Imagine that you are in the feeding centre for small children of a refugee camp in a war torn zone of an African country. Because food supplies are so low, every day you have to chose a few babies or very small children you can admit to the centre in a long line of desperate parents. You make these life and death decisions every day. It tears your heart out. Yet there is no alternative.
This is the situation Claire Bertschinger lived through in the famous Mekele camp during the Ethiopian civil war in 1984. Michael Buerk of the BBC filmed her. Bob Geldof happened to see the report. He was so moved by Claire’s reply he there and then started the famous worldwide Live Aid which finally brought the needed relief.
This is a book about an amazing woman who as a young girl decided she was going to live a life of adventure and service as a nurse, and worked in some of the world’s hottest spots: Lebanon, Ethiopia, Uganda, S. Sudan, Afghanistan, to mention just a few, where brushes with death were almost daily occurrences. From the very first pages describing the Mekele camp, the reader is plunged into a world of suffering and turmoil, but also bravery, courage, unbelievable resiliency and many moments of great warmth, humanity and even laughter.
Claire speaks of the time she was talking around a camp fire in Afghanistan (where she fell in love with a mujahidin fighter) to a group of warlords, explaining how she was trying to help their people. One of them asked : ‘How can you, a gentle woman, make any difference to this situation, Miss Claire?’ Claire’s reply was simple. ‘There is nothing sweeter, gentler or softer than water,’ she said, ‘But water has the power to move mountains.’
This is a book about the power of intention and the joy of service.
The power of intention
As a child, Claire suffered from dyslexia, which was not yet recognized as a handicap. However, her goal of a life of nursing in adventurous settings was so strong it enabled her to overcome this major handicap. One of the more memorable experiences of her early adulthood, soon after ending her nurses’ training, was a two year round the world sailing trip in a 150 ton brigantine, The Eye of the Wind, which followed the route taken 400 years earlier by Sir Francis Drake in The Golden Hind. The aim of the expedition was to develop self-confidence and leadership in young people by involving them in adventure, scientific exploration and community service in different parts of the world. Claire was one of a small group selected among fifty thousand applicants from all around the world.
The joy of service
Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian writer and poet, once wrote:
I slept and dreamed that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was service,
I acted and behold, service was joy.
Despite the extreme conditions she lived through, including constantly facing death, there is an undercurrent of joy and warm humanity that undergirds her life of service.
For instance, Claire remembered the day she was interviewed by Michael Buerk (‘their appearance was just a blink in the day’, she recalls), because she took a baby with a dangerously low haemoglobin count to the local hospital. There she discovered she was of the same blood group as the baby, and simply gave him a unit of her own blood. The hospital staff later told Claire they had no more blood, so could not give transfusions to the war wounded. She cornered the doctor, reminding him they lived in a town of 50,000 inhabitants. ‘He looked at me, a slip of a girl in a cotton dress, and smiled in disbelief … Ten minutes later, I was back with ten ‘volunteers’ from the military camp on the edge of town. How could they refuse when I told them I had given blood myself, and me just a woman?’
An especially moving part of the book is when Claire returns to Ethiopia, 20 years after the original BBC interview, with the same Michael Buerk. For twenty years, she had sat on the remorse and guilt she had felt from playing God every day, deciding which children should be taken in, and which left to die. She was welcomed back with open arms, and called Mama Claire by some of the very people she saved from death.
This passage cannot fail to have a strong appeal on many readers, because so many of us live with repressed experiences from the past. In an especially moving passage, Claire explains how facing her self-createdfeelings of guilt, she could finally enjoy the memory of the love she had given and received in the midst of such a disaster.
Claire now lives in England, where she works at the School of Tropical Medicine. She has received numerous distinctions and prizes, including the prestigious Florence Nightingale Medal which honours people who have distinguished themselves by ‘exceptional courage and devotion … exemplary services or a creative and pioneering spirit’.
This book moved me in a special way, because it made me realize the ‘might of tenderness’: I could see this petite (barely five feet) nurse facing these swarthy, fierce looking warlords in Afghanistan covered with grenades and Kalashnikovs and fearlessly arguing with them on her need to urgently reach some destination; it made me still more sensitive to the deeper meaning of the statement by the well-known Indian spiritual teacher Satya Sai Baba, ‘The hands that help are holier than the lips that pray,’ i.e. that love in action is the highest form of spiritual achievement (and this can be expressed in many ways, including spiritual healing).
Finally, Claire’s ability to have moments of fun and enjoyment in even the most desperate situations and environments is a powerful testimony to the vibrancy and vitality of life, which ultimately can never be extinguished.
If you want to read a book that uplifts your spirit and strengthens your deep trust in our ability get out of our comfort zones to help change the world, order Moving Mountains today!
Editor’s note: Pierre is Claire’s uncle.