First, a disclaimer: After reading Melissa Fay Greene’s 2002 New York Times Magazine article about the AIDS orphan crisis in Africa, I felt compelled to go to Ethiopia, where I volunteered for three months at orphanages, observed (even participated in) some of the events described in her book, and later served as an informal “fact checker” for her. (Melissa called me once “Rita. Do you remember — were we staying on the second or third floor at the Yilma Hotel?” It is that kind of attention to detail that permeates the reporting in this fabulous book.) I hold her accountable (and am grateful to her beyond measure) for the change in the trajectory of my life: I would not have gone to Ethiopia; I would not have decided to adopt; I would not now be a mother – but for Melissa and her powerful writing.
Now, a warning: If you care about what has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster of our generation, be sure you set aside a long spell of time before starting to read There Is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Africa’s Children. You will not be able to put it down.
Haregewoin Teferra (whose daughter and husband had died within months of one another) became a foster mother by accident — a local priest, who knew of her deep grieving, asked if she would take in two orphan children who had been living in the sacristy because they had no place else to go. He thought Haregewoin needed these children as much, if not more, than the children needed her. Haregewoin took them to her middle class home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and began an odyssey of caring for dozens upon dozens of the millions of children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Greene brings the reader into Haregewoin’s living room as the rain splatters mud on the children playing outside — and then draws these orphan children into the reader’s heart.
The story of Haregewoin’s journey from grieving mother to caretaker of strangers’ children is the perfect vehicle for Greene’s astute reporting about the breadth of the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Although her language is picturesque, she doesn’t paint a pretty picture; nor does she portray Haregewoin as a replacement for Mother Teresa. Instead, she describes Haregewoin as the imperfect human being that she is – in overwhelming circumstances, trying to care for far too many children, she makes mistakes and missteps with sometimes devastating results. But, there is no question that she did more good than harm, and that many children would be dead or living on the streets without her heroic efforts to care for them.
In the final chapters, Greene interrupts her narrative arc to describe the stories of some of the children who were adopted by American families, sharing tales of ballet performances, swimming pool splashings and offers to kill a chicken for dinner. Greene never implies that international adoption is the solution to the orphan crisis in Ethiopia (and she painstakingly describes what some of the solutions might be – more education, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS through a commitment by the Ethiopian government, pharmaceutical companies and outside funding sources to actually solve the crisis.) But the vignettes are charming and leave the reader with a feeling of hope in a world where some 12 million children in Africa will go to sleep without anybody there to tuck them in.