Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder has always been one of the no-brainer, must-reads for those interested in Haiti. As a result, I’ve read the book four times: when I first went to Haiti, a year after my first trip when I was still trying to figure Haiti out, again for a Haitian Creole class, and finally just now. I love to read and routinely pick well-worn books out of my library to randomly read several chapters before putting it away, but reading a book four times cover-to-cover in five years is pretty rare for me. Rare, that is, unless the book has ‘Harry Potter’ in the title. It may seem obvious that Mountains would be so popular – Kidder is a wonderful writer and Farmer’s story is truly unique. And if we are being honest, there just aren’t very many books on Haiti. This leaves a spot at the top of the literature for Mountains to fall into naturally.
But as you read Mountains Beyond Mountains you feel as if it is more than a story, not just a book or a record of what happened. What keeps me coming back to the book is the way Kidder provides us a true way to connect with Haiti and a way to be challenged by Paul Farmer to never let good enough be good enough.
Tracy Kidder describes the journey of Partners in Health, the non-profit that Paul Farmer heads to bring health care to the Central Plateau in Haiti, starting with Cange. The simple story is that when Farmer first arrives in Haiti, still a student, he struggles to find any clinics or hospitals that he can work at and respect. So of course he starts his own. And then expands and refines and expands and refines until they are international players able to change how the World Health Organization advises how to treat TB and how large drug companies charge the poor. Partners in Health grows in influence but at the same time Farmer advises the student doctors he teaches to never let their peasant patients feel as if you are in a rush or miss the opportunity to help their daily lives even in the smallest way.
Of course Kidder’s account of the story is much more moving and well researched than my version but I will always remember the “Ah-Ha” moments I gained. One small scene was more powerful and insightful than any Anthropology course my college could have taught. When Farmer questions a Haitian peasant’s dual belief in modern medicine and voodoo, she responds to him “Honey, are you incapable of complexity?” Kidder then goes on to detail Farmer’s revelation that Americans also hold “contradictory beliefs, such as faith in both medicine and prayer.” The mere word ‘voodoo’ often throws people off, as it did me, and alienates Haitians from ourselves but that is the magic of the book, the change you experience. Kidder and Farmer are able to make you understand people who, moments ago, seemed foreign.
Because of my own work in Haiti, this book has often inspired me to work harder and not be discouraged when problems arise because the end result is so much more important. I wish I could say that this is because Mountains Beyond Mountains will tell you it is easy and that you are doing such a good job. But the book is motivating for the exact opposite reason. Development work in Haiti is so essential because it is hard and dirty and there are those that truly, honestly, have nothing. By his example and words, Paul Farmer is the one that challenges you on your beliefs, the amount of work you are willing to do to help others, and the responsibility that falls on your shoulders.