A journalist recalls his time spent volunteering in a Kenyan shelter for children with HIV and his later struggles with mental illness in this harrowing memoir.
Neill (Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies, 2018, etc.) first began reading about the worldwide HIV crisis while attending Georgetown University as an English major. This led him to volunteer at a local shelter, where he found that “vulnerable, sick, abandoned children quickly became a passion for me.” Neill was an aspiring investigative reporter who had developed a great admiration for the “hero-activist-journalist” Greg Mortenson. However, he struggled to get any of his own work published. He eventually came to the realization that the scope of his stories was too small, so he contacted a Jesuit priest who had set up a hospice for HIV-positive children in Africa and asked to volunteer. In 2002, he traveled to Kenya, eager to “comfort the afflicted” and write what he was sure would be an “eye-opening work of staggering genius.” However, Neill now admits that he wasn’t at all ready for the “horrors of sub-Saharan Africa’s generalized epidemic.” He goes on to recount the suffering and terrible conditions in and around the Rainbow Children’s Home where he worked and lived for two years. In addition, he offers imagined reconstructions of events in the lives of children at the shelter, written from a third-person point of view. The narrative goes on to detail the aftermath of the author’s time abroad, during which he exhibited suicidal tendencies and spent some time in a psychiatric ward.
The author shows intense attention to detail in this memoir, and many of his descriptions have a cameralike immediacy. For the most part, this unflinching approach is shockingly visceral, as when he describes a baby boy found alive in a trash pit in the Dagoretti section of Nairobi: “His face had been mauled by dogs, the torn flesh covered in an oozing miasma of maggots.” Throughout, Neill is consistently unafraid to show the dire nature of everyday life in the shelter, but he also captures rare moments of beauty, such as when he heard children gleefully sing a song about bananas, taught to them by a Canadian volunteer, or when he saw a “flowering eucalyptus or flame tree growing up between rusted corrugated tin roofs.” On occasion, though, the book dips too far into the macabre; for example, when Neill buries a deceased fellow volunteer in Kenya, he visualizes the coffin lid slipping off to reveal her “restless, putrefying visage staring out at us.” This imagined detail seems unnecessary and driven by an overzealous desire to provide prose with impact. That said, there’s no delicate way to accurately describe the dreadful reality of Kenya’s street children, who regularly faced the prospect of “kidnap, rape and murder.” Overall, this memoir is a disturbing exposé, and Neill is acutely aware that the narrative could be read as one of “unmitigated tragedy.” But there’s also a sense of hope within these pages that may convince others to volunteer for similar causes.
Eye-opening, gut-wrenching journalism.