In 2006 I returned to Botswana after an absence of some years,
to begin research on a book about pain and laughter. On my first
weekend back, a dear friend invited me for lunch at her home.
She said she had been saving something for me, and she handed me a
huge, flat, brown envelope. Inside were the ct scans and X- rays of her
dead cousin, whom I had known long before as an energetic teenager.
On the ct images, a massive tumor could be seen pushing through the
colored slices of his head. She was unsure what to do with these pictures.
It seemed wrong to throw them out, but they also were too upsetting to
look at. Instead, she gave them to me, along with the story of his cancer.
She told me she was sure I would find a way to put them to good use.
In the coming days, other friends began to offer up cancer stories. Soon
these stories led me to the pain and laughter I sought, but also to a great
deal more.
This book is about a small cancer ward in Botswana. At this ward is a
white, European doctor who tends to suffering, (mostly) black patients.
The air is hot (in summer), and the sun bright. Some of the nurses are
big, angelic mothers with wonderful rolling laughter. In the country next
door, a murderous tyrant reigns. Uh oh. You might be worried already.
She’s written that book—the one Binyavanga Wainana warned us about
in his deadly hilarious satire “How to Write about Africa.” The book
wherein some undifferentiated Africa lies marked by depravity, afflic-
tion, and beauty, awaiting the salvation of an equally unmarked “West.”1
But take heart, and please do not misread the chapters that lie before
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