THE BLOG
07/08/2013 04:06 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Bringing Burundi and Its People to the Forefront

In the summer of 2005, an immigration officer at JFK airport looked at my Burundian passport and asked, "What is this?" with a stern look. "A passport," I replied. "I know, but which country's?" he asked. "Burundi," I responded. "Are you sure you don't mean Burma?" he continued. "No, I am from Burundi."

Most people have heard of Rwanda, thanks to the international attention drawn to it by President Clinton and the film Hotel Rwanda. Among those who keep up with African news and international development, Rwanda is known as the poster child of successful development. The country's accomplishments over the last two decades include tripling GDP; sending most children to primary school; and providing 98 percent of all citizens health insurance. These feats are, of course, all the more astonishing when you consider the 1994 genocide that killed nearly a million Rwandans and displaced another two million.

Few people, however, have heard of my home country Burundi. Historically, Rwanda and Burundi were one and the same. The two eastern African countries share a common history, having been colonized by Germany in 1890 and then Belgium in 1916. Both countries are of similar area, similar geography, and similarly high population. Both speak Bantu languages. Both also share a genocidal civil war--officially between April and June 1994 in Rwanda and between October 1993 and August 2005 in Burundi. But, while Rwanda has thrived, Burundi has been forgotten by the world. As the immigration officer demonstrated, few Americans have heard of it and fewer still can point to it on a map.

I was a third-year medical student when I was forced to flee Burundi in a story popularized by Tracy Kidder's bestselling book Strength In What Remains. Today, people continue to suffer: ten and a half million people live in an area the size of Maryland, and 80 percent of them live on less than a dollar a day. Health statistics are grim: the entire country has only 250 or so trained doctors, one in five children die before the age of 5, and mothers have a 1 in 9 chance of dying in childbirth. The misery, the abandonment, the tragedies, and the suffering in Burundi have become the norm, especially in the aftermath of war.

Many Burundians look to Rwanda as a beacon of hope. For if our brother and sisters are able to bring rapid prosperity and peace there, so too can we in Burundi. We often wonder what the secret ingredient of Rwanda's success is. While development experts disagree, my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Farmer credits the national government for its aggressive and progressive leadership.

Due to differences in political leadership and governance, Burundi's model of change will likely differ from the centralized, top-down development that has been so fruitful in Rwanda. Nonetheless, Burundi possesses the same potential for rapid recovery and growth. Indeed, according to a World Bank report, Burundi is increasingly an attractive investment prospect and among the top 10 improvers in the ease of doing business. In fact, while the Burundian approach may prove slower (Burundi ranked a disappointing 1.5 of 8 compared to Rwanda's 6 of 8 on the 2013 UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) progress index), existing development efforts underway in Burundi may prove more sustainable and productive in the long run.

One reason for that is a great longing among Burundians to rebuild. When I returned to Burundi at the tail end of the civil war, my family and friends felt long abandoned and forgotten. I put my medical education on hold to join and organize my community in Kigutu, Burundi through the founding of the comprehensive health care organization, Village Health Works.

It was the local community who advocated for change. At the first meeting, everybody I knew who could still walk and talk, from both sides of old ethnic strife, gathered in one family's compound to take action. The idea of a health center sparked our optimism, which had been extinguished by the horrors we'd lived through.

People with almost nothing gave what they had for a common cause. Subsistence farmers donated precious land for the health center. Parents with babies on their backs hand-built the first road linking the village with a major supply route. Men made bricks, while women carried stones on their heads. Together, the village mustered $150 to rent a truck to transport equipment. Today, hundreds of community members continue to volunteer their time every Friday. This kind of genuine community engagement is what makes Village Health Works successful and sustainable.

In future posts, I'll talk about some of Village Health Works' accomplishments, but for now, I'll close with one story of a woman I will never forget. She came to help build the road leading to the Village Health Works health center. With a sick baby in her arms, she said to me, "Instead of staying at home watching my baby die, I would rather come here and work with you, because at least then my contribution might save someone else's child." We treated her child successfully for malaria. The woman told me, "The medication you gave my child was the greatest gift a mother could receive. And this work also has a more precious element than you know." I asked her what it was. She said, "Ending the crisis." Crisis is the word Burundians use instead of genocide. She said, "The crisis can end: People have been talking and working together."

The community in Kigutu is just a part of the nation, but it is representative of Burundi's grassroots potential. Because of what it was able to accomplish, I have faith that our country will soon reach milestones analogous to Rwanda's. Our path to economic prosperity and reconciliation may be more gradual than our neighbor's government-mandated efforts, but such community-driven efforts that mend old wounds at a local level are equally critical to invest in. I believe Burundi is a country of unrecognized and unfulfilled potential.