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Deo Niyizonkiza

The East African country that Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza once fled for his life has now honored its native son with a presidential visit to the health care center he returned to found.

Pierre Nkurunkiza, president of Burundi, traveled to Village Health Works Aug. 20 with U.S. Ambassador Pamela Slutz for a tour that included placement of the cornerstone for a planned women’s health pavilion at the site.

That building, scheduled for construction next year at a donor-funded cost of just more than $1 million, will be the newest addition to the once-improbable project that Niyizonkiza outlined Tuesday, Aug. 30, at Bluffton University’s opening convocation.

Launching Bluffton’s 2011-12 civic engagement theme, "Public Health: Promoting Wellness for Self and Community," he said Village Health Works was built beginning in 2006 "to bring decency where there was none."

He had seen inhumanity firsthand in Burundi in the form of early-1990s genocide, stemming from ongoing fighting between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi populations. Surviving a massacre at the hospital where he was a third-year medical school intern, Niyizonkiza fled to New York in 1994, arriving with no contacts and speaking no English. With help from new friends, he eventually enrolled, and earned degrees, both at Columbia and Harvard universities.

He moved on to Dartmouth Medical School but took a hiatus to found Village Health Works with the motto "Where there is health, there is hope." Had he finished his medical education first, noted Niyizonkiza before his Bluffton address, the organization and its inpatient clinic wouldn’t exist—and many people are alive who would otherwise have died.

The clinic has seen more than 55,000 patients—about three-quarters of them women and children ages 14 and under—since opening its doors in December 2007.

But it’s about more, Niyizonkiza said, than aiding the sick, which Village Health Works does through a holistic approach whose emphases include proper nutrition. The organization is also helping the cause of peace, he continued, through community engagement. Former enemies have come together to make the bricks and carry the stones that have become buildings, also including a community center powered by solar energy.

Both Hutus and Tutsis have "lost a lot and gained nothing" in their longtime civil strife, he said, but cooperative efforts with Village Health Works have left him hopeful for long-term peace in a country of many poor, ill people.

The organization’s mission is to be a center of teaching as well as healing, and to change Burundi, added Niyizonkiza, speaking of future goals such as a family hospital and an education center. Pointing out that almost half of Burundians have no education, he reminded his Bluffton student listeners of their good fortune and encouraged them to "use that knowledge to save the world."

In a variation of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of 50 years ago, he urged them to ask what they can do for their fellow citizens, saying that doing so also represents doing something worthwhile for themselves. "We are together in this world, and it is one country, one family," with shared responsibility for others, he said.

While he still spends about one-third of his time in Burundi, Niyizonkiza is now a U.S. citizen and within a year of completing medical school at Columbia. "It’s been a long journey, back and forth," he said.

His story is the subject of this year’s common summer reading for first-year Bluffton students, the 2009 book Strength in What Remains, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. Support for his visit to campus was provided by a special grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

Those first-year students, along with transfer students—totaling about 280 in all—were also introduced and welcomed to Bluffton during the traditional convocation ceremony.


Bluffton public relations, 8/31/11