February 2004

Neely Tucker

An unexpected gift
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African orphan transforms the life of a foreign correspondent Neely Tucker, a foreign correspondent for The Detroit Free Press and Knight Ridder, was transferred in 1997 from his post as a roving reporter in Eastern Europe to Zimbabwe. When he wasn’t traveling on assignment in war-ravaged sub-Saharan Africa, Tucker and his wife, Vita, volunteered at an orphanage in the capital city of Harare.

The orphanage, probably the best in the country, was woefully underfunded. A shocking number of infants fell sick and died. Tucker and his wife began to care for one of the most gravely ill of these children, an infant girl named Chipo (which means "gift" to the Shona-speaking majority of Zimbabweans) who had been abandoned in a field just moments after she was born. Very quickly, the childless couple decided to adopt Chipo.

Love in the Driest Season: A Family Memoir is Tucker’s completely absorbing account of the couple’s efforts to overcome both a maddening social service bureaucracy and a deep cultural prejudice against foreign adoptions and gain Chipo as their daughter. Good writer that he is, Tucker also tells a story of larger and deeper human transformations.

"To say that this is an adoption book or a book about Africa is like saying The English Patient is about Egypt and World War II," Tucker says during a call to his desk at The Washington Post, where he has been a staff writer since returning from Zimbabwe in 2000. "Egypt and the war frame the experiences of the characters in that novel, just as the adoption and Africa framed my experiences. But what I hope people will understand this book to be about is a time in your life when you put everything on the table, when you just risk everything."

One of the most important things Tucker risked for Chipo and Vita was his career as a journalist. Being a reporter, Tucker says, "was not just a job I showed up to do. It was my life." And Tucker was not merely a journalist, but one of those rare journalists who sought the toughest assignments, who "had the working idea that there was a higher form of truth to be found in the world’s most impoverished and violent places, a rough-hewn honesty that could not be found elsewhere." As a result, some of the most horrifying and exalted moments in Love in the Driest Season are Tucker’s brief narratives about people and events he witnessed in war zones in Eastern Europe and Africa.

The decision to adopt Chipo complicated Tucker’s dedication to his work as a foreign correspondent. "I just didn’t think it was the responsible thing to do to spend my time that way anymore. The third time you’re in Bujumbura staying in the same crappy hotel doing another story that will run on page A15 while your only child in this life learns to smile or walk or has her first day in school, you start asking yourself why you’re doing this."

At the same time, the political situation in Zimbabwe was becoming darker. According to Tucker, Zimbabwe has long been considered "Africa 101. That is, it was as easy as Africa gets. The country worked pretty well, the literacy rate was pretty high, the hospitals were OK, you could go to the grocery store, pay with your credit card and get just about everything off the shelf there that you can get here." Beneath the social veneer, however, unnoticed by the casual tourist, AIDS was decimating extended families, which more or less functioned as the country’s social support network; families, hospitals and orphanages were overwhelmed. New and popular political parties challenged the corrupt regime of Robert Mugabe and Mugabe reacted by going after the messengers. Foreign journalists were intimidated. Tucker’s phone was tapped and his family was threatened. Not wanting to jeopardize the adoption, Tucker began to avoid reporting about Zimbabwe. "I think I’m harsher on myself than anybody at Knight Ridder would be," he says, "but from my standpoint, my career went down the tubes. Not in something I did but in something I didn’t do. I didn’t write untrue stories, but I just didn’t do my job." Tucker eventually took a leave of absence to complete the adoption.

The adoption transformed Tucker, but that is not the only transformation in this story. Tucker was born in the poorest county in Mississippi and as a child attended an all-white private academy. When, as a reporter, he was hired by the Free Press and moved to Detroit, he met and eventually married Vita, an African-American widow who remembered Mississippi from childhood trips as a place so "bad that as a black person from Detroit, you were actually grateful to get to Alabama." Neither family was thrilled with the marriage, but Tucker’s was the more resistant. "I told Vita when we got married that I never expected to be reunited with my family, and Vita said, well, you might just be surprised,’ " Tucker remembers. Because of her religious conviction, his mother eventually got a passport and flew for 14 hours to Poland, where the couple was living while Tucker covered Eastern Europe, and apologized to Vita. His father changed with the arrival of Chipo.

"My father had been abandoned by his old man when he was two days old, and he just identified immediately with Chipo," Tucker says. "He’s not a touchy-feely guy. He doesn’t talk about his emotions. He was a guy who had been abandoned by his father and had mentioned it only once to my mother. And he just took to Chipo."

Tucker writes in Love in the Driest Season that "race has been the defining issue of my life." In conversation, he says, "It would be silly not to be optimistic. From when and where I was raised and from when and where Vita was raised, it’s much better today, it’s insanely better, it’s ridiculously better."

And Chipo? She’s better too. "She knows absolutely everything about where she came from," Tucker says. "She’ll tell you she’s from Zimbabwe. She’ll tell you she’s a pretty girl from Africa. That’s how she’ll introduce herself." And that’s a happy ending to a pretty amazing story.

Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.


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