Doctor-Poet's Five Months In Burundi
Posted by Nipun Mehta on Aug 21, 2009
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.
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.