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