10/03/2006 06:58 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fearless Friendship: Monique and the Mango Rains

Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali by Kris Holloway bookcover.jpg

I love the music of Mali. Love how the songs of Ali Farka Toure and Boubacar Traore are about community --- farming and water and schools. And a passionate, exciting CD called Divas of Mali taught me that however poor Mali is --- and it's the fifth poorest nation on the planet --- women in Mali are encouraged to sing. And is that not positive as well?

When she got her letter from the Peace Corps in 1989, a college senior named Kris Holloway knew a few things about Mali I seem to have overlooked. Like: Forget singing --- it's a particularly hard place for women. Most marry by 18 and have 7 children. Mortality rate for pregnant women: about 1 in 12, among the 10 highest. Genital cutting? In Mali, it's almost universal.

And yet here is Monique Dembele, the young midwife in Nampossela, doing amazing work against ridiculous odds. The town's birthing house stinks. A storm has ripped off a corner of the roof. The heat is oppressive. But it is one place where men may not go --- though she has little medicine and modest training, Monique rules here.

The Peace Corps has sent Kris --- the first white person ever to live in this village of 1,400 --- to be Monique's assistant. The friendship is instant. But who wouldn't be inspired by Monique? She has an unfaithful husband. Her father-in-law, a village elder, gets her pay and skims off so much for himself and his son that she can't take good care of the household. And yet Monique is one of life's ebullient spirits: ever-positive, warm-hearted, always looking to help others.

This book is many things --- a reminder of our good fortune in the West, a granular look at another culture, an appreciation of the rich variety of human experience --- but I like it best as an account of a friendship. Kris shares the story of her romance with another Peace Corps volunteer in Mali; he's now her husband. And she becomes the "beard" for Monique's visits to the city where her true love works.

Every aspect of life is magnified and clarified in stories like this, if only because nothing can be taken for granted. "I have never lived so close to death," Kris writes. "Death here was not quarantined, something that only took place in slaughterhouses and hospitals, that only occasionally escaped in the form of car accidents. It was in every home, all the time."

Not that this is a grim book. Kris makes a grammatical mistake that becomes a legendary joke in Nampossela. Monique finds a way to get ripe mangoes from the treetops without having to climb up. And the dancing is soul-stirring.

In the end, though, it's the work that keeps Kris in Mali, and the work that binds her to Monique. They're a formidable team --- when they decide to upgrade the birthing house, you'll be completely convinced they can get it done. (And you'll be stunned when you find out what stands in the way of its rehabilitation.) And when a door closes, a window opens. There's always another project --- like a communal garden where the vegetables are earmarked for babies.

The last third of the book is a great reversal of fortune. No spoilers here, but you will want Kleenex handy. To say nothing of a sense of outrage --- these pages will surgically remove any residual feelings that it's too hard to change things, that it's best to look only after your own interests.

I read something in The New York Times real estate section that kept surfacing as I read this book. An agent was showing a New York woman and her husband a $3 million house in the Hamptons. The wife didn't find it adequate. So she snapped at her husband: "If you'd only make something of yourself, we wouldn't have to live like this!"

In Mali, Kris lived in a dump of a house, with vipers and cobras as neighbors. What Monique put up with --- much, much worse. But they had mutual respect and a true mission and a love for children. They could live badly and still live well.

When our daughter is old enough to understand how that works, I'll give her this book. You might want to do the same for your daughters --- and for yourselves. The midwife in Mali has much to teach us.

--- Courtesy of