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Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir

Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir

by Neely Tucker

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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 country's 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


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 country's 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, Chipo's true story emerges as an inspiring testament to the miracles that love-and dogged determination-can sometimes achieve.

Editorial Reviews

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It isn't often that we find a heartrending book about a man trying to balance work and family life. But in his remarkable memoir, journalist Neely Tucker recounts the overwhelming obstacles he and his wife, Vita, faced while trying to adopt an abandoned newborn. Tucker was a foreign correspondent based in Zimbabwe in 1997, when the true extent of the AIDS crisis was just becoming evident. One of its legacies was a huge increase in the number of African orphans and abandoned children (over 10 million) as young parents fell victim to the disease. Neely and Vita volunteer at an orphanage, where they meet the dehydrated, dying Chipo (whose name means "gift"), and they decide to try to adopt her. Their plan, however, is thwarted by a government fiercely opposed to foreign adoptions.

Indifferent bureaucrats refuse the Tuckers' requests for appointments and routinely lose their file. Problems escalate when Robert Mugabe's government begins to arrest journalists for publishing unflattering articles. And Tucker realizes that anything he writes could eliminate his chance to adopt the little girl who has stolen his heart.

An endearing memoir, Love in the Driest Season succeeds as political history, and as a unique exploration of race relations. Ultimately, it will steal readers' hearts. (Winter/Spring 2004 Selection)

The Washington Post
Tucker's writing is taut and vivid as he narrates his and his wife's tumultuous quest to adopt Chipo … This book is billed as "A Family Memoir," but it is a cross between a foreign correspondent's dispatches and a family tale. Nor is Love in the Driest Season etched with the literary filigree that marks other books in the genre. But that does not diminish its importance and certainly not its readability. Ultimately it is the story of the evolution of a mother and father, whose determination to save a doomed child makes that child theirs. — Adam Fifield
Publishers Weekly
As a foreign correspondent, Tucker had worked in conflict zones on two continents and seen death in all its gruesome forms. "The steady stream of violence had worn away my natural sense of compassion to the point where I could cover almost any horror but felt very little about anything at all." Then, in 1997, Neely, a white Mississippian, and his African-American wife, Vita, were posted to Zimbabwe, where the AIDS crisis was feeding an unprecedented wave of sick and abandoned children. "The scale of death, and the depths of misery it entailed, defied the imagination even for someone like me...." Neely and Vita volunteered at an overwhelmed orphanage in the Zimbabwean capital, where diarrhea and pneumonia were killing babies at an alarming rate. Nobody dared whisper the word AIDS, though its specter hung over every crib. Here, Neely and Vita met Chipo, a desperately sick baby girl who had been abandoned under a tree. With temporary permission to take her home, Neely and Vita threw all available resources toward saving her life: round-the-clock feedings, good doctors, medicine and a clean, warm environment. She thrived. Neely and Vita decided to adopt Chipo, only to discover a slew of cultural taboos against adoption by foreigners-a white foreigner in particular. While Chipo grew healthy and fat under their care, the Tuckers negotiated a nightmarish bureaucracy that threatened to tear Chipo away from them; meanwhile, Zimbabwe was entering a period of civil unrest that targeted Americans and journalists. This is a gorgeous mix of family memoir and reportage that traverses the big issues of politics, racism and war. Agent, Wendy Weil. (On sale Feb. 17) Forecast: Crown will support Tucker's book with a regional NPR campaign, six-city author tour and print advertising. Tucker's current position (he's a staff writer for the Washington Post) should help him garner further attention. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
While a foreign correspondent for the Detroit Free Press in the late 1990s, Tucker and his wife, Vita, volunteered at an underfunded, overburdened orphanage, populated by desperately ill babies, most abandoned at birth, in the capital of Zimbabwe. On a fostering arrangement, they took one infant home for a weekend-and bonded with her thoroughly. This enthralling memoir recounts the Tuckers' struggle to adopt baby Chipo. In AIDS-ravaged, politically tense Zimbabwe, adoption by foreigners, especially Americans, is all but nonexistent. Additionally, during the Tuckers' sojourn, foreign journalists were deemed unfriendly to the vulnerable administration of President Robert Mugabe. Interspersed with recollections of the horrific scenes of carnage Tucker witnessed and covered, the struggle for Chipo forces consideration of the drive to save one child while many are dying. The story also touches on the challenges of interracial relationships and contrasts black Africans and African Americans; the author is white, from rural Mississippi, and Vita is black, from Detroit, yet in many ways she is more akin to his Deep South family than to her Zimbabwean neighbors. All this plus the impassioned story of a family facing recalcitrant bureaucracy and political pressure fill this brief book to bursting, but there are certainly no dull passages. Wholeheartedly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/03.]-Janet Ingraham Dwyer, Worthington P.L., OH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This is the riveting account of how two Mississippians, newspaper reporter Tucker, who is white, and his African-American wife, Vita, adopted a baby. Shortly after their marriage, he was posted to Harare, Zimbabwe, where thousands of children have been orphaned by AIDS and extended families are overburdened with their care. One day, a newborn was rescued from abandonment in the bush and brought into the orphanage where the Tuckers were volunteering. Chipo was tiny and close to death, but she latched onto Neely's finger, and he fell in love with her. The couple were told that it's practically impossible for foreigners to adopt a Zimbabwean baby, but they decided to try. Neely traveled around Africa, reporting on uprisings, massacres, and genocides. Intermittently, he returned to Harare to deal with the rigid, arrogant social-welfare bureaucracy and the horrible sadness of the children dying in the understaffed orphanage. Through patience, political savvy, and the help of sympathetic social workers, he was able to get the necessary papers to adopt the child. The story offers insights into interracial marriage, African politics, and daily life in a Third World country. Teens are sure to be fascinated by the Tuckers' experience.-Penny Stevens, Andover College, Portland, ME Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut memoir by Washington Post staffer Tucker describes his attempt with his wife to adopt a sick and abandoned child, setting their saga against the backdrop of Zimbabwe's social disintegration. Tucker had seen his share of desperate locales during his years as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa for the Detroit Free Press. A white man who grew up in Mississippi, Tucker in 1998 was living with his Detroit-born, African-American wife Vita in Harare. The Zimbabwean capital was devastated by AIDS: perhaps as much as one-quarter of the population between 25 and 44 had the disease, young parents were dying in droves, and the nation's traditional social welfare net, the extended family, was overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of abandoned children. Neely and Vita were working as volunteers at the Chinyaradzo Children's Home when an infant girl, only days old, was brought in. She had been left in chest-high grass a mile from the nearest village. Tucker's description of their efforts to adopt Chipo (as the orphanage's matron named her) limns a situation that was part theater of the absurd, part theater of cruelty. Social norms and suspicions conspired to thwart the couple's every good intention; the simple fact was, he writes, "[Zimbabwe President] Mugabe's administration wanted very little to do with Americans" and was particularly hostile to foreign journalists. Files were lost and found, the Tuckers were accused of trying to buy the child, the police harassed them. Neely's position as a correspondent became ever more tenuous; he ultimately chucked his job to concentrate on the adoption process. His tale of love in a time of great political unease has a happyending when the couple finally flies out of Harare with Chipo eight days before Zimbabweans reject Mugabe's autocratic new constitution and his followers erupt in violence. The resilient lilt to Tucker's writing allows him, and the reader, to negotiate even the direst moments without despondency. Author tour. Agent: Wendy Weil
From the Publisher
“A triumph of heart and will.” —O, the Oprah Magazine

“An extraordinary book of immense feeling and significant social relevance. Love in the Driest Season challenges anyone—even those numbed by the world’s abundant cruelty—not to care.” —Washington Post

“Unceasingly compelling and filled with soaring highs and lows, Love in the Driest Season is a remarkable memoir of love and family.” —Pages

“A gorgeous mix of family memoir and reportage that traverses the big issues of politics, racism, and war.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Utterly heartfelt and truly inspiring.” —Booklist (starred review)

“Tucker’s hard-hitting memoir . . . is an almost unbelievable tale of bureaucracy, lunacy, and love. The suspense is stomach-wrenching and infuriating.” —Orlando Sentinel

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.92(d)
1040L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt


By noon, the ants found the girl-child.

Left to die on the day she was born, she had been placed in the tall brown grass that covers the highlands of Zimbabwe in the dry season, when the sun burns for days on end and rain is a rumor that will not come true for many months. She had been abandoned in the thin shade of an acacia tree, according to the only theory of events police ever put forth. There were no clues as to exactly when she was left there, or why, or how, or by whom. She just appeared one day, like Moses in the bulrushes.

Patches of dried blood and placenta streaked her body. Her umbilical cord was still attached, a bloody stump dangling from the navel. A colorful yank of fabric, such as might be found in a store that sold such things by the yard, was wrapped around her torso.

Dozens of miles from any paved motorway, and nearly a mile from the nearest village of mud-and-thatch huts, she lay hidden in chest-high grass. The ragged clumps of acacia reached overhead. In the first glow of day, when night was fading but the sun had yet to climb above the horizon, it was a place of shadows and limited vision.

The ants came from everywhere.

They set upon the blood and the remnants of the placental sac. Dozens, if not hundreds, poured over the fleshy stump of the umbilical cord. They began to eat her right ear.

The girl-child screamed.

The sun rose in the sky.

The hours passed.

There is a wind that moves through the high grass at that time of year. It makes a whisper of its own, a feathery undertone that rolls over the landscape and drifts through the trees. Some people from the village who were walking along the footpaths thought they heard a child's cries above the rustling, but no one stopped. There are many portents the ancestral spirits sometimes use to communicate with the living, and the mysterious, disembodied voice of a child on the upper reaches of the breeze carried an ominous sense of foreboding. The women kept walking, making for a concrete-block country store several miles away. They went there for sugar and salt and dry goods. Men went for the fat brown plastic jugs of traditional beer that smelled sour and left seeds between the teeth, but which carried a haze that melted the corners of the afternoon.

Late in the day, the sun fading away to the west, a woman named Constance paused on the path. She listened above the breeze. She waded into the grass, parting it with her hands, stopping, listening again. She moved to the clump of acacias. What she saw sent her stumbling backward, and then she turned and ran for the village. She found Herbert, the village elder, and dragged him back by the sleeve.

He moved into the grass, reached under the branches, and picked up the wailing infant. Then he sent a young man running for help.

"She was very dirty; there was dust all over her, her face. And the ants were running over her head, really biting into her ear," he would later say. "She was crying, crying. Eh-eh! Crying all the time. I picked the ants off her. We brushed the dust from her, though we could not get her clean."

In the time of AIDS in southern Africa, adrift on the tide of the deadliest disease to wash over humanity since the bubonic plague, the child who would change my life hung on to Herbert like a survivor from a shipwreck. She was one of an estimated ten million African orphans whose lives in the waning days of the twentieth century had been altered, if not devastated, by the AIDS epidemic. By the winter Herbert held her aloft in the late afternoon sunlight, Zimbabwe had become ground zero of a worldwide crisis. About one in four Zimbabweans between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four was thought to be HIV-positive, the highest rate in the world, along with next-door Botswana. The government and various United Nations agencies estimated that five hundred people were dying of the disease each week, a fatality every twenty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Newspaper obituary columns were filled with memorials to young people who died after a short illness, a long illness, a sudden illness. The morgue in Harare, the Zimbabwean capital, began to stay open all night.

And still the bodies came.

No one knows exactly how many, for few of the dying ever knew or admitted to having the disease. Most, in fact, had never been tested. But the death toll was nearly some six hundred thousand since the disease was first recognized in the early 1980s. Zimbabwe's average life span plummeted from fifty-six years to thirty-eight, one of only five countries in the world to have a life expectancy of less than forty.

Young parents died in the tens of thousands, giving rise to a corresponding tide of orphans. There were perhaps 200,000 in 1994. Four years later, in a nation of 11 million, there was a flood of 543,000 children who had lost either their mother or both parents. This overwhelmed the traditional African social welfare net, the extended family. Zimbabwean uncles and aunts, grandparents, and cousins came forward in astounding numbers, but too many young parents had died. By the winter of 1998, children were being abandoned in record numbers across the country and the region. In Lusaka, the capital of neighboring Zambia, there had been an estimated thirty-five thousand street children in 1991. By 1998, there were more than seventy-five thousand and the number was climbing. In a remote province of Zimbabwe, Herbert was holding one of dozens of infants who had been flung into garbage bins, slipped into sewers, or left behind in open fields in a six-month period in that province alone. It was anyone's guess how many had been abandoned in the entire country.

The scale of death, and the depths of misery it entailed, defied the imagination even for someone like me, who had chronicled some of the world's deadliest conflicts for the better part of a decade. Before joining the Washington Post, I was a foreign correspondent for the Detroit Free Press, first assigned to a roving post based in Eastern Europe in 1993, then to sub-Saharan Africa in 1997, based in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare. I roamed more than fifty countries or territories in seven years, from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Congo to Iraq to Rwanda to Nagorno-Karabakh to southern Lebanon to the Gaza Strip, a steady parade of greater- and lesser-known wars, riots, and rebellions. As the body counts multiplied, I tried to ignore the physical, mental, and emotional toll such work had begun to exact from me. My body had been riddled by typhus, food poisoning, and repeated viral infections; my hair turned completely white. The steady stream of violence had worn away my natural sense of compassion to the point where I could cover almost any horror but felt very little about anything at all. Sleep was either a blessed blank space or a disturbing hallway of nightmares. I woke up one morning to discover I had lost my religious faith, as if it were a suitcase left behind in a distant airport.

On the rare occasions I was home in Harare, my wife, Vita, and I began to volunteer at Chinyaradzo Children's Home, an orphanage set in an industrial slum on the south end of town. We could have no children of our own, a peculiar form of emptiness, and were touched by the fate of children who had no parents. In any event, we did what we could, and mostly that wasn't much. Thirty-five infants died in twenty-four months. Tatenda. Godfrey. Ferai. Robert. Caroline. Clara. A little girl with the sweetest name of Rejoice. They withered and died like flowers in the field. It is difficult to express the sorrow of such a thing. I witnessed all manner of death and human cruelty in my years as a foreign correspondent. I never learned to describe what it is like to see dead children in your dreams.

So in the final years of the century, with Zimbabwe falling into political and economic collapse, we began to devote a good deal of our time and resources to the orphanage as a means of becoming personally engaged in the despair sweeping the nation. Vita eventually got a $7,000 grant from the U.S. embassy, a fortune in local terms, in an effort to slow the mortality rate. We refurbished the kitchen and changing room, bought boxes of sanitary supplies, and brought in the nation's best pediatric cardiologist to train the staff, yet it was like plugging a dike with a finger. Zimbabwe was spending the equivalent of twelve cents per day to feed, clothe, house, treat, and educate each orphan, a hopelessly small sum against the ravages of malnutrition, diarrhea, dehydration, and AIDS.

In that miserable season, lost among the many in the orphanage, lay the girl-child Constance and Herbert discovered. She had fallen ill almost the day she was admitted. Her tiny stomach was bloated and distended, her arms and legs withered. She developed pneumonia. She could scarcely hold her milk. She had never smiled. Her weight dropped below four pounds, three ounces.

And still she wasted away.

There are moments in life, no more than two or three, when everything changes and you find yourself swept along in a series of events that are beyond your measure. And so it was that I picked up the girl-child one day in an orphanage at the epicenter of the world's AIDS crisis, in a country where foreign journalists, including myself, would shortly be declared to be enemies of the state. She regarded me with worried eyes and a whimper, and then she closed her left hand around my little finger.

Within ninety-six hours, she would come to mean everything to my wife and me, since she became, for as long as she should live, our only child.

Meet the Author

Neely Tucker is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his family.

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