There are selfish people, there are people like me and then there are heroes like the two men I read about in 2017. I do not know if there are sufficient adjectives to describe the amazing work that they do. I said after I read about their lives that if ever there was a Nobel Prize for Selflessness, Bryan Stevenson and Paul Farmer would have been laureates by now. And this is why.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
I first came to know of Bryan Stevenson a few years ago through a TED talk he gave entitled ‘We need to talk about injustice’. It was an eloquent talk, and it is said that it received the longest standing ovation in TED history (that says a lot). When a friend recommended that I read ‘Just Mercy,’ I was pleasantly surprised to know that the author was Bryan Stevenson. Bryan studied law and instead of taking a job at one of the high-profile law firms, he chose to work for a small one in Alabama. He soon found his mission primarily defending African Americans who were wrongly convicted, given unfair sentences and also helping to exonerate those on death row. Through the organisation, he started Equal Justice Initiative, he has represented hundreds of black men in prison. He has also advocated for amendment of certain laws such as how juvenile cases are handled. He gives some emotional and chilling accounts of how difficult his work is, and yet he still does it. He has experienced bomb threats for the work he is doing and also endured listening to the words of a man before execution. In one account after failing to save a man from execution Bryan laments, “For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison.” Reading ‘Just Mercy’ you come to understand that Mr. Steveson is made from a different fibre, defending and fighting for people who he shouldn’t really be caring about. He doesn’t need to do what he does yet he does it anyway. And I as I read the book I kept on asking myself, can I do what this man is doing? And the honest answer is, No. To get to understand why he does it, he sums it up beautifully himself, “After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I don’t do it because I have no choice. I do what I do because I’m broken too.”
Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer chronicled Dr. Paul Farmers life in Mountains Beyond Mountains. Paul Farmer graduated from Harvard University and went to work at a clinic in Haiti called Zanmi Lasante. Here he treated patients who could not afford health care from a myriad of diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, HIV/AIDS etc. He also formed an organisation called Partners In Health (PIH) to raise funds for his work in Haiti. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, you get introduced to a man who left a comfortable life in the USA to go and spend most of his life in Haiti helping the poor and attempting to improve the Herculean task of transforming a health system that was collapsing. When he worked as a professor at Harvard and at the Brigham Hospital his paycheck went to the clinic he ran. “He made about $125,000 a year from Harvard and Brigham, but never saw his paychecks or the honoraria or royalties,” (Where do these people come from honestly?). This man [Paul] would trek kilometres up a mountain just to treat a single patient, risked his life in a military regime and national disasters. His efforts in public health have spilt into Peru, Cuba and Russia. PIH managed to raise $45 million from the Gates Foundation to wipe out MDR-TB in Peru. At the PIH organisation, only 5% of the funds go towards administration the rest goes to the intended target who the funds are meant for. One of PIHs greatest achievement was getting the World Health Organisation to adopt its prescriptions for dealing with MDR- TB. This book is a collection of Paul Farmers tireless effort to get health care to the poorest people he comes into contact with.
Reading Just Mercy and Mountains Beyond Mountains allowed me to have a glimpse into the worlds of Bryan Stevenson and Paul Farmer. It is a world that I think words cannot fully describe; however, I am privileged to have been introduced to these two gentlemen. As I read the final chapters of those books in a way it exposed my own selfishness but also led me to ask how am I making a difference?
At the beginning of 2017, I challenged myself to read 36 books across fiction and non-fiction. A large proportion of the books I read were from the Lusaka Book Club and Butali House Book Club reading lists while the rest were selected out of interest. I did read 36 books with a few days to spare. In the My Year in 36 Books, I give a review of some of the books I read.