AMERICAN JOURNALIST Melissa Fay Greeneâe(TM)s There Is No Me Without You, a book about the complicated miseries of the AIDS pandemic, is exhaustively researched and worth the time of any reader who might want to add clarity to their impression of the high price the disease exacts from the poorest of people. But just as interesting as its merits are the bookâe(TM)s shortcomings, strikingly analogous as they are to some of the failures (at least in Ethiopia, where the book is set) to halt the diseaseâe(TM)s spread.
Greene tells the story of Haregewoin Teffera, a middle-aged, middle-class Ethiopian woman who, through the vagaries of chance, became foster mother to sixty or so of the 1.5 million Ethiopian children who have lost parents to AIDS. The book is full of statistics, as is the case with the speeches given by global health officials and the hundreds of annual reports published by international bodies. Some recent examples: during a speech on World AIDS Day, citing the 25 million people the disease has killed to date, then United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan called the pandemic âeoethe single greatest reversal in human developmentâe ; as if to highlight his remarks, on the same day, the International Labor Organization released a report stating that if antiretroviral medications do not reach all those afflicted in the near future, by 2010 the worldâe(TM)s workforce will be down 45 million souls; UNAIDSâe(TM)s latest global assessment announced that more people were newly infected with HIV in 2006 than in any previous year.
No doubt the existence of these numbers of doom is necessary. But when I was recently in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, a doctor I know told me of widespread frustration among medical workers regarding the amount of money that goes into preparing studies, and into convening expensive meetings, money that doesnâe(TM)t reach any of the sick.
In Africa, AIDS is rearranging the structures of whole societies, tearing out their middles, leaving the very old and very young to stare bewilderedly into a desolate future. Who will raise the children of this lost generation? What can any one person do to spite such fate? These are the questions that Greene becomes baffled by while carefully documenting the superhumanly heroic efforts of Teffera, who after losing her husband (not to AIDS) and youngest daughter (probably to AIDS), became hobbled by grief and was considering becoming a religious hermit when a local Catholic priest asked her if she might be willing to look after two teenagers whose parents had been claimed by the disease. Once word got out that someone was taking care of youngsters whose lives were affected by AIDS, dying parents, desperate uncles and aunts, exhausted grandparents, and overwhelmed local officials began dropping children off at Tefferaâe(TM)s doorstep. And, courageously, she took them all in.
Much of Greeneâe(TM)s book is based on interviews about events to which she was not privy and penned in the tone of a true-life novel, the sort of writing which is very difficult for an author dealing with characters from her own country, leave alone for a native of Atlanta working in Ethiopia. This is not to say the writing is bad (indeed some of it is beautiful and genuinely affecting) but rather that it is confused by an alien culture, like the aid workers who show up for brief two- or three-year stints to combat AIDS in what they refer to in all their correspondence as âeoesub-Saharan Africa.âe Perhaps they would do well to realize that Uganda and Ethiopia are about as similar to one another as, say, the United States and Uzbekistan. The bookâe(TM)s subtitle of One Womanâe(TM)s Odyssey to Rescue Africaâe(TM)s Children, slightly modified, may as well be the slogan for many of the NGOs that set up in Ethiopia and focus on individual aspects of the problemâe"some on nutrition, some on education, some on accruing dataâe"in many cases without a real understanding of a conservative culture whose denial of the epidemic until it was much too late is largely to blame for the fact that by the year 2000 one of every 11 infected persons on the planet was from Ethiopia.
Down through history, the victims of epidemics, especially those of epidemics in any way linked to sexual activity, have been subjected to pronouncements on the quality of their souls. It is hardly necessary to dredge up HIVâe(TM)s initial characterization as a gay plague to highlight the historical repetition. It would seem that any journalistic exploration of AIDS orphans would require one to delve into at least some of the stories of the parents and the ambiguities of adulthood. But, Greene sticks to the innocent children. Most of what little blame she does assign is aimed at rich governments and multinational drug companies. Almost any Ethiopian will tell you that the countryâe(TM)s AIDS crisis can only be defeated by the efforts of Ethiopians. If Canada were gripped by a similar scourge, we as citizens would demand that our government act decisively. The case should be no different in Ethiopia. AIDS will lose ground when the country is ruled by an accountable government that makes genuine attempts to funnel funds (whether foreign or local money) directly to those who need them, rather than by a power-obsessed junta that uses aid money to line the pockets of bureaucrats and to buy Kalashnikovs.
There Is No Me Without You is full of account after account of one after another of Teferraâe(TM)s foster children being whisked away by Western parents. Greene herself has adopted two Ethiopian children, and though she expresses discomfort with the practice being considered a solution, towards its end her book does sometimes read like a strange brochure for those considering bringing home an orphan of their own. By this point the reader experiences the same disgust inspired by one of those ubiquitous infomercials full of weeping, dirty children whose misery has been air-brushed and packaged to manipulate your feelings. Paging through the last of Greeneâe(TM)s descriptions of the childrenâe"cutesy and designed to jerk tears as they areâe"you realize that like her young, unfortunate subjects, like the well-meaning aid workers who drive SUVs up and down the countryâe(TM)s derelict roads, like many committed public-health officials across the world, the author has become lost and doesnâe(TM)t know what to do with all the pain.âe"Yohannes Edemariam
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