Building a healthy and hopeful community

On Oct. 17, the same day as President Hanno’s inauguration, Wheaton honored another leader committed to changing lives and strengthening communities. The Otis Social Justice award was presented to Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza.

“Bestowing the award on what is such a festive day for us is a great privilege,” said Provost Linda Eisenmann. 

Deo narrowly escaped genocidal war in Burundi, hiding under a bed while a militia searched the hospital he was working in as a medical student. In 1994, he moved to New York City, with no place to live or any knowledge of English. He taught himself by frequenting libraries and bookstores, and was able to enroll in Columbia University. 

Determined to continue his medical career, which was abruptly halted in Burundi, Deo enrolled in the Harvard School of Public Health. There he worked with Dr. Paul Farmer and the Partners in Health program. This program established a critical link between poverty and illness, and motivated Deo to start his own public health project in Burundi, Village Health Works.

From its inception, Village Health Works is a story of how the strength of communities can transform lives. The created identities that had kept them separated, such as Hutu and Tutsi, were transcended in this project. The people of Kigutu donated their land, their only commodity, to provide a home for Village Health Works. When the cost of building a road was too high, neighbors came together and built one together. Deo described how powerful it was to see neighbors using machetes that had once been swung against their neighbors to now clear a road for a health clinic.

Village Health Works was created to restore health and hope in Burundi. “When despair has the last word, we lose who we are,” said Deo. In his presentation of the award, President Hanno stressed that pity was a useless reaction. “We shouldn’t feel sorry for Deo. We should work with him to help.”

President Hanno and Niyizonkiza shared a similar approach to strengthening community: listening.  “What you can do is not much, unless you sit down with the people who are suffering and ask what you can do together,” said Deo.

With this approach, Village Health Works has been able prevent medical issues, as well as treating existing ones. “We have many problems, but health is our biggest problem,” said Deo. Village Health works linked health to education, nutrition, and economic development programs. They worked with farmers and taught them what foods to grow. With the money from economic development initiatives, they were able to invest in clean water. 

Deo has developed Village Health Works so that it will be a model for Burundi, as well as a teaching hospital. Beyond inspiring future doctors, Deo’s story reminds us of the power of community and our unstoppable force when we work together. 

“We can truly change the world and make it the world we want to see.”