There is No Me Without You puts a human face on the AIDS crisis in Africa by exploring the efforts of one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, to rescue children either orphaned by or suffering from AIDS in Ethiopia. Published in 2006, the topic was especially urgent then, although it remains urgent today. Lifesaving medications that have helped prolong the lives and health of people who test HIV positive in the United States were unavailable in Africa due to copyright claims and cost issues stemming from pharmaceutical companies, nearly erasing an entire generation of Ethiopians.
In the midst of this crisis, Haregewoin Teferra was a widow grieving the loss of her daughter to the disease when she was presented with an opportunity to take in a girl who was orphaned by AIDS. Seeing it as an opportunity to help a girl in a way she could not help her own daughter, Haregewoin leapt at the opportunity. This teenaged girl was quickly followed by a teenage boy in a similar predicament, and then twin children as well. Haregewoin continued to bring in children because they had no where else to go–ultimately having more than 80 children in her care.
Melissa Fay Greene, who spent time in Ethiopia and with Haregewoin, is careful not to present Haregewoin as a saint. She takes great pains to show areas where Haregewoin made mistakes–sometimes grievous mistakes that caused great pain–or when she suffered from selfishness or doubt. This is because Greene recognizes that sanctifying people who do good charitable work allows us to “other” that person, thereby allowing ourselves off the hook when it comes to our own efforts to help.
There is No Me Without You is an ambitious story, seeking to tell the stories of a woman, a country, and a disease. All three stories are fascinating, but I do think the book suffers from a case of ‘too-muchness.’ As presented, the three sides of this story feel so separate that it frequently seems as though three different books have been glued together at random intervals. Haregewoin disappears for long stretches while we experience the history of Ethiopia or the science behind AIDS transmission, and the book suffers for this. At one point, Greene meticulously tells the stories of children who had been in Haregewoin’s care as they adjust to new life as adopted children in other countries. This is fascinating as well, but again, it feels like it keeps taking us further away from the center–especially because Haregewoin’s story reached a critical point just before this aside began. I listened to the audio version of the book, and it took well over an hour to get back to Haregewoin to find out what happened at a critical juncture in her life.
Haregewoin’s story feels vital and worthy of your time, but there’s no denying that Greene tried to cram too much into a single volume.