Gandhi, Francis of Assisi, Jesus, and Muslims {Book Club}

About seven and a half years ago, we took a day trip. A friend of ours drove us from Nyahururu, Kenya, to another town, Nanyuki, in the name of “seeing Mt Kenya.” We didn’t realize until it was too late that his idea of seeing Mt Kenya is literally seeing it miles away, a long, blue triangle low on the horizon. But that’s a different story. Back to the road trip.

As we descended one tall hill, we came upon a road construction zone. The little Toyota Corolla bumped down off the pavement to the bare dirt that would soon become new road. We wove in and out of heavy trucks and piles of dirt and gravel, then bumped back up onto the pavement again. Beyond the construction zone, the roads were remarkably nicer – so much so that my husband and I commented on it. We joked that we couldn’t possibly be in the same country anymore. It was a whole different kind of road than we were used to. Our host, by way of explanation, simply stated, “Well, this is Nyeri.” (As a sidenote, if you’re looking at a map, we took an extremely indirect route to Nanyuki.)

We drove through town, and my husband pointed out one of the high schools, “That’s where Florence’s twins go to school.” On the outskirts were fields of coffee. I had never seen coffee growing before! It was beautiful.

As I was getting to know Annalena Tonelli through Stronger than Death, by Rachel Pieh Jones, I scoffed that Annalena started her time in Africa working in Nyeri, when her goal was to live among the poorest. For sure there has been an immense amount of development in the 40+ years between when Annalena taught school there and when I rode through on my way to Nanyuki. But even so, I scoffed. I imagine Nyeri must still have been nice back then.

Young Annalena was inspired by Gandhi and Francis of Assisi (which I thought very fitting, considering last month’s book club book). She forced herself into a strict eating and sleeping regimen so that she could function on little sleep without much food, calling her body “Brother Donkey,” like Francis of Assisi. Who inspired you when you were young? Is their influence still evident in your life choices?

Annalena’s best friend, Maria Teresa said, “She learned from Gandhi that to love one must willingly and deliberately strip away self and restrict one’s own needs.” Annalena believed that to help the poor, you have to love the poor, and to love the poor, you have to live with them, like them. So after working among the poor in Italy, she decided to come to Africa to teach high school and live among the poor here. And she wound up in Nyeri, Kenya.

Obviously dissatisfied with that post, she put in for a transfer to Wajir. I’ve never been to Wajir before. My husband, who is Kenyan, hasn’t either. The Northern Frontier District (which Kenyans now call “Northeastern”) isn’t a place that outsiders want to go, and those who go there don’t stay long. Annalena was a perfect fit for that job. Her growing faith combined “the compassion she saw in Jesus, the surrender she saw in Muslims, and her own love for the poor.”

Out of everything I learned about tuberculosis in this section, what fascinated me most were the cultural roadblocks to effective treatment of nomads. Like any other westerner, I am inclined to think that access to medical care is the main (only) problem. But there is so much more than that.

If we haven’t yet stepped into the lives of those we mean to help, we are prone to overlook the real problems and insist on inappropriate solutions. Annalena lived with the poor in order to help in the way they needed. And yet, she struggled, believing that she kept too much for herself, saying that if they had to keep so much, “it would have been better to stay at home. We must do everything to give everything, to love all, serve all.” In response to this, Rachel asks what I asked myself, “Is there any shame in maintaining a level of comfort? In giving just the average amount?” What do you think?

This week, I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from Scott Karsten: “I’ve learned that the only thing that works is a relationship.” He was talking about the only way to provide effective, ongoing medical treatment to a nomad, but the statement rings true in so many other aspects of life and ministry.

Come on in to the comments! Rachel Pieh Jones will be around to respond to some. What is this book stirring up in you? What stands out from these chapters?

Here’s the reading schedule for Stronger than Death:

Feb 11 – chapter 6 – chapter 9

Feb 18 – chapter 10 – chapter 13

Feb 25 – chapter 14 – epilogue


  1. Sarah Hilkemann February 5, 2020

    So far I have been impressed with Annalena’s tenacity- this woman was hard core! Rachel J, I love your descriptions and the stories you gathered from people who knew her. I feel like I can actually get to know the woman she was and impact she had.

    Honestly, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to follow in her footsteps though, and I’ve been wrestling with how I feel about that. Are we all called to live the way she did, giving up everything, willing our bodies to only need 4 hours of sleep and only a little food? I’m not sure. 🙂 I don’t know if I have the mental strength I guess.

    1. Rachel Pieh Jones February 5, 2020

      Thank you! I totally agree – I could never live like she did. I love to sleep, love to eat, love a good mattress. I don’t think we are all called to live like Annalena did, but I’m thankful we have examples like her, people who force us out of complacency, who help us to see that we can love at little bit more, live a little braver.

  2. Rachel Kahindi February 5, 2020

    I have no desire to live that way, either! And I think it’s ok. Two things have come to mind as I’ve pondered this.

    First is Matthew 11:18-19. “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard…'” And that leads me to the Nazarite vow – which is not commanded, but optional and holy. Some would take the vow for a specified period of time, others for life. And I think the lives of Annalena and others like her are similar to Nazarites in some ways.

    The contrast between people who live ascetically and myself reveals areas where I could give more than I have given – and still have plenty of comfort left over.

    1. Jodie February 6, 2020

      I appreciate your insight on this, Rachel. I was struck too in these chapters about how complicated the problem of TB was–so many cultural aspects I had never considered in coming up with a treatment that would fit nomadic life and would counter Islamic beliefs that the disease was Allah’s punishment. The critical role that building relationships played in the success of her program. Annalena’s love for the people is so evident and her desire not to live above them but with them. Learning from them. Receiving their blessing in her life. Her story inspires me. Thanks, Rachel Pieh Jones, for all of your research and work in writing this book so we could all learn about her life.

  3. Rachel Pieh Jones February 6, 2020

    Rachel. totally agree that it is okay to not all make the choice to live this way. Great example from the Word, too.

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