman in a rectory where he delivered groceries who gave him money, and got him to a doctor, and finally, found a place for him to live; the couple he lived with who helped him get an immigration lawyer so he could get his green card, and who helped him learn English and pass the exams to get into Columbia and helped pay for his education; and Dr. Paul Farmer, who has pioneered studies on diseases of poverty, and was instrumental in getting Deo into medical school at Dartmouth.

It is compelling story that is told by Tracy Kidder in the book called, Strength in What Remains. Kidder wrote an earlier book about Dr. Farmer and I imagine that is how he heard of Deo's story. Kidder tries to tell the story non-religiously. He would probably have preferred it that way. But, that was tough to do. Church was an important part of Deo's life just as it was in his country. Much has been made of the fact that Burundi and Rwanda were predominantly Christian countries where Christians fought and brutally killed one another. Deo struggled with how God could have allowed it to happen. Yet, in the midst of the violence, Deo's life was spared and he came back to do good in his devastated country.

The violence in his country has its roots in the brutal colonial regimes that ruled Burundi in 1900s. There were Hutus and Tutsis before colonization but they were not racial categories. Hutus and Tutsis intermarried and shared many of the same features so one could not be told apart from the other. Tutsis were mostly cattle herders and Hutus were farmers. Once the European colonial powers of Germany and then Belgium got involved in this part of Africa, the stakes increased as well as the violence. They also brought with them a mythology to explain what they found. Tutsis, they taught, descended from Ham, the banished son of Noah. They were really Caucasian under their black skin. They were destined to be the rulers. The Hutus were the subordinate black race. So, the Belgians placed most of the power to rule in their stead in the hands of the Tutsis. They counted the "races" in a 1930 census and gave every Burundian an identity card that marked them as Hutu or Tutsi. Now, one's opportunities depended on race. Educational opportunities, power, privilege was reserved for Tutsis. Hutus were not only locked out of power but they were forced into labor and were taxed more severely. By the end of colonization most of the country was "Christian".

Burundi and Rwanda became independent in 1962. In Rwanda, Hutus took power; thousands of Tutsis were killed. Many Rwandan Tutsis fled to Burundi. The Tutsis took over power and ruled Burundi until 1993. There were Hutu uprisings and brutal Tutsi reprisals. In 1972, at least 100,000 Hutus were killed. The massacre was aimed at eliminating any potential Hutu leaders. Things simmered until the 1988 revolt and government repression which forced Deo and his family to hide out for a week or so. Burundi's civil war followed in 1993 when over 50,000 died, almost equally Hutu and Tutsi. This was the war Deo miraculously escaped and fled to NYC.

The experiences of civil war were etched deeply on Deo's psyche. It would take years to work through and some of the memories would never be erased. The country, too, will take years to heal and rebuild trust. Families were torn apart. Priests murdered their parishioners and principals their students. The fabric of communal trust was gone.

In the next blog I want to look at how an African theologian and pastor tries to make sense out of what happened in his country and how it is a mirror to the church.

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