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!

Stronger than Death, Book Cover Reveal!

I wrote a book.

I’ve actually written many books, from the cloth-covered book about animals running a race I wrote in elementary school, to the several novels that are completed and gathering dust on my hard drives (for very good reasons!), to my self-published books the Djiboutilicious cookbook, Finding Home, and two editions of Welcome to Djibouti.

This coming book has been the work of my heart for almost five years. It is the biography of Annalena Tonelli, a woman who faced disease, terrorism, massacres, lonely isolation, and chose love over fear.

“People would call her a doctor, a missionary, and a nun. And they would call her a saint… Should Annalena be made into a saint? That was how I thought of her, at first. I only knew the high points in Annalena’s life. I knew nothing of the dark valleys, her secret and controversial compromise. I knew she had accomplished something remarkable, something about tuberculosis but also about love and faith…”

It is the product of collaboration with Matt Erickson, so many people I interviewed all over the world, those I followed and pestered, and the Plough Publishing team.

A few months ago I shared the book cover in my Stories from the Horn newsletter.

Now, I want to share the cover here, too.

You may have already seen it, if you’ve visited the Plough, Indiebound, or Amazon, but let’s make this the formal “cover reveal”.

Are cover reveal parties a thing? Like for pregnant moms and gender reveal parties? I feel like they should be, with balloons and a cake a fireworks. Well…oh well.

There is so much I want to tell you about the book, like who endorsed it and some behind the scenes stuff. Like how I’ve been changed through this project. Like how it feels to write a book while dealing with cancer. Like all the ways this book connects to current issues from Ebola to cross cultural relationships and humanitarian aid, to conquering fear and talking about race and faith. I love the way this woman turns these conversations upside down in surprising, even shocking ways.

But for now, here’s the cover! No drama, no explosions, no band playing in the background. Just me and my excited little heart.

(Number 1 new release in Kenyan History!)

You can preorder it here




What could be stronger than death? Only a love bigger than fear and bigger than hate. We need this message more than ever.

A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God


This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

Muslim Strangers Who Remind My Family to Love People Well

When comments like Trump’s about keeping Muslims out of America are headlines and people think these sound like reasonable ideas, I don’t know whether to scream or cry. If ‘Muslims’ kill Americans and therefore should be kept out of our borders, what about teenage boys who attack elementary school children? Should we keep all teenage boys out of America? What about pro-life people? Since a man who claimed to be pro-life killed people at an abortion clinic, should we keep everyone who claims to be pro-life out of America?

Below, I have written about people who showed me how to be a good neighbor, how to love well. When I was a stranger, an outsider living in a foreign land, these people, all of them Muslims and all of them people I have never met before or since, served me and my family. I am forever grateful…

muslim strangers

My three-year old daughter stood in front of a Barbie Doll in the Carrefour at a mall in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates. She gently caressed the packaging. I wasn’t going to buy the doll. We lived in Somalia at the time and had already overspent our budget on necessities like diapers and food items.

An Arab woman wearing a full niqaam, the black face veil, pulled the Barbie box from the shelf. She gave the box to my daughter and pressed a wad of cash into her chubby little fists. She smiled, I could see it in her eyes, and said something in Arabic, I will never know what it was. But I also never forgot her.


We were landing, finally. The end of an exhausting thirty-five hour plane journey back from Africa to Minnesota. My toddler started to scream. She couldn’t leave her seat and refused all the distracting toys I offered.

The flight attendant, an elderly gentleman, passed us in the aisle. “I know what to do!” he said and ran, ran, to the front of the plane. He came back with a handful of Snickers Bars and M & M packets. She calmed down immediately.


Again in Dubai, several years later. We were eating in a Chili’s restaurant, a huge treat since we now lived in Djibouti and there were no American restaurants like this. Again, the toddler started to act up. She wanted to run around the table, she wanted to cry, she wanted to leave.

One of the waitresses came to the table, scooped up my daughter, and entertained her for the rest of our meal.


I was driving to school to pick up my twins from first grade. The car got a flat tire. I gathered up the jack and prepared to change the tire when suddenly two men appeared. The temperature soared over 100 degrees and they refused to let me help. They changed the tire, wouldn’t accept a token payment of thanks, and wandered off.


My daughter and I walked through our neighborhood to a birthday party. She carried a wrapped gift and on top of it were several pieces of candy, taped to the wrapping paper. A group of girls strode past us and one of them snatched the candy from on top of the gift.

At the same moment, a car filled with men drove by. They saw the problem and immediately stepped in on our behalf. They protected us from these aggressive girls and defended our dignity.


In Somalia, a woman with a cleft lip* (see comment below by Rach) sold limes in the market for a living. She grabbed my hand as I walked past, pointed at my daughter, and gave me three limes, refusing to be paid. She touched her lips and blew a kiss at us.

In Turkey, my daughter dropped the bag she carried and inside it was her souvenier – a belly dancing outfit and some candy. A storekeeper found it, saved it, and still had it hours later when we returned. He soothed her tears.

In Somalia people brought us holiday treats when it wasn’t their religious holiday but they knew it was ours. And again in Djibouti.

In Djibouti, at the candy stores, Arab shopkeepers insist on offering me free samples and overfill my bags.

I could go on, there are so many stories of the kindnesses of strangers. I don’t have time to tell of our close friends who have protected, defended, served, and loved us. We are not refugees but we are foreigners, living in foreign lands. And these are just some of the people who have welcomed us well.

Thank you.



Waad mahadsantihiin.

When I move back to the United States and am again in my own homeland, you are welcome to my home for dinner.

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