Doctor-Poet's Five Months In Burundi

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Aug 21, 2009
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There are corners of the world whose struggles and triumphs seem hidden from view. Kigutu, is one of them -- a little village three hours away from Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. Many people hear Burundi and think Burma. It's actually a small country in Africa, a place that is rife with intense violence, disease and suffering. For Sriram Shamasunder, an American poet-doctor from UCSF, that was also home for the last five months.

Last Wednesday, Sri shared some of his innermost reflections, moving experiences, and hard-to-see photos from a be-the-change trip that is nothing short of exemplary.

Sri opened the evening with the first letter he wrote to a few of his friends back home.  He writes not just as a compassionate doctor pushed to the boundaries of his ability, but as a deeply human poet who sings of both suffering and its overcoming with powerful presence. Here it is, in his own voice:

As one of the poorest places on the planet, Burundi's population of 8.7 million doesn't have too many resources ... let alone doctors.  In fact, the 2009 Lonely Planet Guide passed on this recommendation to its visitors: "In case of medical emergency, it is best to leave the country."  While a city like New York enjoys a doctor for every three hundred residents, Burundi has 1 doctor for every 33 thousand!  Daily, Sri would wake up to hundreds of patients waiting outside the free clinic who have often walked 3 days to get to a clinic.  Their entire net worth is often with them, sometimes as a bar of soap in a scarf on their head.  Morning to night, and at times throughout the night, Sri served the seemingly endless line of patients.  Many would die in front of him.  He would deliver babies born with AIDS.  Drastically mal-nourished patients would scream at the mere touch of a human hand.

Eating rice and beans most every day, this is not exactly the most appealing volunteer opportunity.  Of the couple doctors who might dare, most would quickly burn out.  But Sri stepped it up:

When you encounter a person like Sri and the plight of the Burundians, your heart immediately responds.  On his birthday, we posted his journey on DailyGood.  Hundreds of people wrote.  Stuff like: "I read your journal entries out loud to my young sons this morning at breakfast. They are 8 and 10 years old. Wanted to know that you touched a house in Maine." With gratitude-filled tears, Sri cherished all those emails -- as it quickly multiplied into donations, volunteers, and even four 30-pound parcels of medical supplies compiled by many volunteers.  Quite literally, many lives were saved.  As the MasterCard commercial might say: priceless.

So, last Wednesday, it was only natural that more people ask him the same question: what can I do?  First thing, he said, is to get involved with some group, any group that is doing work in the country you care about; an additional step is building your capacity by doing the work of inner transformation; and perhaps the most immediate step is stop complaining whenever you feel that your life isn't perfect.

After his 45 minute presentation, and spirited Q&A, everyone in the room shared one-sentence reflections.  A visiting law professor from Japan opened by saying, "Now, I would say that Gandhi is alive."  Dozens of people explicity expressed gratitude, as Sri's humility inspired that feeling in practically everyone.  Some wondered about systemic solutions.  One person said it changed their life, another said she'll never complain about type of food from this day, a young Harvard student said Sri inspired her to change her major to public health.  Everyone felt the urge to do something.  "I didn't know people suffered like this.  I am utterly humbled," many people noted.  To say that we were rocked would be an understatement.

For Sri, this is not a one-time, overnight adventure.  It's his life.  Back when he was in college, Viral remembers many late-night conversations where Sri would effortlessly quote the likes of J. Krishnamurti, Che Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr, and Rigoberta Menchu. Even his ancient :) CharityFocus profile opens with an act of civil disobedience to stand up for the under-represented.  When he wasn't doing pre-med work at UC Berkeley, he was writing poetry with June Jordan -- the most published African American author; during his residency, he chose to work in the poorest county hospital of LA; he repeatedly took international service trips (see Letters From Tibetan Colony) at the risk of his career; for more than decade now, he's worked closely with legendary doctors like Paul Farmer to create long-term solutions; and when it came time to accept a coveted doctor's position from UCSF, he took a significant pay-cut so he could spend five months every year in a developing country.

This is a man who likes to walk his talk.  And when such people speak, those soft-spoken words of humility sound louder than thunder.  Hearts crack open.  Something radically shifts within you, and you look at the 31-year-old man in front of you and smile.  For all the tragedies in the world, we are also gifted people like Sri.

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Comments (9)

  • Richard wrote ...

    It is humbling, indeed, to hear Sri's words and his good works. A gift just to hear this.

  • Paul wrote ...

     Thanks Sri for these insights.  You've managed to portray the beauty and pain of Africa, the utility of real compassion and the futility of a me-centric approach, and the great opportunities of service we all have right in front of us.  

  • kanchan wrote ...

    It was the most inspiring Wednesday I have attended. The humility with which Sri narrated how he dealt with challenging situations touched my heart.

    If I had heard a similar talk a decade ( maybe a little more than a decade:) ) ago, I would have definitely wanted to be a doctor :)  Well, the least I can do now is learn from him and break the shackles of the "golden handcuffs" that apparently stop me from realising some of my idealistic ambitions.

    Sri, you are awesome!

    Sending loads of blessings and good wishes for your future endeavors.....

     

  • Norita wrote ...

    Gandhi said..Your life is your message.  Your message is so powerful and inspiring.  I felt honored to have heard you talk and hear your experiences, see your slides, know about Burundi, and hear your beautiful poem.

    Thank you, Dr-Poet!

    Nora

     

  • Pancho wrote ...

    Hermano Sri Sriji is a citizen of the World who is planetizing the movement of the Ahimsa Revolution one heart at a time. His inspiring example will serve humans to start erasing the imaginary lines men draw in the dirt... Dr. Poet has inspired me to write a poem. Poetry is the Science of the Soul... from heart to heart, from brother to brother: The illegal lover The Moon shines in my body and so is the Sun and the planets and the stars and the galaxies. The beautiful light of eternity is within me but my blind eyes cannot see it. Then I decided to become your lover... My love for you, my angel, is written in the history of time and I need no papers to show it. My home is everywhere I go, including your heart, and I need no permission to stay in this part of the planet, [...] See full comment.

    Hermano Sri Sriji is a citizen of the World who is planetizing the movement of the Ahimsa Revolution one heart at a time.

    His inspiring example will serve humans to start erasing the imaginary lines men draw in the dirt...

    Dr. Poet has inspired me to write a poem. Poetry is the Science of the Soul... from heart to heart, from brother to brother:


    The illegal lover
    The Moon shines in my body
    and so is the Sun and the planets and the stars and the galaxies.
    The beautiful light of eternity is within me
    but my blind eyes cannot see it.

    Then I decided to become your lover...

    My love for you, my angel, is written in the history of time
    and I need no papers to show it.
    My home is everywhere I go, including your heart,
    and I need no permission to stay in this part of the planet,
    because I adore you.

    Bureaucrazy asked for a green card
    but I only have a red heart
    saying your name, Beloved One, in every heartbeat.

    And you might build prisons, and borders and walls
    but how does the air know the difference?
    How do the stars stop shining in the side of your country?
    How do the currents in the Oceans stop flowing in between imaginary lines?
    How do the magical meteor showers discriminate the non-real divisions below?
    How does the Earth pass customs to enter into the SOULar System?
    How does the Moon can be chased by "la migra"?
    How does the Milky Way get deported from the night sky?
    How does the Sun show her passport?
    How do the undocumented clouds are blocked from flying to your town?
    How do you know the nationality of the oxygen molecules visiting your lungs?
    How does the fierce hurricane of my love can be delayed to reach the coasts of your heart?

    This is my immigrant illegal love for you:
    to block the gates of weapons of hate
    to work the land
    to nourish your body
    to cherish your soul
    to conquer your heart
    with my unconditional love for you, your children and the children of your children.

    My illegal love has existed since the beginning of time...
    and, as the letters of a lover, as your first kiss,
    you will remember us as new worlds to be discovered.

    As citizens of the World,
    our illegal love has existed since the beginning of time...
    when you look into our eyes, my dear, when we look into each other sunshines you will understand how much we love you,
    because this is an unconditional timeless borderless love
    that has crossed the entire Universe with the only purpose to hug you.

    As citizens of the World,
    our planetary letters will penetrate the walls of prisons
    to tear down the imperial dehumanization with hope, truth, detachment and love.

    As citizens of the World,
    our visa is that of the disobedient-servant-cross-pollinating monarch butterflies
    or that of the subversive meditative gray whales.
    We will cross the oceans to heal your children
    and to bring smiles to your communities.

    In an illegal Big Bang of service in stillness,
    our humble love for you, my angel,
    is filling your Supreme Soul
    with an ever expanding happiness,
    aliveness and joy.

    Sri Sriji thanks for being a true rebel, a Dr. of the Earth Community :-)

    If you want to be a rebel, be kind. Human-kind, be both.

    Hide full comment.

  • Aditi wrote ...

    It was amazing to hear you in London Sri.  The work that you're doing is incredible.  it has really inspired me.

  • SP wrote ...

    elsrizee.. you move mountains, so that we all may see what's behind them.  Thank you for your work.

  • Jotham wrote ...

    Hi Sri, I liked the experience we had in Burundi. It made me not to be too choosy. Remember the song BEANS & RICE today; RICE & BEANS tomorrow!!

  • Sheetal wrote ...

    Grateful to read about this wonderful soul..