EXCERPT: 'The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men,' by Bill Shore

PHOTO
Share
Copy

In "The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men: Inspiration, Vision and Purpose in the Quest to End Malaria," author Bill Shore examines the drive behind scientists' quest to achieve the seemingly impossible: a vaccine for malaria.

Malaria is a disease that is transmitted by mosquitoes. In 2008, there were between 100 and 300 million cases -- an estimated one million of which were fatal, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most deaths caused by malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shore is the founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit group that fights hunger across the nation.

Introduction, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men

By Bill Shore

At my dining room table, the glow of two flickering candles illuminates the photograph of a beautiful young woman. In the image she is thirteen years old and sitting attentively at a polished wooden desk. Her skin is coffee brown, her eyes bright and searching, and her dazzling smile and gentle expression hold the promise of a limitless future.

The picture was taken in an Ethiopian village called Yetebon, about a three-hour drive south of Addis Ababa. I was there in 2002 with a delegation of business and philanthropic leaders who support Share Our Strength, the anti-hunger organization my sister and I founded in 1984 following one of Ethiopia's most devastating famines. We started the organization with the belief that everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions.

Project Mercy is a U.S.-based nonprofit that seeks to educate and supplement healthy lifestyles for impoverished communities around the world. Its first and main campus is located in Yetebon, where Project Mercy had built schools and kitchens and helped to plant community gardens. In the wake of a famine, the group was in the midst of a new construction project -- a hospital. Share Our Strength had gone to Yetebon to partner with Project Mercy and to generate more awareness and resources for its work.

At one point in our trip, a few of us stepped into an English class in the Project Mercy campus school. The teacher asked one child after another to stand and tell us what they wanted to be when they were older. After each child had spoken, and after I had thanked the class for allowing us to visit, one girl said something so quietly that I could hardly hear her. She was the only person who spoke without being called upon. I walked over and knelt down to ask her what she had said. She repeated so that I could hear it: "God bless you."

Like any child, she was shy, but unlike many she did not look away. Something about her presence set her apart. She told me her name. I asked her to write it down for me so that I would know the correct spelling. She searched her notebook for an empty space and carefully formed the letters of the English alphabet she had learned in school, writing "Alima Dari."

We talked for five or ten more minutes. I told her where we were from and why we'd come to visit. I complimented her on her English. She told me about her brothers and about her walk to school, and where her family lived.

Eventually, I rejoined the Share Our Strength group to tour the cattle shed, the gardens and kitchen, and the partially built hospital. When finally it was time for us to leave, all of the children, hundreds of them, lined the road from the school to the main gate. As I walked toward them, I scanned the faces for Alima's. There were close to three hundred children, standing three rows deep. It should have been impossible to find her. In fact I soon realized that it was impossible not to find her.

She beamed at me, and I waved and yelled "Alima!" I reached across the first row of children and we shook hands again.

On my way back to Addis Ababa, and to the United States, I asked myself why one young woman among so many had made such an impression on me. I didn't fully understand it then, nor do I claim to understand it now. I just knew that it moved me. I was simply delighted to have met Alima. I was struck by the sense that anything was possible for her -- or for anyone who was so ready to live life to the fullest. From that day forward I followed her progress. For a little over a year we exchanged letters. I received pictures of her reading her graduation speech. I have had many different experiences in my travels for Share Our Strength, but never have I connected with anyone quite the way I did with Alima.

The following summer, when my colleague Chuck Scofield returned to Ethiopia, I gave him a handwritten letter to deliver to Alima. Though Chuck and I keep in close touch, I didn't hear from him for weeks. Then one morning I received this email:

Dear Billy, I have not called because I have been avoiding sharing bad news that I learned with regard to Alima. She died a couple of months ago as a result of TB and cerebral malaria. All at Project Mercy were and are extremely sad about losing such an amazing person. Evidently the hospital in Butajira only treated the TB without realizing that she had the most deadly form of malaria. By the time they got her to the hospital in Addis it was too late. I hate like hell to share this news with you.

I was stunned. I have often been moved by the work Share Our Strength carries out. The organization has frequently worked in difficult circumstances in the aftermath of tragedy and disaster. But this was the first time in nearly two decades that I'd felt a sense of loss that touched me personally. It was the first time I'd experienced the brutal impact of poverty and disease on someone I knew and whom I had come to care for. This one small catastrophe had taken place not in a ravaged landscape but, ironically, in a setting of optimism and hope. With all the new building and progress at Yetebon, it was cruelly incongruous that Alima should have died.

It is tempting to describe Alima's death as senseless, but in a terrible way it makes perfect sense. Nearly 3,000 children die from malaria every day, almost 1 million each year. Malaria is the leading cause of death for children in Africa.

Global spending on malaria control at the time of Alima's death was $200 million a year -- a drop in the ocean. Perhaps Alima's death was inevitable. Treatment within twenty-four hours of the onset of malaria symptoms is essential. Unfortunately, lack of sufficient funds had prevented the hospital at Yetebon, a short walk from Alima's classroom, from being finished before she contracted malaria. Although Yetebon now has its hospital, many African towns and villages do not.

Such thoughts swirled in my head in the wake of the news about Alima. They were somewhat despairing. In time, though, I became convinced that Alima's short life was long enough to show that action and inaction each have consequences, that lives hang in the balance when it comes to the generosity and commitment with which we pursue our work. It was long enough to make me aware of the fact that Alima and her classmates were among the most voiceless beings on the planet. Children in their situation around the world are so nearly silent and invisible that there is no economic market for delivering to them the basic goods and services that we take for granted and that they desperately need just to stay alive. Given the huge up-front investment that drug and vaccine development require, there's no profit to be found on a continent where people -- potential customers -- earn less, on average, than $2 a day. When economic markets fail, the gap is sometimes filled by political markets, or governments responding to a need. When economic and political markets both fail, as they have failed Africa's children, only charity or philanthropy remain as a last resort.

While I was thinking about the lessons that Alima's life signified, I began to wonder who, in the developed world, might be trying to help children like Alima and her classmates. Was there anyone dedicated, determined, or driven enough to want to try to cure a parasitic disease like malaria, which ravages not New Jersey and California but countries and peoples continents away, who have neither the money to pay for treatment nor the ability even to ask for it? Was there anyone who was possessed by the idea, as I had become, that malaria had to be defeated?

Victory in such a battle does not come easily. Drug and vaccine development requires a huge amount of investment in both time and money, and even those who have both must overcome an incredible number of obstacles.

It was in 2004 that I first began to really think about the teams of researchers working on the malaria vaccine and the specific hurdles facing them. The more I learned about the nature of the disease, the more I realized that conquering it would take more than just time and money, more even than a sense of purpose and persistence. It required a moral vision and imagination: a person or a team stubbornly dedicated to the idea that no child's death should ever be ignored as "inevitable" or "senseless," and abundantly blessed with practical wisdom to tackle a problem that has baffled others.

I asked myself what kind of people, with what qualities of character, would take on a challenge as daunting as climbing Mount Everest was before Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, or walking on the moon before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. Ending malaria may be less visually dramatic than a moon landing, and the beneficiaries -- people like Alima's classmates -- are less conspicuous. That's exactly why it takes a very unusual person to take on a challenge like this one.

But beyond that, the quest for a malaria cure became emblematic for me of humanitarian endeavors in general, especially those that presented such huge challenges that success had eluded us time and again. The more I discovered about malaria research, the more I became convinced that it held clues to how any quest of this magnitude, with so many attempts and failures behind it, could finally succeed. And the more I looked for answers, the more I came to believe that it is the character of the people doing the work that is the key. Their methods can be baffling and surprising, and sometimes they can even be unreasonable. They are different from the rest of the crowd. And I wanted to understand how they were different.

This book is inspired by Alima's memory. But beyond being a celebration of her, it is a tribute to the quest undertaken by a small number of heroic idealists. It is a tribute to the imaginations of unreasonable men.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...