Thursday, 15 March 2012

Strength in What Remains: Tracy Kidder (Burundi)

I read some interesting books during the latter part of last year (2011), from various countries in Africa and South-east Asia, but the one that stands out more than any other was set in the impoverished central African counnty of Burundi. The book, entitled Strength in What Remains is written by an American named Tracy Kidder, and tells the true story of a survivor of the genocide that took place in that small African country in 1993. It really made me think and question many of the things that we take for granted and which are in the scheme of life, frivulous and really quite insignificant.

As an example, at the beginning of December, around the time that I read this book, I attended my work Christmas party. It was a lavish do with disco and three course meal at nearby Epsom Racecourse, in which all the staff dressed up. I was fretting over what to wear, so that I did not look frumpy, and also moaned about the standard of the vegetarian food that I was served, which when compared to the carnivorous option, was far less substantial. Yet Burindians, and for that matter, those in many other countries, cannot afford even basic clothes and have no idea as to where their next meal is coming from. The amount of money that was spent that night by some people was akin to more than most Burundians make in a whole year.

The book quotes some frightening statistics - Burundi has the lowest GDP per head of population than any other country on earth with one of the lowest literacy rates and life expectancy, particularly for women, who due to the high infant mortality rate go through pregnancy after pregnancy getting old and worn out way before their time.

The things that the main character in this book saw and experienced cannot begin to be imagined - the book describes a scene where he was fleeing from his own country into neighbouring Rwanda.  He was sheltering in a banana grove surrounded by dead bodies. It was there that he noticed a live baby trying to suckle it's dead mothers breast. He knew that there was nothing whatsoever that he could for this child and it too would die, a victim of those intent on killing those that they felt were different to them.

The whole experience of that Christmas party, dressing up to try and impress, making polite conversation with the boss and keeping up a pretence that I was enjoying myself left me wondering why we do it - why do we do things that we know make us uncomfortable in an effort to try and fit in? I prefer a quieter, calmer environment, where I can hear the conversation without having to strain, not glamour, flashing lights and falsehood. Real strength, like the character in this book, comes from being willing to face your demons and work with them, not by blotting them out with distractions, which for me at least, is what events like this are all about.

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