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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Advent Longing in the Horn of Africa

One Christmas Eve in Djibouti my family drove past a cart. It was a rickety wooden contraption attached by frayed ropes to the back of a donkey and clattered down the main road. A man sat on a makeshift seat and held a stick, hovering it above the donkey’s flanks. He wore a red and white shawl and a brown macwiis, a Somali-style sarong. His face was wrinkled, beardless, and wind-worn.

I said to my husband, “If there was a pregnant woman in that cart, I would swear it was Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem.”


The image stuck with me. It made the story of Christmas and the birth of Jesus tangible, weighty with the muffled clack of donkey’s hooves on dirt, the sting of a dusty wind, the smell of the desert, the look on a man’s face.

My family has lived in the Horn of Africa for almost twelve years. Ten Christmases have been spent in the desert. All these years have turned Christmas from a fairytale coupled with heaps of gifts into a realistic story coupled with the yearning ache of advent.

Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas, is a time epitomized by waiting, longing. 400 years people waited to hear from God and then his Word came in the form a baby. But whether a family is religious or not, most engage in some kind of countdown to the big day. Lighting a candle each Sunday and reading meaningful texts. Hiding candy around the house and giving kids clues each morning.

What we are counting down to might be a day to spend with family, to give and receive gifts, to feast. It might be to joyfully honor the birth of a promised and miraculous child, Jesus. We count down and with each passing day, our hope increases. Hope that the day of feasts and gifts will arrive. Hope that this child born two thousand years ago did not come in vain and will, one day, bring peace to earth.

Christmases in the Horn of Africa have increased my longing, deepened my advent ache because we see the brokenness, need, and lack of peace so vividly all around us. We go to church to sing Christmas carols and pass dozens and dozens of homeless men sleeping on sidewalks. We hear news of another slaughter in southern Somalia. Djibouti faces an unemployment rate of nearly 60%. On other continents there are hostage crises and floods and drought. There is Ebola across the continent from us. Refugees are longing for home and civilians in war torn regions are longing for peace. Black Americans are longing to be free from fear and injustice.

All over the world, the need and the ache are powerfully tangible. But so is hope. All is not broken, all is not lost.

Djibouti is 94% Muslim and though Muslims revere Jesus, they don’t traditionally celebrate his birth. But my Muslim friends know we are celebrating a holiday that is important to us and they respect that. Yesterday a friend brought gifts for my girls. On Eid we celebrate with our neighbors. Not because of religious conformity but because of genuine relationship.

I think this year in America there is also a deepened advent ache because the brokenness of our nation has been laid bare. Though not everyone will call it an advent ache, there is a burning desire to see justice and healing rain down. #refugeeswelcome and #blacklivesmatter are a heart-wrenching cry for fundamental change.

The more time my family spends living outside the homogenous neighborhoods of my own childhood means more time for my family to encounter the brokenness of the world and the hopefulness of the people working to heal it. We live right in the middle of the advent season of longing.

In the US, in the wake of devastating grand jury announcements, black and white are standing together, or laying on pavement together, or marching together. Together, the way my Djiboutian friends include us in their celebration and respect ours.

Advent reminds us that together we live and die, rejoice and suffer and long for healing in community.

The way forward, the way of the longing and advent-aching heart is together. As we countdown this year with candles and candy, may each day be a reminder of the justice and healing we long for. May each day be an inspiration to actively pursue that justice and healing side by side, American and Djiboutian, Muslim and Christian, black and white.

Merry Christmas and Eid Wanaagsan and Joyeux Noel.