On “Strength in what Remains,” Village Health Works, and Deogratias Niyizonkiza

My soul-search on what I may have to offer to the world with my background and skill set has been leading me to many inspiring and fascinating encounters. One happened this past week at an amateur chamber music festival, ArtsAhimsa. Stephanie Engel, a flutist, humanitarian and psychiatrist, introduced me to the incorporation of music as a part of the healing process at Village Health Works, a healthcare community in Burundi. Burundi is one of the world’s poorest countries, with history of genocides and civil wars comparable to that of Rwanda, Burundi’s neighbor.


Stephanie gave me a book, Strength in what Remains by the Pulitzer prize-winning author, Tracy Kidder.

It is about a journey of a Burundian man, Deogratias Niyizonkiza. He survives the Burundi’s genocide in the 90’s, but has to battle the trauma of the event, in addition to the utter isolation and homelessness in NYC after his escape to the U.S.  Overcoming the challenges with help from exceptional people that befriend him, he goes to Columbia University, and medical school. He then goes back to Burundi to establish Village Health Works “with the goal of removing barriers to dignity and progress by creating a model healthcare system.” (quoted from the VHW’s website: https://www.villagehealthworks.org/our-storyhome/)

I have seen the power of communal cultural activities to restore the sense of dignity, identity, and joy in the face of challenges.  I did not realize the importance of Hula to the Hawaiians until I learned of their history of injustice and violation committed against them by Americans. Music can also help us transcend our each individual subjectivity. West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a youth orchestra whose members consist of Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians. Founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, they have been traversing their “deep political and ideological divides… [through] listening to each other during rehearsals and discussions.” (quoted from their website: http://www.west-eastern-divan.org/) I have also heard a holocaust survivor tell a story related to the power of music. A professional singer in her past life, she was asked to sing by her fellow detainees upon their final arrival at a concentration camp after several days of grueling train rides. After her lullaby, she told us, people thanked her for momentarily transporting them to a different place. But it is one thing for me, a classical musician who has had the privilege of the world’s best musical education, incubated in a babble detached from the real world, to recognize and promote the importance of art and its power to encourage empathy and to bring communities together. To know that Deo and his community recognizes this importance at their healthcare community is encouraging and inspiring to me.