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Books: Of epidemics, loss and discovery in ‘African Pearl’

African Pearl small

CHRIS GILBERT finds Dr Pamela Brown-Peterside’s memoir, ‘African Pearl’, a timely read…

Pamela Brown-Peterside
African Pearl: AIDS, loss and redemption in the shadow of the Rwenzori Mountains
Instant Apostle, US, 2020

ISBN-13: 978-1912726202

African Pearl


“As the impact of COVID-19 reshapes our lives, Pamela Brown-Peterside’s memoir of protecting children from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the outback of Uganda is timely reading.”

As the impact of COVID-19 reshapes our lives, Pamela Brown-Peterside’s memoir of protecting children from the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the outback of Uganda is timely reading.  

African Pearl: AIDS, loss and redemption in the shadow of the Rwenzori Mountains leads us on her journey, among women in remote jungle communities as a new member of a long term medical-missionary team. For Brown-Peterside, the assumptions of her privileged Nigerian upbringing, her elite US education, a public health career in New York City, and her multiple citizenships are all confronted. Many unexpected encounters with the Ugandan people, their endemic diseases, their generosity, friendship, and their frequent deaths challenges the way she embodies her Christian faith.   

Brown-Peterside, a clinical practitioner and academic with a PhD is burned out from a decade of leading clinical research among HIV affected women in New York City’s Bronx neighbourhood, so she casts around for what’s next. A friend from her church tells her of the need for an epidemiologist in Bundibugyo, Uganda, where World Harvest Mission maintains a team of doctors.

Her mind is inclined to dismiss the opportunity, but the desire to use her training on the African continent proves stronger. She commits to a three month volunteer placement, like a working holiday. No great responsibility, just help the missionary medicos while she recovers from more than a decade of rigours on the frontline of AIDS prevention. And there’s the sense of God calling.  

The author paints us pictures of the African landscape through the delighted eye of the native born, not the foreigner. And yet, in meeting the local Ugandans she describes just the first of many realisations that will change the way she lives and works.

I blink back, wondering what theyre thinking, speculating about what they see when they look at this latest visitor…I want to reveal our shared African heritage, want to open my mouth and try to say something that will connect me to them, but I cant. Besides, the gulf between us is a chasm which extends far beyond the language barrier. My years of living in the US, my socioeconomic advantages and mixed-race heritage have conspired to construct differences. I nod and plant a big smile on my face. The moment passes and the midwife continues teaching. We move on.

When faced with a steady stream of almost daily contradictions to her expectations we discover her disclosing the confusion and weakness she feels which drives her to plumb what spiritual resources she has acquired. Transparent and disarmingly self-critical she becomes a helpful guide as she wrangles with hard feelings and her relationship with God, to maintain her purpose and equilibrium. 

When she finds herself left in charge of the HIV/AIDS project and the clinic for pregnant mothers with its staff of traditional birth assistants for most of the three-month volunteer period, itshould have been a deal breaker for her. Less than a month into her commitment, family crises called her roommate and then the missionary leaders back to the US. 

And then, after a year back in New York City in 2005, in part two of the story she returns to Bundibugyo on a two-year assignment having raised her financial support to establish that HIV/AIDS project for World Harvest Mission.

That’s when the story reads stranger than fiction. Through her journey over the next two years Brown-Peterside candidly contrasts her joy and gain with ever-present poverty, loss and pain. And when her goal is reached, handing off the project to the Ugandan Government to administer henceforth, a deadly epidemic of another kind, Ebola, creeps into Bundibugyo from the Congo bringing shattering loss.  

Before her mission is complete, she must surrender to mandatory evacuation. The lack of closure with those she served and may never see again is the catalyst for her well executed memoir – and the gain is not just for Dr Brown-Peterside but also for the reader. It seems no accident that Brown-Peterside is now a spiritual director, and leads the ministry of All Souls Serve the City, in London. 

The writer has known Brown-Peterside for 20 years, and contributed financially to her Ugandan mission.



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