A Review of
Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa
Rachel Pieh Jones
Reviewed by Heather Caliri
If you choose to read Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, can I suggestion something?
First go delete all silly games from your phone. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Specifically, scrap any game that involves elaborate home renovation, like (for instance) Homescapes. Trust me: you won’t want to be upgrading virtual kitchen counters while reading about a woman who thought sleeping in a bed was too luxurious.
Don’t ask me how I know.
Rachel Pieh Jones, a former neighbor of Tonelli, chronicles the fascinating and enigmatic woman until her assassination in 2003. Motivated by the example of Gandhi and the love of Jesus, Tonelli sought out some of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, befriended the nomads native to those places, and tried to live in solidarity with them until she was killed.
As I read about Tonelli’s sacrifices, I tried to put off installing a virtual fish tank underneath the staircase of my pixilated mansion. I always feel guilty playing insipid games. Juxtaposing this biography did not help matters.
Tonelli, born in the aftermath of World War II in Italy, was motivated by her Catholicism to help those in a slum nearby her neighborhood. The experienced literally moved her; after she graduated, she left for Kenya, seeking out a posting the former Northern Frontier District. That area was so forbidding, just drinking the well water gave people immediate urinary tract infections—if it didn’t give them amoebic dysentery first.
Tonelli, following Gandhi’s example, tried to discipline her body into submission to leave her heart more able to serve. She slept little, ate less, and took few rests—and those in an austere hermitage with no electricity. A charismatic and inspiring figure, she drew other Italians, Somalis, and the sick she encountered into community—and into breathtaking acts of service to some of the world’s most marginalized people.
Specifically, she established a tuberculosis (TB) clinic serving nomads, one of the hardest populations to cure. Tonelli’s contribution to worldwide treatment of TB was to draw close to the roving people she treated, understand their values, and meet their needs so they’d consent to a fully course of medication. Rather than assuming that Somalis who resisted Western advice were backwards, she listened, began to understand their values, and addressed each roadblock with respect.
Traditional TB treatment once took 18 months, an impossible length of time for a nomad to stay put, much less be confined inside a hospital. But Tonelli arrived in Kenya after doctors developed a shorter course treatment of only six months. Though health experts thought it impossible, Tonelli got nomads to commit to stay at her clinic for the duration of that “short” treatment by providing outdoor accommodation, community, jobs, training, as well as food and medical care.
Even as I asked Jesus to forgive me for my dumb phone addiction, I read about a woman who loved well in the middle of violence. Tonelli was a first-hand witness of a government genocide, a recipient of several brutal attacks, and a medical practitioner treating one of the most devastating illnesses in the world. After speaking up against the genocide, she was expelled from Kenya, taken hostage in Somalia’s civil war, and resisted threats, intimidation, and religious hostility everywhere. Throughout all these difficulties, she kept her eyes focused on helping the person in front of her, whether a child, a TB patient, or someone suffering from AIDS.
Tonelli insisted she wasn’t a saint. Even worse, she insisted that all of us have the capacity to do the kind of work she did, though no one who met her found that challenge easy. Jones has done meticulous research, seeking out former co-workers, patients, and colleagues of Tonelli. All of them would qualify as heroes in my book, yet all feel embarrassed when someone compares them to their mentor.
Pieh Jones feels just as abashed: “When I started to read about Annalena’s time in Wajir [Kenya]…I felt like a failure,” she says. “I’m a mess. I’m selfish and lazy. I could never have lived the way she did.”
The weight of this shame haunted me even more while I read. If Jones felt embarrassed after moving to Somalia, how should I feel, my iPhone in hand? How is it possible for me to live like Annalena? I asked Jesus. Teach me how to love like she did.
Had Pieh Jones simply lionized Tonelli, it would have been an easier book to set aside. Instead, Tonelli comes vibrantly alive in the book. I laughed out loud when Tonelli, usually stoic, admitted to a headache caused by “an endless speech she had to sit through.” Jones also points out Tonelli’s contradictions, her mistakes, and the grey areas of her work, even while marveling at how much good she did.
Pieh Jones never pretends to be an impartial observer. She admits that her fascination with Tonelli both motivates and shames her—just as it does the reader. I hated that Stronger than Death didn’t let me off of the hook for a moment. I’m not entirely sure what I should do now that I’ve read it. But I know that it’s impossible to do nothing.
As I finished the book, I deleted Homescapes on my iPhone, then went to the Spanish-language service at my church. Someone handed me a tambourine; I kept time for the hymns.
While there, I realized that the women of the congregation are more like Tonelli than I ever will be. Many of them work two jobs, come home to feed their families, then, in their spare time, whip up vats of tamales to help their community. I learn from their faithfulness every time we trade stories.
Through Pieh Jones’ book, and the resilient immigrants I know, I remember Christ calls me to more than my limitations. I live in suburbia, but am still shoulder to shoulder with immigrants facing hardships I can only imagine. There are needs here, ways to love here.
Rather than being motivated by shame, guilt, or a dull obligation, Stronger than Death motivates me to put aside my fear, be present with the person in front of me, and keep reaching faithfully for love.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com