Synopses & Reviews
In 1997 foreign correspondent Neely Tucker and his wife, Vita, arrived in Zimbabwe. After witnessing the devastating consequences of AIDS and economic disaster on the countrys children, the couple started volunteering at an orphanage where a critically ill infant, abandoned in a field on the day she was born, was trusted to their care. Within weeks, Chipo, the baby girl whose name means “gift,” would come to mean everything to them. Their decision to adopt her, however, would challenge an unspoken social norm: that foreigners should never adopt Zimbabwean children. Against a background of war, terrorism, disease, and unbearable uncertainty about the future, Chipos true story emerges as an inspiring testament to the miracles that love—and dogged determination—can sometimes achieve.
About the Author
Neely Tucker is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.
Reading Group Guide
1. When the arrival of Tuckers and Vitas luggage in Zimbabwe precedes the granting of Tuckers work permit, Tucker is charged by a senior officer in Zimbabwes Department of Immigration Control with American arrogance, and he is obliquely accused of racism: “You think little black Zimbabwe needs big white American men like you.” This assumption of American hubris becomes all too familiar later as Tucker and Vita confront Zimbabwes convoluted child welfare system. How much energy does Tucker put into proving the theory wrong? With whom does he succeed? Are there any points at which he inadvertently personifies the hated American stereotype?
2. Raised amid the devastating poverty and racism of rural Mississippi, Tucker escapes his surroundings and gets a sense of perspective through voracious reading. “I began to get a sense of where I was. It would eventually form one of the central lessons of my personal and professional life: I had been raised in the heart of the most racist state in America, and as a child, I had accepted the perverse as normal.” What “perversions” are he and Vita asked to accept as normal in Zimbabwe? Had they been able to stay in Zimbabwe indefinitely, as planned, do you think these perversions would have become more or less palatable to them?
3. Tucker writes: “I had the working idea that there was a higher form of truth to be found in the worlds most impoverished and violent places, a rough-hewn honesty that could not be found elsewhere. Life had a tautness to it there, a sheen that seemed to say something about the way the world was, not how anyone wanted it to be.” What do you think of Tuckers “working idea”? What toll does living in these conditions exact from him and his colleagues, and is it worth it? How does his idea evolve after he falls in love with Chipo?
4. Tuckers story graphically describes the horrors of the sub-Saharan AIDS epidemic, zeroing in on Zimbabwe, where AIDS has created a public health disaster on an unprecedented scale and where one in every four young adults is thought to be infected with the virus. But he touches only briefly on the social mores that have prevented most of the dying from ever being tested for HIV, as well as the Western ethical conflicts that have prevented a more aggressive anti-AIDS program from being introduced from abroad. Why do you think he keeps his opinions on these matters to a minimum? Would more political editorializing detract from Chipos story, in your opinion?
5. Why do the deaths of Ferai and Robert hit Tucker and Vita so hard? Are they naïve to be shocked by these fatalities? Tucker writes: “After Roberts death, something ticked over in me, in Vita, and in our relationship . . . his death seemed to hang over us, an unseen and unmentioned influence that seeped into our lives . . .” How does it affect them?
6. When Chipos HIV test comes back negative, Tucker and Vita are elated: “I kept staring at the test result as if it were a winning lottery ticket.” How would Tuckers memoir have been different if Chipo had been HIV-positive? Would their adoption process have proceeded any differently?
7. Six months before the parliamentary elections that will likely wreck havoc on all foreign journalists remaining in the country, and at the lowest point in Tucker and Vitas seemingly endless wrangling with the welfare system, Tucker makes an uncharacteristic, almost naïve statement: “We wanted her more than the department did and, eventually, desire trumps bureaucracy.” How do you explain this burst of optimism?
8. . Tucker is forced to make a chilling decision between possibly helping thousands of unknown children and concretely rescuing one specific child. “Perhaps I could have written stories that, by their detail and close reporting, might have led nongovernmental organizations or private individuals to designate lifesaving help for any number of children. I could have demonstrated how the governments decision to spend tens of millions of dollars to send troops to fight in another countrys civil war affected its own orphaned children. . . . But there was no point if it endangered the life of one child, one who meant more to me than all the others. I had broken the first rule of Journalism Ethics 101: Never get personally involved in a story you are assigned to cover.” Discuss the ethical implications of Tuckers decision.
9. When the state-owned Sunday Mail runs an article stating that the Zimbabwean government has run out of resources with which to handle orphaned children, and urging families and local communities to rally and “take the burden off Government and bring an end to the anguish of these children,” Tucker is floored, not only by the governments apparent “willingness to turn truth on its head,” but by its nonchalance in passing the buck to an already overextended public. Can you find any instances in the United States in the last fifty years, in which the federal government encouraged the privatization of matters some people consider to be the governments responsibility?
10. “Developing a detachment from the suffering you witness and write about is a professional necessity, of course, but it can also become a job hazard of sorts,” writes Tucker. “Its a steady erosion that diminishes your heart, drop by drop, bit by bit.” Discuss Tuckers sudden conversion to caring. Is the switch profound and permanent, or does his previous attitude linger? How does his transformation affect his ability to process stress? How does it affect his marriage?
11. Tucker describes how, despite Mugabes dramatic and carefully orchestrated campaigns to “whip up anti-American rancor,” most Zimbabweans simply didnt seem to care. How do you explain this public apathy?
12. Discuss how Tuckers history forms his unorthodox view of what constitutes a family-“something that goes beyond bloodlines and shared last names.” Is this attitude vital to successful adoption?