11 Books to Read During COVID-19

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Stronger than Death: How Annalena Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa

This book will show you how to live in a time of contagious disease and fear. I am so inspired by Annalena, as I think comes across in the book. She was relentless in her love and care for the most vulnerable among us. Her legacy continues and I want to quote her nephew, with whom I messaged in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis in Italy where he lives. He said, “All is quiet. It is a time of silence and also of God.” That is just so beautiful. He is caring for his family and they are turning to faith. He also quoted Annalena, “Everything is grace.” What a privilege to get to know people like this, who live this way and with these hearts in the world. They are what bring me hope.

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Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I loved this book especially because (spoiler alert) it ends with hope. It is so beautiful and thoughtful and richly imagined and slightly terrifying. All the right elements.


Black Death at the Golden Gate, by David K. Randall

I saw a dead rat in the streets of Nairobi about a week after reading this and felt a cold pit in my stomach. This book is a deep dive into the bubonic plague (which is still around, who knew?!) but also the way fear stoke racism and how that leads to further death and mayhem. A super relevant read right now.


On Immunity, by Eula Biss

I quote this book all the time. Biss is such an incredible essayist. If you want a thoughtful look at herd immunity, on caring for the vulnerable among us, on being a parent in an age of disease and fear, if you just want to read someone with a sharp and smart mind, this is amazing.


No More Faking Fine, by Esther Fleece

I gifted this book to many people. An excellent look at how to cling to faith in the middle of a crisis or of pain without pretending that everything is fine. I love this book.


Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

Science, history, geography, disease. It’s all here.


Illness as Metaphor, by Susan Sontag

Such a powerful essayist. This is a look at how we talk about illnesses like cancer and how the words we use can sometimes also cause harm and affect the patient.


The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

How to cultivate empathy when we feel overcome by our own fear? We need to wrestle with this question because I do not want to see the end of empathy. I’ve read this book several times.


Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron

Could there be a more apt title?


It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way, by Lysa Terkeurst

Nope, it’s not. There is so much pain and brokenness in the world. How does our faith respond?


Devotion, poems by Mary Oliver

Because we can always, always read poetry.


What would you recommend for readers right now?

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The Coronavirus, Zombies, and Africa, and Maybe I’ll Eat My Words Later

We all know that zombies are really just misunderstood creatures who want their own kind to be safe and healed as badly as we want that (I Am Legend) and if we could only cure them, the world would be safe (though we might all be zombies by the time we figure out the cure). Also zombies only like darkness and cold weather and are scared off by dogs. So here in Djibouti, we’re safe. We have walls around our houses, perpetually sunny days, hot weather, and loads of wild dogs that haven’t had their barks or their meanness trained out of them. We’re good.

We also all know that zombies only really want to devour the healthy and turn them into zombies (World War Z) so if we can just get collectively sick, kill the zombies, and then get cured, the world would be safe. So here in Djibouti, we’re safe already because most of us have malaria or dengue dormant in our blood, or parasites in our intestines. We’re good.

And, we all know that zombies really only attack people in New York City or maybe L.A. or Tokyo. So those of us in tiny countries, especially tiny countries in Africa (which zombies have either never heard of or think is a single country without any value), are safe during zombie apocalypses. Unless said apocalypse starts in “Africa” because that’s where monkeys live, but in order to make the disaster appear serious enough, the disease or monkeys need to get out of Africa and into New York City because who really cares about people in Africa dying from disease or zombies (Outbreak). Again, here in Djibouti, we’re good.

To reiterate, in Djibouti, we’re safe.

Zombies don’t care about us and people here are creative, resilient, and used to trouble, invasion, and disease. People here aren’t so surprised that the elderly who were already sick might die from a virus. They’re sad, of course. Death sucks. But they aren’t so shocked by deaths thousands of miles away that they empty store shelves, wear masks, and refuse to go to work.

I feel reasonably confident that the coronavirus is in Africa. Zombies may or may not be here, they just haven’t made the big screen in Hollywood yet. Heck, coronavirus and zombies are probably in Djibouti, too. I’m saying this with absolutely no evidence or reason, other than common sense in terms of infectious disease and travel and human movement. I don’t think there is much capacity for testing for it and in general, people seem much calmer than they were in the USA when I was there just last week. Possibly because of the lack of evidence. Or maybe because they are already worried about their loved ones with chikungunya. Or maybe because they are working hard to provide food and shelter and can’t be distracted by a flu-like illness. Even if it is a specific strain they haven’t had before.

Maybe we’re being foolish and stupid. Maybe the zombies are just hovering, waiting for their moment. Maybe the coronavirus is going to take us all. I’m not trying to be cold or cruel about people being sick and even dying. I don’t want anyone I know and love (or anyone at all) to get sick or to die. God forbid. I don’t want them to get cancer or TB or the flu or dementia, either. Maybe I will eat my words, along with a big dose of medicine.

I’m just saying Syria is on fire, men and women and children are being slaughtered en masse, starving and freezing to death.

I’m saying the billions of dollars lost by economies or spent by sports organizations to move and reschedule events could be spent on helping refugees, on curing malaria and tuberculosis, on solving our climate issues.

I’m saying what the world does not need right now is one more fear-induced and panic-inspiring reason to divide ourselves along ethnic, national, or racial lines.

Maybe I’ll write something else as the situation evolves. And I’ll apologize for being ignorant about epidemiology and a jerk.

Maybe I need to run out and stock up on toilet paper. Though, bonus tip: toilet paper isn’t really a necessity. There are other kinds of paper, hands, water, towels. You could shake it off or air dry. Maybe I need to buy a lot of food. Not because people in Djibouti will freak out but because the rest of the world has freaked out and what if our supply chains get blocked?

I’m more concerned about global fear than a virus.

More concerned that someone else’s fear might mean I can’t access my medication.

More concerned that someone else’s fear might mean a diabetic friend can’t get insulin.

More concerned that someone else’s fear means we forget how to take care of each other.

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The Street Life

Where hope meets potential.

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The Street Life a social enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya. The purpose of this organization is to provide support, services, and resources to at-risk children and youth, many of whom are depending and living on the streets for survival. We currently operate in Nairobi, Kenya and provide assistance to various local NGOs in Somalia and Somaliland. Since 2017, The Street Life has been a dependable source for linking the populations we serve to accessing basic necessities, healthcare, education, and employment. To learn more about what we do, please visit
By |December 5th, 2019|Categories: africa|Tags: , |0 Comments

The Legacy of Annalena Tonelli, Carrying It On

Find Stronger than Death at Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  and IndieBound

I love hearing how readers are moved and challenged and inspired by Stronger than Death. Some responses have even moved me to near tears.

I spoke at an English language school for adults in Djibouti. After my talk and an engaging Q/A time, students gathered in small groups to continue the discussion. One young man wrote his thoughts out and read them to the group. I asked if I could take a photo of his words and he gave me the paper. This is what he wrote:

“A good person is someone who displays love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, humility, patience, and she was faithful, and endures all things. Annalena was someone who displays self-control and considers others more important than herself. Annalena was a good listener and someone who displayed integrity and dignity and accountability toward others.”

This was so beautiful and it was incredibly meaningful that he picked up on these character traits. The conversation around the tables included things like how hard it can be serve, when other people tell you to not bother, or how disappointing it can be when service is rejected. We talked about how we can all take one little step, like picking up one piece of trash. Or how we can sit beside someone who is sick and be a loving, caring presence, even if we don’t have money to help treat their illness. And how we can hope to motivate others by our example.

It was lovely.


Here is from another reader. People have asked how I think Annalena would react to having a book written about her and I hope Jodie is right:

“I finished it with the sense that Annalena would be proud – even as one who didn’t like all the attention – because you portrayed her in her humanness as well as her saintlikeness.” Jodie P.


Someone else told me they finished the book with tears in their eyes and with ideas for how to be more aware of students in her classroom who might need a little extra affection or attention.


Another person told me she would use this book to help explain some of her Somali history and culture to her American coworkers.


Thanks to all for your feedback, for reading, and for sharing.

Don’t forget to leave a review and be sure to share the book with your friends and family! Maybe a great Christmas gift…!


Find Stronger than Death at Amazon,  Barnes and Noble,  and IndieBound



Stronger than Death Book Trailer

Annalena Tonelli spent 34 years living and working in the Horn of Africa. Somalis loved her, and still talk about her with great affection, still carry on her legacy, still continue her work.

But someone killed her. Why?

Why did she stay so long as a foreigner, in the face of massacres, famine, tuberculosis, terror, and war? How did she build a strong local community across religious and racial boundaries, boundaries that today often divide communities?

This is not the story of a white savior, or is it? It isn’t the story of a saint either, or is it? Annalena was far from perfect but her example challenges us all to be a little braver. A little more loving. A little more willing to reach out to someone with empathy, faith, and action.


Available from Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon.

Thanks to Matt Erickson for providing video clips and photographs and to the Plough Publishing video team!

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