03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Strength in What Remains: Tracy Kidder's Remarkable Story of a Refugee from African Genocide Who Gets Inspired in Haiti

I can't be the only one who noticed the juxtaposition of photographs in the news.

In Washington, four Wall Street CEOs, sleek in Dunhill suits and Lobb shoes, testified that they bore no responsibility for the worst economic crisis in 70 years.

In Haiti, where the average worker earns $2 a day, an earthquake destroyed cities and villages alike, killing 100,000 people, maybe more.

You read these articles. And maybe you make the obligatory donation to a relief fund --- mine went to Dr. Paul Farmer's Partners in Health --- but mostly, you throw up your hands and turn away. What can you do about Wall Street when its lobbyists swarm over Washington and its donations suck the last vestiges of independence from our politicians? And unless you're a doctor or a bulldozer driver, what, really, can you do to help the Haitians?

One person can make a difference?

Yeah. Right.

But then I remembered the most powerful book I read in 2009 --- Strength in What Remains: A journey of remembrance and forgiveness, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder --- and I reconsidered what a single person can do.

In this book, the man is Deogratias, known as Deo, whose name in Latin means "thanks to God". When we first meet him, Deo is 24, a third-year medical student. But there's no way he can finish school. He lives in Burundi, and this is 1994, when civil war has come to Burundi and Rwanda, and Hutu and Tutsi tribal war has degenerated into genocide. Let one image stand for many: He sees dogs in the streets with human heads in their mouths.

Escape is beyond unlikely, but Deo makes it to New York. He speaks no English, has just $200. But he's amazingly resourceful. Housing? He finds a shell of a building in Harlem where he can sleep, then moves on to Central Park. Work? He delivers groceries for $15 a day.

How depressing is this life? Deo becomes suicidal: "Better, he thought, to be in Burundi, if Burundi were at peace, than to live on the wrong, impoverished planet in New York. This place made you feel like you were simply not a human being."

A kind woman introduces Deo to Nancy and Charlie Wolf, downtown artists and, by the evidence, saints. They help Deo arrange to go to Columbia University and even pay his tuition. In less than two years, he's once again studying medicine.

And now the circle starts to complete itself. He meets Dr. Paul Farmer --- who has done so much to help the poor in Haiti and is the subject of Kidder's masterpiece, Mountains Beyond Mountains --- and goes to work for him. And then he returns to Burundi and opens a clinic of his own.

One incident sticks with me. Deo's clinic needed a better road. A Belgian construction company gave him an estimate: $50,000, just to make it passable.

Deo shared the bad news with the people he hoped to serve. And then...

A woman with a baby crying on her back said to me, 'You will not pay a penny for this road. We become so much sick because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy. We will work on this road with our own hands.'

The next day a hundred sixty-six people showed up with pickaxes, hoes, machetes and other tools. One of the volunteers was a woman who came to work with a sick child. I asked the mother why she came to work with a child that sick. And she said to me, 'I've already lost three children, and I know this one is next, whether I stay at home or come to work here. So it's better for me to join others and make my contribution, which hopefully will help to save someone else's child, who will be sick but alive when you build your clinic.'

A six-kilometer road in Africa, built by the poorest of the poor while a Western company was still formulating its estimate for the job --- you can find any number of metaphors there.

Who should read this book?

Gee, I can think of a few CEOs on Wall Street who might benefit from reading about life at the bottom --- and what a few caring people can do to help.

And that friend who's always complaining about the equivalent of a chipped fingernail --- this is the perfect anonymous gift.

And you too, because there's a lot of static in the air and it's easy to feel there's nothing you can do about it.

But there is.

[Cross-posted from]