Keynote: Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, Village Health Works Founder
“I left Burundi, but Burundi never left me,” explained Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, the founder of Village Health Works. Deo, the opening keynote speaker for the 5th Annual Global Washington Conference: Catalyzing Collective Impact, described his childhood in and his home country of Burundi. Situated south of Rwanda, west of Tanzania, and east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi is one of the poorest countries on earth. Ninety percent of the population lives in rural areas. Access to potable water is rare; much of the population relies on stagnant rain water for drinking. It is has one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, yet “misery is the norm” as Burundi faced “long, dark years of civil war.” Civil war and genocide, Deo emphasized, are the result of what “chronic misery does to a human being.” He described two ways to approach the dire situation: 1) you run away or 2) think about the situation and ask yourself, ‘what can I do about it?’ Deo opted for the latter. He left Burundi, and while facing initial struggles in the United States, including homelessness, he eventually received a college education. According to Deo, “I left Burundi, but Burundi never left me.” And that’s how Village Health Works was created. Village Health Works focuses on key, interconnected elements: health, education, agriculture, and community engagement. For Deo, the idea of bringing healthcare to the community was uplifting. While, it took 12 months to be granted permission to formerly implement Village Health Works in Burundi, they worked regardless, and in arduous conditions. “We didn’t wait for electricity, water . . . [i]f we didn’t do now, then when?” Through friendships they made, they raised money for a water tank in one community. This was the first time that this community had access to clean water.
Today, Village Health Works runs a busy medical center with a staff of physicians, nurses, and community healthcare workers who are all Burundian. They also run programs in food security, education, clean water, and livelihood development. Deo sees each of these programs as supporting the health of the people in their catchment area, but also the peace and prosperity of the community as a whole. Village Health Works was built on land donated by the community, built by local volunteers, and continues to be supported by an ongoing stream of community members. Working together has brought former enemies together in a common cause – to build a health center that can serve as a role model in Burundi and which trains healthcare staff across the country. The Seattle area is home to a group of VHW supporters, including several people who were instrumental in the organization’s set up. Contact them at email@example.com.