Tracy Kidder: "…faith that looks through death"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Tracy Kidder. (51 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Tracy Kidder actually finds a needle in the haystack — a kernel of inspiration in a continent of bad news — in his virtually irresistible new saga (with a Wordsworth title) Strength in What Remains.

The bad news is the ongoing massacres and underlying misery in East Central Africa – in the neighborhood of Rwanda, hard by the killing fields in the Congo today.

The inspiration in Tracy Kidder’s sudden best-seller is a young man named Deo – short for the Latin “Deogratias,” meaning “thanks be to God” – who goes back to his blighted roots in Burundi to found Village Health Works, putting his medical education at the service of war’s survivors.

How we long — writers, book-buyers, interviewers, too — for bulletins from abroad without US Marines or drones in the picture. I like the moment in our conversation when I refer to one of Deo’s signature stories, about the need to build a six-kilometer road to his new health clinic in Kayanza. Tracy Kidder leaps up. “Can I read this?” he asks, reaching for his own book. In the anecdote, Deo, in Africa, was saying that a Belgian construction company would want US$50,000 to build the road, when a Burundian woman with a baby crying on her back interrupted him.

She said: “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. The road was finished before the Belgian road builders got to bid on the job.

“Who did it?” the professionals asked. “We are the only road construction company in the entire region!”

“Not anymore,” Deo responded.

From Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, pages 255-6.

What I am asking Tracy Kidder here is how to generalize that Deo story to the scale of Africa’s problem and the policies from Washington, the West, and now China, that have been anything but a solution:

It’s not tremendously complicated but it is difficult work. And it’s not the kind of work that some people like to do [because] you can’t do it in Washington D.C.

Too often what happens is that people start out with good intentions and raise substantial sums of money to do their work. Then things start to go wrong: they buy fleets of SUVs for their own use in that country, they call for big huge conferences with experts who don’t speak the language, and then they realize that it is really hard to work in a place like Haiti or Burundi and pretty quickly declare defeat. Before they leave they blame the people they had come to help …

I don’t think the conclusion should be that we give up because it is impossible. I consider effective foreign aid as a debt that is owed by the West to many of these countries, such as Haiti, which has been a virtual colony of the United States. Certainly Europe owes some big debts to many countries in Africa …

The fact is that to have a Burundian leading this effort in Burundi is a really important aspect … I mean you’ve really got to speak the language. You have got to understand connotation and so on. You’ve got to be able to cultivate a local base: people you can trust. I think the effective projects are the ones that, while they have big goals, start with the individual. Let the individual patient teach you how to treat their family, and let that family teach you how to treat a village, and let that village teach you how to treat a province and the province: the nation. You can be working from both ends but you can’t forget the essential part: the local. I mean it’s where we all live.

Tracy Kidder with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, September 22, 2009.

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