I’m in the middle of reading Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder. It’s a biography of a Burundian man named Deo who escaped the genocide in Burundi by going to Rwanda only to have to escape the genocide there by going back to Burundi. Through connections he, a poor son of a farmer (who still managed to get a scholarship to med school) manages to get a visa to the U.S. and flies to New York.
His story exposes the most horrifying side of humanity imaginable such as the smell of burning human flesh, dogs walking around with severed human heads in their mouths and a baby desperately trying to breastfeed on his dead mother. I’m deliberately picking gruesome examples because don’t you find that you disconnect yourself to reality while you read about such things? This existence is so difficult to understand that I can’t imagine how it’s even possible but these things really happened.
One way I’ve been trying to not disconnect myself is by imagining what I was doing when Deo was fleeing blood-thirsty militias. While he was running through the jungles of Burundi by night after Burundi’s Hutu president was assassinated by Tutsi soldiers in October 1993, I was starting high school. My existence was as innocuous as it gets. Take the bus to and from school. Hot showers in the morning. T.v. in the evening. And at the exact same time in another place–a place as real as any other, a place I could actually witness with my own eyes if I could somehow fly there–these indescribable atrocities were being committed. That Deo’s and my stories could coexist on the same planet is not an idea that fits within my notion reality. So I have to modify what I think of reality.
It sounds sadistic to try and force myself to think of these events that way but how else am I supposed to attempt to understand–because I clearly could never fully understand–the magnitude of what I’m reading? I’m not reading this book for the history of the Tutsi and Hutu people or the story of Deo’s personal triumph (though these aspects of the book are interesting and informative too) , I’m trying to get a feeling for what other people go through. Maybe to think that I could ever even remotely understand is pure conceit bordering on patronizing, but what else am I supposed to do?
I also wanted to share a Dr. Paul Farmer quote from the book–Farmer is the subject of another of Kidder’s books Mountains Beyond Mountains and founder of Partner’s in Health, a charity I give to regularly–who talks about the importance of prevention in the context of suffering:
By all means, let’s do prevention! Prevent people from suffering! Don’t wait for people to feel like their lives are not worth living. Once they feel that way, how are they going to feel about another person’s life?
I’ve got something more upbeat for tomorrow but I still find thoughts like this worth sharing. I don’t know. Maybe they’re not.