|One must always maintain one's connection to the past and yet ceaselessly pull away from it. --Gaston Bachelard|
Deo Niyizonkiza: Strength In What Remains--by Tracy Kidder, Oct 08, 2020
The following is excerpted from 'Strength in What Remains,' by Tracy Kidder, Random House Publishing Group 2009
Burundi, June 2006
As we drove through southwestern Burundi, I felt as if we were being followed by the mountain called Ganza, the way a child feels followed by the moon. The road climbed through deeply folded countryside. We would round a corner, and another broad face of Ganza would appear.
Then my companion Deogratias would order the driver to stop. Deo would get out of the SUV and stand on the shoulder of the pavement, aiming his digital camera at the mountain. Deo wore a black bush hat with a dangling chin strap. I supposed that to people passing by, in the crowded minibuses and on the bicycles laden with plastic jugs of palm oil, he must look like a tourist, a trim young black-skinned rich man from somewhere far away.
Standing beside him at the roadside I could look down on narrow valleys of cultivated fields and up at steep hillsides, some covered with grass, others quilted with groves of eucalyptus and banana trees and dotted with little houses roofed in metal or thatch. Above them rose the flanks and domed top of Ganza, all but treeless, barren of houses. In Kirundi, ganzameans “to reign,” and the name evoked the kings that once ruled Burundi. The little nation, centuries old, straddles the crest of the Congo and Nile rivers, just south of the equator in East Central Africa. It is bordered by Tanzania to the south and east, by the Democratic Republic of the Congo across Lake Tanganikya to the west, and by Rwanda to the north. It’s a landlocked and impoverished country with an agrarian economy that exports excellent coffee and tea and not much else – a land of dwindling forests that still has lovely rustic landscapes.
Deo could hardly take his eyes off Ganza. He was thronged by memories. All the summers of his boyhood, once a week and sometimes twice, he and his older brother had toiled over the mountain, climbing impossibly steep paths, their knees shaking under the loads balanced on their heads. Back then, the land out there had all been thickly forested, and in the trees and under them he used to see chimps, monkeys, even gorillas. They were all gone now, he said. But there had been so many monkeys then! One time he and his brother sat down to rest partway up another mountain, and a host of monkeys surrounded them, like a gang of little thugs, harassing them, trying to take their sacks of cassava, even slapping them right in their faces! In the end there was nothing for him and his brother to do but run away, leaving the cassava behind.
When he told me this story, Deo laughed. It was what I’d come to recognize as his normal laugh. It had the same bright, surprised, near-soprano sound as his voice when he greeted a friend and cried out, “Hi!,” the “Hi!” drawn out as if he didn’t want it to end. His English was accented with French and Kirundi and sprinkled with misplaced emphases – as in, “I am laughing when I think about it.” And many of the phrases he used had a certain hybrid vigor, a fresh extravagance: “I want to get it out of my chest.” “Run like a thunderstorm.” “I had to bite my heart.”
Deo grew up in the mountains east of Ganza, in a tiny settlement of farms and pastures called Butanza. He had returned to Burundi several times over the past six years. But he had avoided Butanza. He had not visited it for nearly fourteen years. Now he was going back at last. He seemed happy to see Ganza again, but when we drove farther east toward Butanza, he grew, not silent, but increasingly quiet. One noticed this, because he was usually so talkative and animated.
After a while we turned off the paved road onto dirt roads. The dirt roads grew narrower. Finally, as we bumped along up a steep rutted track, Deo said we were getting close. He said that when we arrived, we would climb on foot to the pasture where, many years ago, his best friend, Clovis, took sick. We would visit the very spot, he said. Then he added, “And when we get to Butanza we don’t talk about Clovis.”
“Because people don’t talk about people who died. By their names anyways. They call itgusimbura. If for example you say, ‘Oh, your granddad,’ and you say his name to people, they say you gusimbura them. It’s a bad word. You are reminding people...” Deo’s voice trailed off.
“You’re reminding people of something bad?”
“Yes. It’s so hard to understand because in the western world...” Again, Deo left the thought half-finished.
“People try to remember?”
“Here in Burundi, they try to forget?”
“Exactly,” he said.
On the outskirts of the capital, Bujumbura, there is a small international airport. It has a modern terminal with intricate roofs and domed metal structures that resemble astronomical observatories. It is the kind of terminal that seems designed to say that here you leave the past behind, the future has arrived, behold the wonders of aviation. But in Burundi in 1994, for the lucky few with tickets, an airplane was just the fastest, safest way out. It was flight.
In the spring of that year, violence and chaos governed Burundi. To the west, the hills above Bujumbura were burning. Smoke seemed to be pouring off the hills, as the winds of mid-May carried the plumes of smoke downward in undulating sheets, in the general direction of the airport. A large passenger jet was parked on the tarmac, and a disordered crowd was heading toward it in sweaty haste. Deo felt as if he were being carried by the crowd, immersed in an unfamiliar river. The faces around him were mostly white, and though many were black or brown, there was no one whom he recognized, and so far as he could tell, there were no country people. As a little boy he had crouched behind rocks or under trees the first times he’d seen airplanes passing overhead. He had never been so close to a plane before. Except for buildings in the capital, this was the largest man-made thing he’d ever seen. He mounted the staircase quickly. Only when he had entered the plane did he let himself look back, staring from inside the doorway as if from a hiding place again.
In Deo’s mind, there was danger everywhere. If his heightened sense of drama was an inborn trait, it had certainly been nourished. For months every situation had in fact been dangerous. Climbing the stairs a moment before, he had imagined a voice in his head telling him not to leave. But now he stared at the hills and he imagined that everything in Burundi was burning. Burundi had become hell. He finally turned away, and stepped inside. In front of him were cushioned chairs with clean white cloths draped over their backs, chairs in perfect rows with little windows on the ends. This was the most nicely appointed room he’d ever seen. It looked like paradise compared to everything outside. If it was real, it couldn’t last.
The plane was packed, but he felt entirely alone. He had a seat by a window. Something told him not to look out, and something told him to look. He did both. His hands were shaking. He felt he was about to vomit. Everyone had heard stories of planes being shot down, not only the Rwandan President’s plane back in April but others as well. He was waiting for this to happen after the plane took off. For several long minutes, whenever he glanced out the window all he saw was smoke. When the air cleared and he could see the landscape below, he realized that they must already have crossed the Akanyaru River, which meant they had already left Burundi and were now above Rwanda. He had crossed a lot of the land down there on foot. It wasn’t all that small. To see it transformed into a tiny piece of time and space – this could only happen in a dream. If it was real, it couldn’t last.
He gazed down, face fastened to the window pane. Plumes of smoke were also rising from the ground of what he took to be Rwanda – if anything, more smoke than around Bujumbura. A lot of it was coming from the banks of muddy-looking rivers. He thought, “People are being slaughtered down there.” But those sights didn’t last long. When he realized he wasn’t seeing smoke anymore, he took his face away from the window and felt himself begin to relax, a long-forgotten feeling.
He liked the cushioned chair. He liked the sensation of flight. How wonderful to travel in an easy chair instead of on foot. He began to realize how constricted his intestines and stomach had felt, as if wound into knots for months on end, as the tightness seeped away. Maybe the worst was over now, or maybe he was just in shock. “I don’t really know where I’m going,” he thought. But if there was to be no end to this trip, that would be all right. A memory from world history class surfaced. Maybe he was like that man who got lost and discovered America. He craned his neck and looked upward through the window. There was nothing but darkening blue. He looked down and realized just how high above the ground he was seated. “Imagine if this plane crashes,” he thought. “That would be awful.” Then he said to himself, “I don’t care. It would be a good death.”
For the moment, he was content with that thought, and with everything around him. The only slightly troubling thing was the absence of French in the cabin. He knew for a fact – he’d been taught it was so since elementary school – that French was the universal language, and universal because it was the best of all languages. He knew Russians owned this plane. Aeroflot had been the only airline, he’d been told, that was offering commercial flights from Bujumbura. So it wasn’t strange that all the signs in the cabin were in a foreign script. But he couldn’t find a single word written in French, even on the various cards in the seat pocket.
The plane landed in Entebbe, in Uganda. As he waited in the terminal for his next flight, Deo watched what looked like a big family make a fuss over a young man about his age, a fellow passenger as it turned out. When the flight started to board, the whole bunch around this boy began weeping and wailing. The young man was wiping tears from his eyes as he walked toward the plane. Probably he was just going away on a trip. Probably he would be coming back soon. In his mind, Deo spoke to the young man: “You are in tears. For what? Here you have this huge crowd of family.” He felt surprised, as if by a distant memory, that there were after all many small reasons for people to cry. His own mind kept moving from one extreme to another. Everything was a crisis, and nothing that wasn’t a crisis mattered. He thought that if he were as lucky as that boy and still had that much family left, he wouldn’t be crying. For that matter, be wouldn’t be boarding airplanes, leaving his country behind.
Deo had grown up barefoot in Burundi, but for a peasant boy he had done well. He was 24. Until recently he had been a medical student, for three years at or near the top of his class. In his old faux-leather suitcase, which he had reluctantly turned over to the baggage-handler in the airport in Bujumbura, he had packed some of the evidence of his success: the French dictionary that elementary school teachers gave only to prized students, and the general clinical text and one of the stethoscopes that he had saved up to buy. But he had spent the past 6 months on the run, first from the eruption of violence in Burundi, then from the slaughter in Rwanda, which was still raging.
In geography class in school Deo had learned that the most important parts of the world were France and Belgium, Burundi’s colonial master. When someone he knew, usually a priest, was going abroad, that person was said to be going to “Iburaya.” And while this usually meant Belgium or France, it could also mean any place that was far away and hard to imagine. Deo was heading for Iburaya. In this case, that meant New York City.
He had one wealthy friend who had seen more of the world than east central Africa, a fellow medical student named Jean. And it was Jean who had decided that New York was where he should go. Deo was traveling on a commercial visa. Jean’s French father had written a letter identifying Deo as an employee on a mission to America. He was supposed to be going to New York to sell coffee. Deo had read up on coffee beans in case he was questioned, but he wasn’t selling anything. Jean’s father had also paid for the plane tickets. A fat booklet of tickets.
From Entebbe Deo flew to Cairo, then to Moscow. He slept a lot. He would awake with a start and look around the cabin. When he realized that no one resembled anyone he knew, he would relax again. During his medical training and in his country’s history, pigmentation had certainly mattered, but he wasn’t troubled by the near total whiteness of the skins around him on the plane that he boarded in Moscow. White skin hadn’t been a marker of danger these past months. He had heard of French soldiers behaving badly in Rwanda, and had even caught glimpses of them training militiamen in the camps, but waking up and seeing a white person in the next seat wasn’t alarming. No one called him a cockroach. No one held a machete. You learned what to look out for, and after a while you learned to ignore the irrelevant. He did wonder again from time to time why he wasn’t hearing people speak French.
When his flight from Moscow landed, he was half-asleep. He followed the other passengers out of the plane. He thought this must be New York. The first thing to do was find his bag. But the airport terminal distracted him. It was like nothing he’d ever seen before, an indoor place of shops where everyone looked happy. And everyone was large. Compared to him anyway. He’d never been heavy, but his pants, which had fit all right 6 months before, were bunched up at the waist. When he looked down at himself, the end of his belt seemed as long to him as a monkey’s tail. His belly was concave under his shirt. Here in Iburayaeveryone’s clothes looked better than his.
He started walking. Looking around for a sign with a luggage symbol on it, he came to a corridor with a glassed-in wall. He glanced out, then stopped and stared. There were green fields out there in the distance, and on those fields cows were grazing. From this far away, they might have been his family’s herd. His last images of cows were of murdered and suffering animals – decapitated cows and cows with their front legs chopped off, still alive and bellowing by the sides of the road to Bujumbura and even in Bujumbura. These cows looked so happy, just like the people around him. How was this possible?
A voice was speaking to him. He turned and saw a man in uniform, a policeman. The man looked even bigger than everyone else. He seemed friendly, though. Deo spoke to him in French, but the man shook his head and smiled. Then another gigantic-looking policeman joined them. He asked a question in what Deo guessed was English. Then a woman who had been sitting nearby got up and walked over – French, at long last French, coming out of her mouth along with cigarette smoke.
Perhaps she could help, the woman said in French.
Deo thought: “God, I’m still in your hands.”
She did the interpreting. The airport policemen wanted to see Deo’s passport and visa and ticket. Deo wanted to know where he should go to pick up his bag.
The policemen looked surprised. One of them asked another question. The woman said to Deo, “The man asks, ‘Do you know where you are?’”
“Yes,” said Deo. “New York City.”
She broke into a smile, and translated this for the uniformed men. They looked at each other and laughed, and the woman explained to Deo that he was in a country called Ireland, in a place called Shannon Airport.
He chatted with the woman afterward. She told him she was Russian. What mattered to Deo was that she spoke French. After such long solitude it felt wonderful to talk, so wonderful that for a while he forgot all he knew about the importance of silence, the silence he’d been taught as a child, the silence he had needed over the past six months. She asked him where he came from, and before he knew it he had said too much. She started asking questions. He was from Burundi? And had escaped from Rwanda? She had been to Rwanda. She was a journalist. She planned to write about the terrible events there. It was a genocide, wasn’t it? Was he a Tutsi?
She arranged to sit next to him on the flight to New York. He felt glad for the company, and besieged by her questions. She wanted to know all about his experiences. To answer felt dangerous. She wasn’t just a stranger, she was a journalist. What would she write? What if she found out his name and used it? Would bad people read it and come to find him in New York? He tried to tell her as little as possible. “It was terrible. It was disgusting,” he’d say, and turning toward the airplane’s window, he’d see images he didn’t want in his mind – a gray dawn and a hut with a burned thatch roof smoldering in the rain, a pack of dogs snarling over something he wasn’t going to look at, swarms of flies like a warning in the air above a banana grove ahead. He’d turn back to her to chase away the visions. She seemed like a friend, his only friend on this journey. She was older than he was, she’d even been to New York. He wanted to pay her back for helping him in Ireland, and pay her in advance for helping him enter New York. So he tried to answer her questions without revealing anything important.
They talked most of the way to New York. But he lost track of her leaving the plane. When he reached Immigration and took a place at the end of one of the lines, he finally spotted her. She was standing in another line, pretending not to see him. He looked away, down at his sneakers, blurred by tears. The spasm passed. He was used to being alone, wasn’t he? He didn’t care what happened to him anymore, did he? And what was there to fear? What could the man in the booth up ahead do to him? Whatever it might be, he’d already seen worse.
The agent stared at Deo’s documents, then started asking questions in what had to be English. There was nothing to do except smile. Then the first agent got up from his seat and called another agent over. Eventually, the second agent went off and came back with a third man – a short, burly, black-skinned man with a bunch of keys as big as a fist on his belt. He introduced himself to Deo in French. His name was Muhammad. He said he came from Senegal.
Muhammad asked Deo the agents’ questions and also some questions of his own. For the agents, he asked Deo, “Where are you coming from?” When Deo said he had come from Burundi, Muhammad made a pained face and said to him in French, “How did you get out?”
There was no time even to attempt an answer. The agents were asking another question: Deo’s visa said he was here on business. What business?
Selling coffee beans, Deo told them through Muhammad. Just keep smiling, Deo told himself. He could tell them anything they wanted to know about Burundian coffee. But they didn’t ask about coffee.
How much money did he have?
Two hundred dollars, Deo said. The cash had been a gift from Jean. Exchanged for Burundian francs, it could have bought a lot of cows. But neither Muhammad nor the agents looked impressed.
Where was he staying?
Jean had told him he’d be asked this. A hotel, he said.
The agents laughed. A week in a hotel on 200 dollars?
In 1994 airport security wasn’t what it soon would be. Muhammad said something in English to the agents. His words must have been the right ones, because after a few more questions, the agents shrugged at each other and let him through, into America.
He had no idea what he’d do next. After six months on the run, he was in the habit of not looking ahead. God had taken care of him so far. And still was taking care of him, it seemed. As this stocky and serious-looking stranger, Muhammad, walked him out of Customs, he said that Deo could stay with him in New York City. But Deo would have to wait here for three hours.
Muhammad worked at the airport as a baggage handler. He had to finish his shift. Could Deo wait three hours?
Only three hours? said Deo. Of course!
He sat on a plastic chair at baggage claim, his suitcase at his feet and watched the new world pass by. Wheeled carts in which infants rode like little princes, their parents pushing them. And people in suits, so many people in the uniform of preachers and government ministers. Almost everyone looked happy. Or at least no one looked alarmed. And no one looked terrified. These were people just going about their business, greeting their friends and their families, as if they didn’t know there were other places where dogs were trotting around with human heads in their mouths. But how could they not know?
“God, why is this?” Deo asked silently.
Muhammad had a big car. He had to be a person of means to have a car, even if it was old and swayed from side to side on the roads. So much went by so fast it was hard to focus on anything, though once, amid all the wide criss-crossing pavements and the great herds of automobiles, Deo saw a car that was nearly as long as a bus. “Mon Dieu! What is that?” Deo asked.
“Sometimes they’re used as taxis,” said Muhammad.
Deo sat staring straight ahead, so as to think about this. Then they were crossing a bridge so high he felt as if he was in the airplanes again, and Muhammad said, “Manhattan,” and pointed at an horizon of buildings impossibly tall, like giant trees, like a sky of pillared clouds at sunrise in the mountains. After a time Deo began to notice vacant lots and buildings with wood covering their windows. When Muhammad finally turned off a main avenue onto a side street, Deo wanted to ask, urgently, why they were stopping here. A few yards away, a man stood urinating against the wall of a building. The sidewalk was covered with empty cans and bottles and all sorts of paper trash. Muhammad led the way toward a brick building with broken windows and letters scribbled here and there on the walls. High up on one wall there were three letters painted as if each letter were swollen: P E N. He followed Muhammad inside, the air reeking of urine and excrement, up a staircase with a busted railing, and finally into a room with a dirty wooden floor, a room with no door and no furniture. At the end of a dark hallway, there was a toilet, completely stopped up.
Muhammad said he stayed here to save money. He didn’t have to pay rent for this room. His whole reason for being in New York was to earn and save as much as he could. He would be leaving for Senegal in a few weeks. Deo should do as he had – work here for a while and save, then start a new life. But he should do this somewhere back in Africa, not in New York. “Because it’s so hard here,” Muhammad said.
In retrospect, the tenement PEN was like a warning of this truth. The next day Muhammad led him outside and down a staircase in the sidewalk, and introduced him to the subway. They would go in the direction called “Uptown,” Muhammad said, speaking the word in English, then translating it: “Haut de la ville.”
Deo nodded, wondering, Are we actually going to go up? Like flying?
Muhammad took him to a grocery store. The manager said Deo should come back tomorrow if he wanted a job. The next morning Muhammad told him, “You know how to get there.” Feeling that he ought to know – he knew how to find his way around, he was not a child – Deo set off for the grocery store alone.
When he slid one of Jean’s twenty-dollar bills into the hole at the teller’s window, the woman inside asked him something, he smiled, and the next thing he knew she had shoved a whole pile of tokens back through the hole. Here he was going off to earn money and he’d already spent a fortune just to get there. But he couldn’t think how to explain. So he swept up the tokens and turned away, before the teller or anyone else might see his confusion, and raging at himself – “You are mentally retarded!” – too flustered to look for the sign that said “Uptown,” whatever “Uptown” meant, he went to the nearest platform and boarded the first train that stopped.
For most of the rest of the day, he rode the subways, from one end of the line to the other, again and again. He studied the maps on the walls of the cars. They were hard to read, because they were covered with writing that looked a little like the writing that said PEN. Peering, he realized a map was no good to him anyway, because he had no idea where he might be situated among the multicolored lines and foreign words and symbols. He abandoned his pride and tried to ask other passengers for help, to no avail – and how harsh their voices sounded, even the voices of people who seemed to want to help. A couple of times he disembarked and found himself surrounded by cars and people rushing by in all directions and by buildings so tall he had to search for the sky, and, feeling even more lost up there than on the trains, he went back underground and used up yet another of the expensive tokens. He peered out the train windows, at station signs that came and went too quickly for him to study, at blue and yellow lights flashing by in the tunnels, at the reflection of his own frightened-looking face in the glass. He told himself he didn’t care if this pointless journey never ended. What seemed like another voice was saying this was a catastrophe, he might be lost forever. Then he began to feel too weary to argue with himself. This weariness was strong. It was like something outside of him, like the noises of the train, of the rocking rolling train. “No one is in control of his own life,” he told himself. He dozed off for a while.
It was evening when he finally made a lucky guess and came above ground and saw “PEN.” Gazing at the façade of the abandoned tenement, he said to himself that he never wanted to leave here again. Just in case, though, he went back down to the station and studied the signs on the walls, memorizing the number and name: “125th Street.”
When Muhammad returned from work that night, Deo told him – it felt like confession – “I got lost.”
Muhammad was reassuring. He said he’d show him how to find his way around and also help him get a job. He’d do this on his next day off, a week or so away.
In the meantime, Deo stayed close to the building PEN.
For more inspiration, join this Saturday's Awakin Call with Deo. More details and RSVP info here.
The above passage is excerpted with permisison from the publishers from 'Strength in What Remains', by Tracy Kidder. Originally published in 2009 by Random House Publishing Group.
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The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.
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