Jason Byassee: “You will not pay a penny for this road”

A transformational leader named Deogratias and a tenacious village in Burundi build a clinic together, illustrating the divine gift of vibrant institutions. All told by the remarkable Tracy Kidder.

The problem with leadership in developing countries is usually not a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, Ivan Parra, the leader of a local neighborhood organization called Durham CAN, recently told me. Everyone in his native Colombia has to be an entrepreneur if they want to eat, Parra said. Jobs aren’t plentiful, so people have to tie things together to create work for themselves. The problem is those individual efforts are not often enough aggregated into vibrant institutions that can have a lasting and wider spread social impact.

One can see the necessity of vibrant institutions in Tracy Kidder’s remarkable book “Strength in What Remains.” In the book, Kidder writes about a man named Deogratias, a Burundian who survived genocides (plural!) in his home country and in Rwanda to escape to the United States, become a citizen and graduate from Columbia University. The story concludes with a rousing climax about the importance of institutions. As in South America, the problem in Burundi is clearly not a lack of extraordinarily talented leaders. It is a lack of lasting, vibrant institutions.

Deogratias tried to rectify this even as a young boy. He convinced his friends to help him build a clinic in their town, got the local governor to supply the roof if they got the walls up, and even convinced the women to cook meals for the crew. Not a bad start. Deo and his friends made the bricks, only to have the rains come and turn them to mush. Not deterred, they convinced a craftsman to fire the next round of bricks in a kiln. Unfortunately, he had to build the kiln first, and by the time he did the second pile of bricks had also melted in the rain. By then the boys’ parents needed them back at their chores around their homes, and the clinic went unbuilt.

Deo had a truly unbelievable stretch of life in between that first attempt at building a clinic and his second. He became a medical student in Burundi, fled the genocides, managed to board a plane out on the only airline still flying (a Russian one), arrived in New York speaking no English with $200 in his pocket, and went from delivery boy to Columbia grad with lots of help from kind strangers and new friends.

At one point in Kidder’s remarkable telling of the story, Deo is back at the task of building a clinic in Burundi. And what a task it is. Kidder compares it to the mythical Sisyphus attempting to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down on him. “Trying to build a not-for-profit medical facility in a desperately poor country” is more like Hercules’ work than Sisyphus,’ Kidder insists. Deo had to get title to the land, import equipment to build and stock the clinic, achieve non-profit status in Burundi and the United States, overcome equipment breakdowns, convince reluctant government officials, defend against guerilla fighters, supervise masonry, lure workers to the job site who would rather drink banana beer or steal gasoline, and provide water and electricity in an area where those cannot be taken for granted.

Oh, and he had to pay for it all.

But this isn’t a story primarily about Deogratias’ grit and determination, impressive as those are. It’s about the villagers in Kayanza and their response to his leadership. For example, Deo sought an estimate from a Belgian company to widen the road so his construction equipment could get to the site. They wanted $50,000. When he told the villagers that this might scuttle the project, a woman with a baby on her back objected: “You will not pay a penny for this road. We become sick so much because we are poor, but we are not poor because we are lazy. We will work on this road with our own hands.” The next day, 166 villagers turned up with their own tools to do the work. One woman came with a sick child on her back. When encouraged to take him home she refused. “I’ve already lost three children, and I know this one is next, whether I stay at home or come to work here. It’s better for me to join others and make my contribution, which hopefully will help save someone else’s child, who will be sick but alive when you have a clinic in Kayanza.”

When we wealthy westerners think of institutions, we tend to think of big, faceless, soul-crushing outfits -- the DMV on steroids. But I imagine that mother does not. When she thinks of institutions, she gives thanks for the three-building solar-powered clinic with the African-American doctor working for free, built by free local labor with lots of corporate and individual support from the west, all arranged by Deogratias.

And as is befitting Deogratias’ name in Latin, I bet she gives thanks to God.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.