Leadership In Practice: Rebuilding A Nation After Trauma

Being a leader takes courage, patience, resilience and vision. Deogratias (Deo) Niyizonkiza, Founder and CEO, Village Health Works, has those leadership attributes and many more.

Deo was born into a loving yet poor family in Burundi. At the outbreak of the 1994 Hutu/Tutsi genocide in Rwanda/Burundi, Deo was attending medical school in Bujumbura, Burundi. One day a group of Hutus came to his dorm looking to kill any and all Tutsis. Deo hid under his bed.  After the perpetrators left, he fled to the woods of Burundi and Rwanda where he hid, while witnessing senseless slaughter, for six months.

Through a friend he was offered safe passage to New York City. Not speaking a word of English, penniless and not knowing a soul, Deo lived on the streets, in abandoned Harlem buildings and in hideaways in Central Park.

While delivering groceries on the Upper East Side to Sharon McKenna, the administrator of a local church, she noticed an unusual intelligence and compassion in Deo. She fostered introductions within the church community and mentored the young man.  Deo learned English, found a home, graduated from Columbia College and went to Harvard where he met Dr. Paul Farmer, who has done transformative work in Haiti as co-founder of Partners In Health. It was Farmer’s influence that led Deo back to Burundi to help his war-ravaged country.

Deo continues to transcend his grief by providing quality healthcare and education through Village Health Works, to all Burundi citizens, even his fellow enemies.  Deo and the local population built a hospital, a road to the hospital and school with their own resources.  Their collective hard work have saved hundreds of lives.

Deo has much to teach us.  In this polarizing time of us v. them, trend toward isolationism and nationalism, he is an intelligent, compassionate and clear voice for all humanity.  His leadership style of listening to all sides of a situation and including all community members to be part of the conversation and solution, is not just lip service, but a daily practice.  He shows us how change begins with each of us.  It’s a difficult process that takes a lifetime, but it’s the only way forward for a meaningful life.

To learn more about Deo, please visit his website here or read Tracy Kidder’s best-selling book, The Strength In What Remains on Deo’s extraordinary life.

Key Highlights:

  1. “When you are in a place you are not familiar with, you discover yourself. You see you are capable of doing so much more beyond what you thought about doing.” (Video: Learning Compassion Through Travel).
  2. “It’s very easy to say, ‘take a machete you are suffering because of your neighbor’, instead of teaching people how to work in hard conditions and work together.” (Video: Helping Your Former Enemy).
  3. “We hear about all these ethnic conflicts but is that the real issue? It’s the extreme poverty that has been so unforgiving.  That poverty is a man-made tragedy.  Very poor people have been taught that unless aid comes from outside there is nothing that is going to happen.” (Video: Addressing Poverty).
  4. “Deconstruct the issue(s) that create distrust.  Have the honest conversation that comes from the heart, that comes from knowledge.  Hone in on that one issue all parties care deeply about to improve the lives of the community.” (Video: Building Trust After Trauma).

Essential Resources:

BBC Burundi Timeline

United to End Genocide

World Bank: Leadership and Growth, The Case of Rwanda

Life After Violence: A People’s Story of Burundi

Global Leadership Summit: Surviving The Rwandan Genocide

New Yorker: After The Genocide, by Philip Gourevitch

Special Thanks to Columbia Business School Career Management Center, Regina Resnick, Mark Horney, MIT Solve, Elizabeth Sachs

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