Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli defied terror and tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa
By Rachel Pieh Jones
Plough Publishing House, 280pp, £18.99/$26
Hardly known in this country, Annalena Tonelli, born in Italy in 1943 and murdered by terrorists in Burama, Somaliland in 2003, is one of those heroic people who devote their lives to the sick and destitute.
Tonelli, a law graduate from a comfortable Italian family from Forli, was attractive, feminine and good fun; she was also highly determined from an early age to help the poor, demonstrated by working in the city’s slum area alongside her studies.
She first went to East Africa in the late 1960s, moving to Kenya as a teacher in 1969. She elected to live and work in Wajir, in Kenya’s Northern Frontier district, the most barren part of the country, rife with drought, disease and poverty.
Her living conditions were as austere as can be imagined: “You cannot love the poor without wanting to be like them,” she observed. Though her own beliefs were hard to pin down, she drew inspiration from the Gospel.
Elective poverty characterised the rest of her life. It was a challenge to her friends, who were unable to emulate her way of life, and a reproach to the authorities who wanted to run society according to bureaucratic rules rather than hands-on good works and charity.
Tonelli embraced the local culture – though this led to a highly controversial decision early on, which she later much regretted, to allow the terrible practice of female genital mutilation among the young girls she was caring for, so that they would not be rejected by their tribe.
Formally untrained in medicine or nursing, Tonelli chose to make her life’s work the treatment of TB patients, of whom there were large numbers among the nomadic tribes. She arranged for the sick to stay in huts in a compound for the six-month course of drug treatment that would cure them.
The physical demands on her were enormous; she would get up two or three times a night to administer the necessary medicine and was always on call when needed. “I am ready to bend to the wishes of anyone who is sick,” she stated.
From 1986 to 1994 Tonelli worked in Somalia, moving to Somaliland in 1996, where she met her death in a night ambush in 2003.
This biography, by an American woman living in East Africa, provides a detailed, if uncritical, record of an exceptional woman.
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