A Human Spirit

Each day, 6,600 Africans die of AIDS. By 2005, Ethiopia alone had hundreds of thousands of orphans who had lost their parents to AIDS.

The raw numbers don’t convey the unfathomable suffering captured in Melissa Fay Greene’s arresting new book, There Is No Me Without You, the story of an Ethiopian woman who began caring for orphans after the deaths of her husband and a daughter.

Haregewoin Teferra was paralyzed with grief when she agreed in 1999 to take in a 15-year-old girl who was living on the streets. Haregewoin quickly became known as a caring soul who would house desperate orphans, including those who were HIV-positive. Friends told her she was crazy.

In taut prose that reads like fiction, Greene describes the flood of children who show up on Haregewoin’s doorstep in Addis Adaba, a city with “orphans as numerous … as pigeons.” One day, a skeletal woman comes to the gate, gives over her baby, and keels over, dead. More children continue to arrive. Haregewoin converts a rusty boxcar into a combination dining hall and classroom. Older children help care for younger ones. Haregewoin loses count of how many orphans she houses.

Greene’s richly detailed, mesmerizing prose sings on every page. Regarding Haregewoin’s bonding with an HIV-positive girl named Nardos, Greene writes, “Suddenly, in the mitosis of love, Haregewoin’s heart subdivided and a new chamber beat within it, this one labeled Nardos.”

Greene set out to write “a hagiography, a chapter for Lives of the Saints” until she discovered that Haregewoin, like any saint, was human. The result is a nuanced, and believable, portrait.

Haregewoin became a celebrity and flew to New York to accept a $10,000 Heroes in Health award. Back home, she met with foreign visitors, adoptive parents, and potential donors, meaning she now had less time for the children. The government accused her of failing to report a rape allegation and, on flimsy evidence, of “child trafficking” in foreign adoptions. In the end Haregewoin emerges as a genuinely compassionate, committed—even heroic—woman who at times is overwhelmed by the extreme demands of caring for so many children.

THERE IS NO Me Without You—the title is from a pop song—is far more than an account of one woman’s desperate struggle to save AIDS orphans. Greene weaves in a history of the quarter-century-long epidemic, as well as a biting critique of the failure of pharmaceutical companies to make available the medicines that could have saved countless lives.

Initially, a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. With the introduction of a triple-drug therapy in the 1990s, the death rate in the United States and Europe plummeted. But the drugs cost up to $15,000 per person per year, making them prohibitively expensive for millions of dying AIDS patients in Africa. Drug companies stubbornly fought efforts to make cheaper generics available, despite the spiraling death toll.

Greene, a finalist for the National Book Award for a previous work of nonfiction, is effective because she lets the facts speak for themselves, without preaching. The raw data are enough to infuriate any fair-minded reader. For example, as a result of drugs widely available in the United States, she writes, the number of babies who acquire HIV from their mothers has dropped to fewer than 100 a year. In Ethiopia, where the drugs are largely unavailable, 60,000 newborns were HIV-positive in 2003.

Could the United States do more to help? Consider this: America had spent $275 billion on the war in Iraq as of April 2006. That amount of money could have completely funded worldwide AIDS programs for 27 years.

There are hopeful signs. Aid from the Gates and Clinton foundations is pouring into Africa, making a small dent.

Greene profiles American families who adopted Ethiopian orphans—she and her husband adopted two of them—while emphasizing that adoption is not the answer. For every African orphan adopted abroad, 10,000 others are left behind.

There Is No Me Without You is a riveting account of a humanitarian crisis that merits a higher priority on Western nations’ agendas.

Bill Williams is a former editorial writer and book reviewer for
The Hartford Courant.

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