There is No Me Without You

Book review

Juliana Wu

 

There is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Africa’s Children.

Melissa Fay Greene’s traveller’s account, There is No Me Without You, is the story of Haregewoin Tefarra, a middle-class Ethiopian widow, who opens up her dwelling as a refuge for hundreds of children orphaned by acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The book presents a stark image of the AIDS crisis in Africa and its decimating effects on Ethiopia. Against prevailing stigmas and the blind eye taken by the international community in its denial of the humanitarian crisis taking place in Ethiopia, Haregewoin’s selfless acts shine as a joyous counterpoint to the bleak reality that continues to consume large parts of Africa.

Greene’s book is an overdue reminder that our humanity is the key ingredient in combating the global fight against AIDS. By illustrating each child’s haunting story of becoming an orphan, Greene not only addresses, but confronts, many paradigms in popular culture. Specifically, she tackles the widespread suggestion that promiscuity and hypersexual behaviours are to blame for the continuation of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Her stories render this stigma as unfair and over-simplified. Instead, a prevailing feeling of defeat and a distinct lack of alternatives dominate the stories. One woman contracted AIDS from a man who had “lied in saying he would marry her” and fled when he found out she had the disease.[1] The inexorable shame and guilt she felt in bringing a baby into this world without the capacity to support it became a driving factor behind the mother’s decision to abandon the child. Her story is a testament to the helplessness of those under the pressure of extreme marginalisation. Others in the book would come to feel the force of unimaginable accusations and violence after being infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by a single unsterile injection.[1] Thus, the book exemplifies the dangerous stigma towards those who contract the “unspeakable” disease, and although Greene does not explicitly state it, she certainly alludes to the systemic failure of both domestic and international governments in allowing the crisis to escalate and social stigmas to linger.[1]

Although the social, economic and political insufficiencies of Ethiopian governance are all too obvious throughout the book – for instance, Greene mentions that Ethiopia ranked 170th out of 177 nations for its Human Development Index, and 134th out of 140 nations for its gender inequality-related development index – one cannot help but sympathise with the Ethiopian context.[1] The so-called “free-fall” of health and happiness in Ethiopia is the result of a multiplicity of domestic issues, including border wars, a history of weak and irresponsive leadership, and the lasting effects of colonisation and international oppression. Moreover, the onset of social collapse has been hastened by international politics and imposition. First world trade policies, which forced African countries to assimilate and compete against the global market in the name of “economic modernisation”, with a climate that heavily favoured Western economies, meant that African countries were becoming increasingly dependent on foreign food imports whilst their exports rapidly declined in value. This, in combination with stringent conditions associated with developmental loans, eventually required the slashing of vital public sectors such as health and education as a means of reducing government expenditure.

Despite this, Greene is careful not to lay the blame purely on international delinquency in the domains of political, economic and social governance. She notes that instances of governmental failure and corruption in Ethiopia’s history, including concealment of famine, vastly excessive military expenditure, and ongoing ethnic tensions, have all contributed to the rampant state of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia. Yet one could argue that by the time the AIDS epidemic had hit Ethiopia, the sustained stagnation of the Ethiopian economy and international impositions had rendered it almost impossible for Ethiopia to properly handle the crisis without international intervention. It follows then, that the AIDS epidemic is a blatant example of deliberate ignorance by the Western world. In a country where two-thirds of school-age children are not in school, only 41% of adults can read, and 81% of people live on less than two dollars a day, the country is simply not equipped with the resources and administration it needs to win the war against AIDS.[1]

Indeed, it could be argued that the delay in the provision of antiretroviral treatments is an issue of international irresponsibility rather than domestic governance. For instance, Greene mentions that the Unites States government stood against mass-producing cheap drugs as a method of protecting the profits of American multinational pharmaceutical corporations. This was done at the expense of some millions of people in Africa dying of AIDS under the illusory pretence of “public health realism”.[1] Without lifesaving antiretroviral treatment, the helplessness and impossibility of resurrecting the AIDS situation is made manifest by the character, Dr Rick Hodes. Although he was an American doctor, he knew that “without the antiretroviral medication, he couldn’t save a single life”.[1] Arguably then, Ethiopians, especially those who contracted HIV, fell victim to misallocated resources and the neglect of the international community.

However, this argument is limited in many ways, a point that Greene is quick to emphasise. In the age of the AIDS pandemic, there were those both within Ethiopia, such as Haregewoin, and those outside the borders of the country, such as Dr. Rick Hodes, who worked tirelessly to suppress the epidemic that had infiltrated the country. More specifically, Greene emphasises families from foreign countries who provided lifelines to orphaned children through adoption. In direct opposition to the widespread negligence of the West in failing to provide lifesaving medication to Ethiopia, the adoption of unwanted, psychologically traumatised, and at times deathly sick orphans by otherwise well-off families is a testament to the fortitude and love of the human spirit. Thus, just as Ethiopia may be considered a victim of international immobility, it was also arguably the recipient of an altruistic salvation by the international community. In conclusion, the book discusses the African AIDS crisis in a powerful yet sensitive manner. Greene does well in addressing the multiple facets of the AIDS pandemic: the relentless social stigmas, lack of treatment options, international neglect and the burgeoning number of families destroyed by the pandemic. Although the book itself brims with grief, it also stands as a testament to what a single human being or family can do for others “in a place with no people”

 

Acknowledgements
None

Photo credits
There is No Me Without You: One Woman’s Odyssey to Rescue Africa’s Children Melissa Fay Greene]. Bloomsbury USA. 2016 [cited 5 October 2018]. Available from: https://www. bloomsbury.com/uk/there-is-no-me-withoutyou-9781596912939/

Conflicts of interest
None declared

Correspondence
julianaw@student.unimelb.edu.au

References
1. Greene, M. (2006). There is No Me Without You [Book]. New York: Bloomsbury [cited 2018 Sept 17].

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