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.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2007
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