|Genre:||Biographies & Memoirs|
if we can demonstrate so readily that these excesses hurt
the poor and vulnerable." -- Dr. Paul Farmer
Paul Farmer is apparently well known in medical circles for his work in TB and HIV. But I'd never heard of him before our book club decided to read Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a man who would cure the world. We picked the book for two reasons: A great deal of the book is devoted to Haiti - its history and the severe poverty of its people. Given that the earthquake had just taken place when we were choosing books, Haiti was definitely on our minds and we were eager to find out more about what the country had been like before the earthquake hit. But we also leaned toward this book because it reminded us of Greg Mortenson's story, Three Cups of Tea, which we had all appreciated. Farmer, like Mortenson, saw a severe need among a particular people group and he devoted his life toward improving the conditions of those people both directly and through educating others and encouraging them to lend their help as well.
During Farmer's undergraduate studies at Duke in the early 80s, he was keenly interested in current events and at the same time he became intrigued by a branch of Catholicism called liberation theology. [By the way, that's a term that Glenn Beck would probably recommend you run from.] He was particularly impressed by a local Belgian nun who was involved in helping and protecting the rights of migrant Haitian farm workers. She and other "church ladies" as Farmer called them, "were the ones standing up to the growers in their sensible nun shoes. They were the ones schlepping the workers to the clinics or court, translating for them, getting them groceries or driver's licenses." He began to see the disparities between the affluence that surrounded him at the university, and the severe poverty of the migrant workers in the fields not far from Duke.
After meeting the Haitian farm workers, he began to read everything he could find on the country. As Kidder describes it, "To Farmer, Haiti's history seemed, indeed, like The Lord of the Rings, an ongoing story of a great and terrible struggle between the rich and the poor, between good and evil." He first visited the country in 1983, after having graduated from Duke summa cum laude. He spent a year there in which he traveled throughout the country, meeting people, seeing the outrageous results of former American interventions in the country, and being drawn back toward Catholicism -- especially the liberation theology that he had discovered during his college years.
Farmer was accepted into Harvard's medical school but he spent every moment that he could back in Haiti building a medical clinic in Cange, one of the poorest regions of the country. In fact, he often missed classes, making it back to school just in time for exams. But the professors allowed this because Farmer's first hand experience with the medical issues of Haiti often meant that he had more hands on experience than they did.
With the help of a generous donor, Tom White, Farmer's work eventually grew into an international aid organization called Partners in Health, which works largely in Haiti but has branched out into parts of Peru and prisons in Russia. In the 90s, Farmer challenged the WHO's directives regarding dealing with TB in impoverished areas and, through the examples of what had been accomplished by PIH in Haiti and Peru in particular, he was able to convince them to change their policy in order to tackle the drug resistant strains of the illness that the old policy not only wasn't dealing with, but was even strengthening.
Though Mountains Beyond Mountains is a biography of Farmer's life, it is also in large part a discourse on justice. As Tracy Kidder paints a picture of what Haiti was like when Farmer first arrived, and the political upheavals that have taken place over the past few of decades, it becomes very clear that the United States has had a negative impact on the country. The interests of the rich (both in the US and in Haiti) have repeatedly been put ahead of the interests of the poor. And the world, in large part, has mostly ignored the desperate poverty of these people. It was only the Catholic church that refused to turn a blind eye, a fact that was not lost on the people of Haiti. Kidder explains the Haitians take on God's involvement:
How could a just God permit great misery? The Haitian peasants answered with a proverb: "Bondye konn bay, men li pa konn separe," in literal translation, "God gives but doesn't share." This meant, as Farmer would later explain it, "God gives us humans everything we need to flourish, but he's not the one who's supposed to divvy up the loot. That charge was laid upon us."
It was likewise clear to Farmer that the problem in Haiti wasn't God, it was people. He explained that "the fact that any sort of religious faith was so disdained at Harvard and so important to the poor -- not just in Haiti but elsewhere, too -- made me even more convinced that faith must be something good." That's certainly not how most people I know balance the value of faith vs. lack of faith, but it's indicative of Farmer's interests and motivations. He stands firmly on the side of the poor: financially, spiritually, and pragmatically.
This is a book that I can easily recommend. Though it deals with medical issues, it doesn't get bogged down in terminology. It's not preachy, and as a reader I never felt like Farmer or Kidder were trying to convince me that their way was right so much as they want to get the message out to people that something should be done, our help is welcome, and here is a very practical way in which one person has made a remarkable difference in the lives of the poor. Kidder says of Farmer and the others in PIH:
Change the world? Of course they could. He really believed this, and he really believed that "a small group of committed individuals" could do it. He liked to say of PIH, "People think we're unrealistic. They don't know we're crazy."
PIH is currently involved in helping Haiti rebuild after the earthquake. If you would like information on what they are doing, or would like to donate, check out standwithhaiti.org/haiti.