Melissa Fay Greene first arrived last spring in my mailbox via her latest book, No Biking in the House Without a Helmet, and made me cry. But she also left me tickled with joyous laughter at the antics of her sprawling, multiplying, multi-ethnic family.
While Biking made me cry, this one made me weep … and because I couldn’t turn it off (in spite of hard-to-recommend Julie Fain Lawrence who reads the book with alternating bouts of near hysteria and soap-opera gravity), I found myself showing up at appointments suspiciously red-eyed and puffy. But then public embarrassment is well worth risking to read this book.
The jarring HIV/AIDS statistics alone are unfathomable – and Greene is certainly thorough in providing well-researched, vigilantly documented numbers. What is even more shocking, however, is how the history of AIDS in Africa is so intertwined with the so-called developed West and its irresponsible behaviors in the name of humane aid. Children are, not surprisingly, the most tragic victims: in 2005, Ethiopia’s population of 1,563,000 AIDS orphans was the second highest concentration in the entire world.
Amidst the pandemic, one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, refused to abandon the children. When she lost her husband far too early, she mourned. When she lost her eldest daughter, who was then just a young mother herself, Haregewoin lost her own will to live. “‘There is no me without you,’” went the lyrics of a pop song. Indeed for Haregewoin, “A child cannot live without a mother and father. A mother or father cannot live without the child.”
What brought Haregewoin back to life were children. As the AIDS pandemic claimed countless lives, the orphaned, abandoned, unwanted children had nowhere to go. Haregewoin, bereft, was alone in her empty house. One, another, two more, then more and more kept arriving on her doorstep. Haregewoin’s care was almost always the last chance for a child to survive.
Greene captures Haregewoin’s odyssey – interspersed with data, public policy, politics, and history – with eyes wide open. As inspiring and loving as Haregewoin was in her efforts to mother hundreds and hundreds of children, she was not a saint, or even faultless. She was extraordinarily heroic, but also deeply flawed … and yet she did perform more than a few miracles.
Greene herself is not above creating her own brand of magic, conjuring unforgettable faces of suffering, surviving, and ultimately thriving. Helpless Ababu, grieving Mekdes and her brother Yabsira, resilient Meskerem, Baby Menah, adored Nardos, clever Henok … and so many others who were given a chance at life because of Haregewoin’s inability to say ‘no.’
Read the book (skip the audible). Be prepared with fistfuls of kleenex. Be ready. Get set. Go.