While I was on vacation, I read "Mountains Beyond Mountains" by Tracy Kidder. This is a very thought provoking piece of non-fiction about a physician and anthropologist, Paul Farmer who is one of the founding members of Partners In Health, an organization which directs attention, money, and service toward the very poorest people on earth.
Farmer says there are two kinds of poverty: relative poverty, which we see primarily in the developed countries such as our own; and abject poverty, which is found in underdeveloped countries. The former is exemplified by those who are certainly restricted from higher education, full-service medical care, excellent nutrition, and comfortable housing by inadequate income and education. However, there is still a safety net in the form of food stamps, subsidized housing, universal primary education, and emergency medical treatment. When we think of the kind of poverty that was revealed by Hurricane Katrina, it was this kind of relative poverty. Certainly these people live in very trying circumstances, and feel marginalized in our affluent culture.
The latter, who are the focus of Farmer and his organization, have no safely net. They lack shoes, potable water, access to even basic education and medical care, their housing is totally inadequate (i.e., dirt floors, leaking roofs, no insect screens, no furniture, etc.), they are landless and often disenfranchised by completely dysfunctional governmental and cultural systems. For Farmer, the people of Haiti best exemplify this kind of poverty, and that country has been his primary focus.
Farmer had a very non-traditional upbringing, and, as an adult, practices Christianity in a non-traditional, though Biblically driven way. Many Christians would struggle with his salty language and some other eccentricities of his life-style. However, it would be hard to argue against the fact that he is one of the few who is absolutely focused on living out the teachings of Matthew 25- "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."- meaning that he focuses on serving those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or in prison. He has used his education and the connections formed by his time at Duke and Harvard to bring attention and help to these afflicted people.
While others in Partners In Health chose to work with the big picture by bringing their needs to the attention of the World Health Organization or the Gates Foundation, Farmer has always been known for his personal attention to the individuals he treats. He argues that healing someone, then sending them back to the very conditions that caused their illness in the first place (malnutrition, impure drinking water, constant exposure to malarial mosquitoes, etc.) is a fool's errand. He takes a holistic approach to medical intervention. While he has long been one of the top experts on TB, he has also taken his methodology into the AIDS epidemic, including the explosion of cases of both diseases in the prison system of the former Soviet countries. He sees prisoners as humans in need of healing, no matter how monstrous their crimes, and is unique in his ability to rally a staid international medical establishment to tackle issues that most would not care to think about.
I found this book, and Farmer himself, inspiring. He will challenge you on every level to think about your prejudices, phobias, and political philosophies. You will, perhaps for the first time, realize what one individual can do to make a difference of global significance. You will wonder what you could be doing yourself. Your eyes will be opened, your comfort afflicted by what you read. I recommend it to everyone. 5 out of 5 stars.
donna, several years ago i too read and loved mountains beyond mountains. just last week paul farmer was a guest (again) on democracy now! with amy goodman. you could possibly find a transcript online at the democracy now! website. he had just returned to the states from gonaives having witnessed first hand the results of the series of tropical storms/flooding in haiti these last few weeks. having read this book, you will, i'm sure, as i did, appreciate fully his comment to amy- that in 25+ years of health aid work amongst the poorest of the world's poor, he has never before experienced such heartbreak as what he witnessed going on in gonaives right now. he made an urgent call to the health community to help stem this huge and escalating humanitarian and health crisis.
I saw Paul Farmer in a short profile on a nightly news program sometime in the last year. It was fascinating and inspiring. I'll put this book on my list -- and thanks for the democracy now tip. For anyone interested in how Haiti got the way it is and why the Dominican Republic has been different, Jared Diamond's book Collapse has a section comparing the history and environmental decisions of these two areas -- it could be read as a standalone without reading the rest of the book.
All of the freshmen read this a couple of years ago at the university where I taught. It is a powerful book and there's enough there to keep talking for a whole year. Paul Farmer is an amazing person who brings a lot of attention to how poverty and poor health coexist. He's not the only one doing this, but sometimes it comes off this way.
As part of the project I had the opportunity to meet Tracy Kidder, and he has become a staunch advocate for universal health care.
I clearly need to read this book.
Just to clarify, the University of Illinois has 7200+ freshmen this year, and is the flagship public university in Illinois, so it draws top students, both from here and all over the world. I'm so excited that so many young people, studying every imaginable discipline, will go into their careers with this book as an influence, and I'm grateful to Joseph White, the university president, for his desire to see thses students become servants to mankind.
Also, to post I put up the day following my review has a 60 Minutes film clip that some might find interesting about Farmer.
anonymous: Thanks for sharing. I haven't had a chance to find the transcript, but I have thought of Farmer many times during this hurricane season and wondered how his work was faring. I'm sorry to hear that it's as bad as it sounds. Appreciate your comments.
susanb: Thanks for the tips on the Collapse book. I have to confess that I'd never given Haiti a minutes's thought before I read the Farmer book. It would be really interesting to know the history of what happened.
audrey: Wow, I had no idea this book was so popular in the universities! That's wonderful news. I know there must be others out there like Farmer, but they haven't had so much press. It would be great to know who they are so some support could go their way as well.
gb: It should make a really interesting follow-up to "3 Cups." I read them in the other order, so I'll be interested to see what you think. There are a lot of similarities, even though the focus (& hemisphere!) is different.
Joyce: Thanks again for such a great review!
Joyce, thank you for a great review and everyone else for the comments. I too have been thinking about Paul Farmer and the people of Haiti and keep hoping for good news of his hospital. I am heartened by the fact that this book is being read so widely in the universities.
There is another doctor in Cambodia, Dr. Richner, doing similar and equally impressive work. On Saturday nights he performs a solo cello concert for the tourists to Anghor Wat, shows a short film of his work and at the end asks for the crowds money or their blood. His tactics appear to be working.
These men are heros.
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