Relying on the kindness of strangers

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The central figure in Tracy Kidder’s new book escaped death by machete in his native Burundi, beat overwhelming odds to get an Ivy League education, and returned to his war-torn country to build a free clinic that treats what the author called “stupid illnesses,” which are often fatal in Africa but easily treated in the developed world.

In his book Strength in What Remains, Kidder maintains that the kindness of strangers shines even in a dark world, as he told an audience in Harkness Auditorium during a talk co-sponsored by Yale Cancer Center and WSHU Public Radio in November.

His book is the story of Deo, a survivor of an ethnic massacre who fled to New York City and slept in Central Park until a childless couple adopted him and paid his way through Columbia University. Deo was mentored by Paul Farmer, M.D., the subject of Kidder’s 2003 bestseller Mountains Beyond Mountains. Deo returned to Burundi and built the clinic with the help of strangers. The organization that Deo founded and that sponsors and operates this facility is called Village Health Works.

The center has treated 28,000 patients since its opening in 2008. It has become “an instrument of peace,” Kidder said, because the various tribes put aside their “artificial” differences to realize “our common susceptibility to illness and injury.”