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3 Lessons From the Life of Annelena Tonelli

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

The life of Annalena Tonelli is remarkable. She was a woman who was brave and compassionate, carrying a servant's heart, willing to suffer and persevere in the midst of chaos.

"Stronger Than Death" is a biography of her life, through her journey serving the poor in northern Kenya, Somalia and Somaliland. Her primary effort was treating tuberculosis among the nomadic people living in the horn of Africa, which is a highly difficult thing to do, given the infectiousness of the disease. She developed the Direct Observed Therapy method of treating tuberculosis among this nomadic population, which proved highly successful and was eventually adopted by the World Health Organization as standard treatment.

Annalena navigated the immense stigma that a TB diagnosis brought for the nomads by creating a compound where people were patients could live and work, while receiving treatment for their TB. This gave them a place of purpose and belonging. She considered their culture, and their needs and melded a way to provide treatment in a way that was culturally appropriate for the people.

She endured a lot of chaos, as civil wars broke out; being a young white woman, in a primarily Muslim nation also brought it's own threats. Yet she persevered in her service to the poor and destitute, caring for all their needs. Tragically, her life was ended by a fatal gunshot wound, targeted by a terrorist organization who sought to gain momentum on a global scale.

The author, Rachel Pieh Jones, lived in Somaliland, near the compound where Annalena worked when she died, so she writes this story from her own perspective as well, as she reflects on the day she died, their evacuation and the impact it would have on her life.

I appreciated meeting Annalena through the pages of this book, learning about her life, and the culture she served in. These were 3 lessons I drew out:

1. A Deep Love for the Poor

Annalena once said, "you cannot love the poor without wanting to be like them." This is a hard statement to understand, yet through the pages of this book I saw how Annalena's life defended her conviction. She didn't seek more for herself. She didn't seek renown. She sought, instead, to care for others in the most humble ways. It brought me to wonder, how deeply have I loved others?

2. A Sharp Cultural Awareness

It takes a gift to understand a new culture and to figure out ways to solve challenges in a culturally appropriate way. The infectious nature of tuberculosis requires diagnosis and treatment, something nomads were not keen to seek because of the stigma related to the disease and the transient nature of their livelihood. Her keen awareness and courage to meet their cultural needs, while also treating the disease, caused me to feel an awe for her talent and perseverance.

3. Courage in the Midst of Chaos

She faced threats, some verbal and some physical, yet she didn't shy away from serving. Counting the costs, she knew it was possible she would experience her last days in the horn of Africa. It seemed to be her great delight, serving the people until her last breath. I have experienced times of chaos in my life, and I know that my first response wasn't always to keep serving, it was often a retreat inward. Courage in chaos is a big step out of our comfort zone and yet scripture reminds me time and again that the life of Jesus was one lived one then fringes of normal.

Reading the testimony of Annalena's life, through the eyes of one who serves overseas, reminded me, again, of the rich perspective of circumstances cross-cultural workers face. Her story and the lessons I learned from it, challenged my thinking, how much "simpler" it seemed, to live a life of service overseas, when the desperate needs of people face you every. single. day.

If I'm honest, coming back to live in Canada, I've struggled to serve others in the same way. There are many reasons, but in the developed world, people don't come to my doorstep every morning with their physical needs. I feel convicted because I have become lazy. I've not looked with open eyes, to the people around me, or the needs before me. Perhaps lost in the busyness of life, or just plain old distracted. With open eyes, may I see people in a new light, with a new heart, to bring hope and healing to those whom God puts on my path. Annalena poured out her heart to the people who needed her, can I do the same for those around me?

How do you care for the needs of those around you?

Special thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the advanced reader copy of this book, and the opportunity to post an honest review!


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