I spent New Year's Eve in Kigutu, Burundi. No Times Square ball dropping to count down to midnight, no fireworks, no television reports showing major cities around the world at the stroke of midnight, and no fancy parties with beautiful people wearing designer gowns and tuxedos, eating amazing delicacies. Instead, we watched and partied with children of all ages, from 6-80, enjoying traditional music, drumming, singing and dance with no special effects only their deep appreciation of each other and of life itself. They looked to 2014 with sincere hope and excitement.
Burundi, a country in East Africa, is said to be one of the three poorest in the world. Its people are still recovering, nearly nine years after the end of "the crisis" which killed and made homeless an estimated 15% of people in Burundi in brutal and unimaginable acts of violence. The reasons for the genocide in Burundi between the Hutus and Tutsis, mostly innocent men, women and children, are in my mind unexplainable and unconscionable.
I came to Burundi to visit Village Health Works, founded by the courageous and visionary Deogratias Niyizonkiza. Having heard Deo speak several times and having read his incredible story in Tracy Kidder's Strength in What Remains, I was honored when Deo invited me to participate in his annual Community Health Forum and to consider ways that Wheelock College might provide training and support for the development of a high-quality early education program for the children of Kigutu. Village Health Works, near Deo's childhood home, is high in the mountains nearly two hours from the capital city of Bujumbura. I was struck by the beauty of the area. It was hard to believe that it was the scene of murder and rape that occurred daily for thirteen years.
What Deo and the residents of Kigutu have accomplished in six short years is nothing short of miraculous. Not only have they built a high functioning outpatient hospital, but they also created a sustainable farm, community center, economic coops, residential quarters for 55 staff and a nice new guest house for up to 20 people. Most impressive are the beautiful gardens with tropical trees and flowers planted by the community, bringing a sense of dignity and quiet serenity to the entire campus. While the facilities are modest, there is an incredible sense of respect and appreciation for every human being often not found in our modern high tech healthcare facilities. Deo said that the idea of Village Health Works is to be a "beacon of hope for the country" and an academic teaching center of excellence in teaching and healing. It is certainly a beacon of hope for all humanity.
Walking around Village Health Works with Deo is like being in the company of a rock star and Mother Theresa all in one. Everyone knows, loves and respects Deo and he knows everyone and their story. It is evident how much he loves his people for he often stops to talk with patients, staff, or children and his vision for Village Health Works is infectious. I found myself offering ideas on how to help get started on his next phase -- a women's health pavilion including an operating room equipped to provide Caesarian sections that will put an end to so many needless deaths. Following the Women's Health Pavilion will come a pediatric ward for up to 50 children. I am confident that Deo and the residents of Kigutu will achieve these goals with the help and support from many people here in Burundi and around the world.
We began New Year's Eve with a trip high in the mountains, traveling through village after village and viewing the people preparing for the New Year. After a short stop to visit friends, Deo took us to visit a most moving memorial at the Buta Academy, a boy's boarding school. I read about this site in Strength in What Remains, but nothing could have prepared me for seeing the gravestones of 41 young men. Their faces, surrounded by angels, were painted on the wall of a Catholic chapel built to honor their memory. They were killed en masse when their attackers demanded they separate into Hutus and Tutsis and they refused. Sitting in the quiet beauty of the church offered reflection on people's inhumanity to each other in unspeakable ways and at the same time an example of the courage to stand up for what is right and just. These 41 young men sacrificed their lives because of their deep sense of brotherhood. I am inspired to do more. Their beautiful young faces will remain etched in my heart for a very long time.
We returned to Kigutu with excitement in the air for the evening festivities. Throughout the evening, people greeted us with Umwaka Mwiza -- "beautiful year." My wish for each of you, for Deo, for the people of Kigutu, and the people of Burundi is Umwaka Mwiza -- a very beautiful year.
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