I finished Strength in What Remains right before the Super Bowl started. I’ve been reading it in tiny snatches for far too long and fortunately (for the book, not for myself) I came down with a strange fever/flu/strepthroat hybrid disease that has laid me up for quite a while and given me plenty of time to read.
Strength in What Remains is the true story of Deogratias Niyizonkiza, a former medical student who escaped the genocide in Burundi in 1994 and came to New York under the pretext of selling and buying coffee.
At this point you’re probably going (unless you are very well informed), “what genocide in Burundi?” Well, I said that too. I had heard of the genocide in Rwanda where the Hutus tried to kill the Tutsis. Well, apparently Burundi had the same thing, with the same Hutu v. Tutsi set up. The interesting thing about that is as far as anyone can tell the differentiation between these two ethnicities was made up by the invading colonial power, which at the time was Belgium. Basically Belgium spread a rumor that the Tutsis were superior and you could tell by the fact that they were taller, lighter skinned and their noses were less broad. So, this insidious myth ended up causing a rift between these two “ethnicities” because the Tutsis were often trusted with more wealth and more power.
Anyway, you don’t get to hear about what happened to Deogratias until about 2/3 of the way through the book. You first get to hear about his being in New York, and just that was pretty terrifying. He arrives knowing no English, with very little money and no job prospects. He goes from run down crummy apartment to run down crummy apartment barely able to get by by delivering groceries. At his lowest point he is homeless. He finally meets a young woman named Sharon who works very hard to get him off the streets and into school. With her help and the help of a married couple, Deo is able to finally get through school and into medical school.
Deogratias has always wanted to be in medical school since he witnessed the death of his school friend at a very young age. He’s a highly sensitive man who wants to help others be well even if they are poor. His dream is to start a clinic in war ravaged Burundi, and Strength in What Remains follows his journey to doing just that. Of course, before he gets there, Deo has to confront the ugliness of his own memories.
This was a tough story to read, but it was a really heartwarming story too. Online a lot of people will praise this book as a testament to what the human spirit is capable of, and it is. Don’t get me wrong. Deogratias was a very strong person who went through hell and still found a way to keep his humanity. But this was also a story of God’s providence. Some of the ways Deo survived were pretty unlikely. God had a distinct purpose in keeping him alive. Perhaps it was because God wanted a clinic in Burundi to help relieve the suffering of the poor people who had no way of seeing a doctor. Or perhaps God has other plans. It is hard to tell without being able to see the big picture like God can, but even if Deogratias doesn’t recognize it right now, he was very aptly named. Thanks be to God.