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Making a Difference

03/15/15
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Posted by Mary Ann

Nicholas Kristof is an interesting case of someone who started out as a journalist but turned into something bigger. Journalism is great for developing a work ethic and learning both to communicate well and be accurate. But a journalist has to remain objective, and that can blunt the fire of passion for a cause. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, have turned their journalistic skills and prominence into a passion for causes. Their latest book, “A Path Appears,” gives the readers all kinds of practical avenues for helping to make the world a better place.

Their previous book, “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide,” took on a slightly different but similar cause: the “diffuse cruelty of indifference” that causes women and girls to die every day in large numbers all over the world, from violence and neglect. They used three high-profile issues to make their case: forced prostitution, honor killing and maternal mortality.

Reviewers had some issues with “Half the Sky” – it tried to cover a lot of ground, so it was inevitable that there would be some issues that were covered less well than some would have preferred. But it’s one of those books whose name has become a buzzword for a huge worldwide problem. And it’s not just gloom and doom; the resourcefulness these two document in women, even those enduring privation most of us could not imagine, is a continual inspiration to behold.

The word “resourcefulness” makes me think of Tracy Kidder’s magnificent “Strength in What Remains.” It is the true story of Deo, a refugee from the genocidal conflict in Rwanda and Burundi that pitted the Tutsis and the Hutus against each other. (A Tutsi, Deo’s name is short for degratias, which means thanks be to God in Latin).

Deo, a third year medical student in fear of his life (his family had already been killed) flew out of Burundi with $200 in his pocket, no working English (he did speak French) and no contacts in the new world where he landed – New York City. The story of how this penniless refugee, who spent his early days sleeping in Central Park, became a medical student at Columbia University and returned to Burundi to both revisit the scene of the slaughter and help the country recover is inspiring in such a quiet, compelling way, and an eloquent testament to human resilience. Kidder is simply a superb writer and reporter, and he portrays Deo in all his amazing complexity.

A book Nicholas Kristof mentioned in “A Path Appears” that I want to run out and read right away is “The Life You Can Save” by Peter Singer. Singer, a professor of applied ethics at Princeton University, is widely known for his work – with “The Life You Save,” he impressed critics with his skills as a writer. “Mr. Singer is far from the world’s only serious thinker about poverty, but with ‘The Life You Can Save’ he becomes, instantly, its most readable and lapel-grabbing one,” said the New York Times’ Dwight Garner.

Singer’s premise is simple: that in a world so divided between the haves and have nots, it is immoral not to help the have nots. He calls on people to give away 5 percent of their annual income.

There are lots of people who do more than that, and many who do nothing at all – though I do donate, I confess to a certain amount of junk mail fatigue because donating seems to get you on dozens of lists of organizations for money. Singer makes this pretty simple – go to thelifeyoucansave.org, which spells out his philosophy and recommends charities that have been thoroughly vetted by himself and his co-workers.

Another book recommended by Kristof is 2013’s “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” by Elizabeth Svoboda. Svoboda, a science writer, goes deep into history and research to look at how altruism developed in humans, and examines brain research that shows that acting generously releases the same brain chemicals associated with other kinds of pleasure.

Finally, I want to circle back to Rwanda with a book by another writer Kristof mentions: “A Thousand Hills to Heaven” by Josh Ruxin. Ruxin, a Fulbright scholar and public health activist, and his wife moved to Rwanda in 2005 with a mission to create health facilities that worked, addressing the problems of AIDS, malaria, TB, and widespread malnourishment.

What they initially found was a five-village community that lacked any sense of connection, with plenty of despair to go around. The way they tackled this daunting task – including opening a restaurant called “Heaven,” is said to be fascinating; the models Ruxin and his spouse created make for a great story, but part of the book shows how they made all this work from a business standpoint as well.

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