Reading Together Blog
June 9, 2011
Dear Friends of Kalamazoo,
It is from the bottom of my heart that I relay my thanks to Kalamazoo Public Library and the Kalamazoo Center for Social Justice for helping to coordinate Kalamazoo’s recent reading of “Strength in What Remains.” The invitation you sent us to hear about Village Health Works in Burundi and the warm welcome you offered us last month made us feel at home.
It is critical that communities around the world come together to support those that have been forgotten. This, I believe, is how we can measure world progress. From Kigutu to Kalamazoo, we all have a role to play in making the world a place of peace, health and hope. This is why we created Village Health Works. Our Village Health Works (VHW) project in rural Burundi is many years overdue and is in the perfect place for everyone who truly wants to make a difference in the world. When I think of the unspeakable misery in that country so badly forgotten and still off the map, I always wonder: what have the poor Burundians done wrong to deserve such kind of punishment? But that misery also can be looked at in another way: as a test of morality for those who sit idly by watching what happens and choosing to do nothing about it.
In the 21st century, letting some of our world citizens lag centuries behind is a serious challenge to social justice and a threat to human progress as well as global peace.
Although there is no shortage of woes in Burundi, there is no shortage of opportunities either. There is always a reason for keeping hope alive when I look at how VHW has brought so much joy and hope to the lives of our community members in such a short time and despite the meager resources and other challenges we have faced.
The mission of Village Health Works is to become a center of excellence for healing and teaching for our world so that existing conditions that have dehumanized Burundi for so long can shift into ones that favor life. There is no question in my head that this mission will be fully accomplished. All it takes is a community of compassionate people who, arms linked, get together to understand the world as it truly is.
When one does good after seeing with an open heart and mind what we eyewitness and deal with on a daily basis in Burundi, it is a humane act, more about what makes us all human than being generous.
You have dearly recognized that fact, and I trust that the event you organized in May 2011 to hear more about our work was the first step in an important collaboration between your Kalamazoo community and our growing organization. So, whatever you do, keep us in mind and let's make a difference together.
With many thanks,
Deogratias Niyizonkiza, Founder, Village Health Works.
P.S. Please continue to follow our work by visiting us at www.villagehealthworks.org.
PO Box 75 New York, NY 10013 | 917.546.9219 | villagehealthworks.org
Download Deo’s original letter PDF
Village Health Works
Reading Together (RT) 2011 ended on a powerful note this week. Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza, the focus of Strength in What Remains, and Dziwe Ntaba, co-founder with Deo of Village Health Works, were in Kalamazoo, thanks to our RT partner, The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership at Kalamazoo College.
Deo described the poverty of Burundi, the health care conditions, and the founding of Village Health Works, intertwined with stories of his youth and family. He spoke for about 90 minutes without a note—he was telling his story, no notes needed. I sensed most of the audience had read Tracy Kidder’s book and had attended other RT programs this year. Although most knew Deo’s story, hearing it in his own voice was even more powerful, especially when combined with the photographs of building the road to the clinic, the homes and the people in the world’s poorest country.
The following morning at a small breakfast gathering, we heard how Deo and Dziwe met in the Boston area on 9/11 and discovered both had the dream of establishing clinics in Africa. They joined forces to establish Village Health Works based on the principle “that all people are entitled to high quality health care, regardless of ability to pay.” They have completed construction of an outpatient clinic and have begun to train community health workers. Not surprisingly, much of their time while in the US is spent on community visits such as the one here and on fundraising.
Before we said good-bye, talk turned to how we might keep in touch. From the library perspective, we offered to send them excess copies of Strength in What Remains for distribution to potential donors. Deo wondered if we could do children’s storytimes by Skype for the library he hopes to build—maybe so! He asked for our business cards and said he’d be in touch! I imagine our K College colleagues had a similar conversation and will also keep in touch. And, I’m betting some of the folks in the audience for the public program will send donations.
From the earliest days of our Reading Together program, we have tried to select a book that is more than a “good read.” We have tried to select a book to bring the community together in a meaningful conversation, perhaps even make a difference somewhere in the world. I’m proud that I think we accomplished that this year and we thank our partners at the Arcus Center for bringing Deo and Dziwe to town.
And now on to Reading Together 2012. Library staff have been exchanging suggestions for next year’s book. We’d welcome your suggestions too. What would you like our community to read and discuss next winter?
Although there is still one more Reading Together related event in 2011, I wanted to report out on the success of the program. Check out these numbers!
• Over 1,700 copies of the book and audiobook circulated
• Over 800 readers attended the Tracy Kidder program on March 10 at Chenery Auditorium
• 1,063 patrons attended one of the 13 events with an average of 82 at each event!
The above numbers show that over 3,500 individuals either read Strength in What Remains, attended an event or both. So if you average this number over the six weeks we celebrated Kidder’s novel, over 580 a week participated in Reading Together! This does not even include the many community book clubs and partnering libraries who hosted events.
I would like to thank the Steering Committee, Community Partners, and Sponsors for making it another great year.
Strength in What Remains
The following comments come from Jim Ratliff, a long time Steering Committee member and librarian at KVCC...
“The Kalamazoo Valley Museum hosted a Reading Together event Friday, March 18 with the screening of the movie Hotel Rwanda. The movie retells the true-life story of a compassionate Hutu hotel manager, Paul Rusesabagina, who housed and saved over a thousand Tutsi refugees during their struggle against the Hutu militia in Rwanda.
Early in the movie the hotel manager declares to his wife after their first witnessing of a neighbor’s massacre, “There is nothing we can do.” Little did he know the horrors that were ahead of him and his extraordinary, inspirational courage to do what he could to save persecuted friends, families and villagers from the machete.
Watching this movie 15 years after the genocide, attendees spoke of how they remembered there was conflict going on in Rwanda at the time, but had little understanding of the atrocities. Credible accounts estimate up to a million people were killed in just three months during the conflict. One million lives.
It was a difficult story to accept. Several members of the audience were moved to speak to me afterward proclaiming their sorrowful ignorance of the terrible history. Much like the stories retold by Tracy Kidder however, a distant tragedy was brought to life and made more real when recounted through the lives of individuals. Individuals with courage. Individuals who received help from friends and strangers. Individuals with determination to face adversity one day at a time. Individuals who did marvelous deeds to ensure the success of a cause larger than their own.
I’m thankful to the museum for offering this movie, the museum staff who stayed late and the attendees. With the exposure to Hotel Rwanda and Strength in What Remains, hopefully we will have he strength and courage to help others in times of need.”
Over 800 fans of Reading Together and this year’s selection, Strength in What Remains, packed the Chenery Auditorium on March 10 to hear the author Tracy Kidder speak. This year the annual author visit signaled the kick off to KPL’s community reading program. Kidder spoke eloquently of not only his relationship with the book’s subject, Deogratias ‘Deo’ Niyizonkiza, but also the mythic journey of hope and forgiveness that Deo experienced. The presentation touched upon other timely topics in relation to world health, poverty, and what society can do to make change happen. In addition to speaking, Kidder shared a variety of photos that showed both the beauty of Burundi and the many residents whose lives have changed from proper medical care.
Many attendees commented on the way out that thought Kidder was “fabulous” and that his words really inspired them. I know that I heard Kidder’s challenge to work towards asking our leaders make world health an important issue to tackle. If you attended the event, we thank you for participating and hope that it enhanced your reading of Strength in What Remains. There are still many more great events in the coming weeks that will further your enjoyment of the book.
We’ve read the book, Tracy Kidder has enlightened and entertained us with the inside story of how it came to be written, and this Reading Together season is now in full swing. On Monday night, KPL hosted the program The History of Burundi and Rwanda presented by Kalamazoo College African studies professor, Joseph Bangura. Strength in What Remains has made me naturally curious to know more about the country of Burundi, so I was anxious to hear its history and that of neighboring Rwanda. Apparently many Reading Together participants felt the same way as nearly fifty people attended the program.
Dr. Bangura skillfully took us through the often complicated history and answered many questions posed by the fascinated audience members. The Hutu and Tutsi people, who make up the majority of the population of both countries, were the subject of much of the discussion. It was interesting to learn that the two groups lived quite peacefully together before European colonization. I won’t offer more of an explanation for fear of over-simplifying the situation, but I recommend that you watch for Dr. Bangura’s thorough and highly informed account in video form, which will soon be available on our website.
Why would God allow human suffering? This is just one of the questions that Strength in What Remains tries to answer.
The author set's the stage for what he considers unacceptable theories (he mentioned this at his talk): "One of the things I've noticed about some of the genocide narratives I've read, people will say, 'God spared me.' The problem I have with that is then you think, 'Well, what about all the people who got their heads chopped off?...So I'm not quite sure that's the way to look at it" (p. 177).
Deo says that human suffering is caused by God letting people do what they want, a sort of Deistic approach; God created human nature and said "you're on your own." (can you find that passage?) It struck me as almost sad, slightly sarcastic and comedic, perhaps due to the desensitization Deo went through.
Sharon, more optimistic, says: "I have a theory," she replied. "I remember thinking long ago, 'We're loved infinitely for however little bit of time we have.' And it's not ultimately tragic to die at any age. Whether we're talking about being blown into little pieces or waht is ultimate tragedy, I just think there isn't ultimate tragedy except for evil, and God doesn't will any evil. And we're surrounded by--I tell the little kids about the Good Shepherd...but the vine and the branches is great, too--but whether we feel it or not, we are surrounded by this tremendously loving presence, and that covers every second of every day. Of everybody" (p. 177).
Sharon's theory, I think, is one of the most unique theories I have come across.
For further reading, other theories (called "theodicies") include: (a) Free will is the greatest gift, which allows for evil and suffering, (b) suffering is God's way of making us stronger, (c) God cannot stop evil and suffering, (d) evil and suffering do not actually exist, (e) for good to exist, its opposite evil must exist. To find them in our catalog, do a subject search for theodicy, or suffering, or good and evil.
philosophy of religion
In today’s post, I’d like to highlight several films that engage in one way or another with the theme of forgiveness (both of oneself and that of others). The affirmative expression of forgiveness and its role in repairing damaged lives and communities will be a central point of discourse during this year’s Reading Together programs. Each of these films and their characters either directly or sometimes in subtle ways explores the ways in which subjects negotiate the complexities of forgiveness, either on a broad social level or that of individuals in search of unburdening of some sort of psychic pain in order to reconnect (Ordinary People). Throughout these films, there is a thematic current of struggle to redeem and to mend, coursing its way through the lives of characters as they hunt for meaning in an otherwise turbulent and uncertain world. Whether it’s the death row inmate seeking forgiveness prior to his execution in Dead Man Walking or the colonial slave trader in The Mission looking to amend for his earlier crimes amongst the same community he unjustly worked to destroy, films have long probed the difficulties and possibilities involved with reconciliation. So while you’re enjoying the book discussions with your fellow community members and participating in a Reading Together program or two, don’t forget to supplement your engagement with this always timely and dynamic topic with a thought provoking film from our rich collection.
The Straight Story
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Royal Tenenbaum's
About fifty dedicated readers braved the cold to attend the first Reading Together program of 2011, “Appreciating Kidder”.
Bill Combs, WMU professor emeritus of English, examined all nine of Kidder’s books with particular emphasis on Strength in What Remains. He described them as narrative nonfiction - a true story written in a style more closely associated with fiction with plot structure and character development to make the story as compelling as possible. That’s a good description of Kidder’s style.
I’m just about through rereading Strength in What Remains. I don’t often reread books, but I want to be ready for all the programs and events and have the book clearly in mind. I’m now inspired to read as many of his other books as possible before his visit here on March 10.
Reading Together 2011 is off to a strong start!
Photo: Kevin King
Reading Together 2011