To Joyfully Be Manure

Annalena Tonelli was an Italian catholic who spent 34 years working among Somali nomads with tuberculosis in Kenya, Somalia, and Somaliland. Stronger than Death: How Annalena Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa is her biography, a story of courage, radical love, and crossing religious and cultural boundaries.

The very first piece I wrote for A Life Overseas in 2012 was Why I Will Not Say I Never Made a Sacrifice. Then I went and wrote the biography of a woman who said exactly that, that she never made a sacrifice. She spent decades in the Horn of Africa, once not returning to her home for eight years. She lived among Somali nomads with a contagious and deadly disease, working to develop an effective treatment. She rescued people from a massacre, literally hid behind donkeys while dodging bullets on her way to feed the sick during Somalia’s civil war, was taken hostage, beaten, assaulted, insulted. 

She said this was a beautiful life, not a sacrifice.

It was a challenge to write about her. I felt convicted and inspired, daunted by her example and my failure to do even a portion of what she did, to give even a sliver of what she gave, though we have lived in some of the same cities.

I never met this woman in person, but her death changed my life. And then, when I started to research her life, that changed me, too. 

“Annalena sacrificed, but not in vain. It was not without joy, not without faith. I think she felt the loss of all she left behind, set it beside the thrill of all she found, and was able to render everything sacrificed as rubbish, counting the privilege as gain.”

At first I saw her as a saint, someone living so far beyond the capabilities of the rest of us mere mortals that we should place her on a pedestal, admire her, and get back to our own small lives. But the more I learned, the more people I talked to, the more of her letters I read, I discovered a complicated woman who was willing to make extraordinary compromises, even controversial ones, for the sake of her ultimate purpose. 

She was far from perfect and her real human weaknesses and frailty can inspire those of us who also live and serve internationally to be honest about our shortcomings and mistakes.

Annalena once wrote, “I can never do great things. I will always do small things. I will be a presence, a witness. . . . We must accept spending our lives not doing anything great or extraordinary. Accept a simple life, trivial, monotonous. Understanding that the only valuable thing is our presence. Our coming here is only meaningful to the extent that we are joyfully willing to be manure.”

To be manure. Is that why you moved abroad? Is that why you are engaging in development work or service projects?

I have a hole in my backyard right now (again). The hole goes straight through cement to our sewage. Once, before the hole, a friend was standing in the yard and then all of a sudden, she had broken through the cement and was standing in our sewage, in our literal crap. She is such a forgiving person that she is actually still my friend.

When I remember helping her clean up, when I look down that hole, when I smell the odor coming from the hole, I remember what Annalena said. Our coming here is only meaningful to the extent that we are joyfully willing to be manure.

The book will be published on October 1, 2019 and I’m excited to share her story. 

I hope her example will encourage you to find deep joy in your work and life, even if you find yourself steeped in manure.

Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa, will release on October 1 from Plough Publishing. Find the book at Amazon,Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound

Bonus! My publisher is offering to give away 15 hardcover copies. To be entered to win one of these, you can download the PDF via Net Galley. Write up a review on your own blog, newsletter, or Facebook page by SEPTEMBER 22 (you’ll have to read quickly!). Go to this page at Plough and enter the live link to your review and you’ll have a chance to win one of these beautiful hardcover books!

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