Making a family in one of earth's most formidable places

As the Mugabe government turned hostile, an American journalist scrambled to adopt a little girl

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Every adoption of a child, like all momentous events in people's lives, has profound and moving elements. Sometimes they're worthy of a book, but they're not always worthy of a broad audience.

"Love in the Driest Season," at its core, is adoption literature. So, yes, it has the requisite tear-jerking moments. But there's more. Because of its epic weave - of African cultures and politics; AIDS and its destruction; and the interracial marriage of the author from a white racist Mississippi background and his wife from black Detroit - this story about the adoption of a tiny, critically ill Zimbabwean orphan appeals to the head as much as the heart.

In 1997, just about the time that American journalist Neely Tucker and his wife, Vita, arrived at his new assignment in Harare, a newborn baby, swarmed over by ants that had devoured part of her ear, was found under an acacia tree in the highlands of Zimbabwe.

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The AIDS epidemic was in full bloom at that point, leaving 10 million children orphaned in Africa. Chipo, as an orphanage administrator named her with the Shona word meaning "gift," was almost certainly the child of an HIV-infected parent. And, as statistics and conventional wisdom dictated, everyone believed Chipo was probably infected, too. This and the fact that adoption by foreigners was technically, if not legally, forbidden by President Robert Mugabe's nationalistic bureaucracy create an uncomfortable but compelling vise of suspense.

As the Tuckers settled into life in Harare, they decided to volunteer to work with orphans. Adoption was a distant goal but the idea, at first, was just to take babies home for weekend love and care, possibly leading to fostering, and later, maybe, adoption.

But as anyone who has ever adopted knows, once you touch a child's hand, look into her eyes, or catch the scent of his warmth, there's rarely any retreat from further engagement. In the Tuckers' case, it took only two grueling orphanage visits. After leaving the first without attaching to a child, Neely says, "I feel like I just kicked six kids off a lifeboat for the Titanic."

"And held them underwater, for a while," Vita adds.

It was Neely who first saw Chipo - mistaking her for a newborn, when in fact she was a sickly 3-month-old - down to 4-1/2 pounds, and losing. There's a moment in an adoptive parent's experience when the abstraction of the concept takes visceral, spiritual, and emotional hold, and this was it for him.

He'd spent a career believing he could find what was "true and honest" in the world by chasing stories in the most impoverished and violent places. It was like a drug that had blown all his emotional fuses, he writes, enabling him to hold a dying infant in Northern Bosnia, go home, file a story, and say, "It was 800 words and no big deal." But, at that orphanage crib, when Chipo's "finger closed over mine, some long-forgotten part of me seemed to stir," he writes.

A maddening knot of issues grew to block the family from becoming three - and it's inspiring if draining to watch Vita and Neely's elegant patience in untangling them without paying a bribe, throwing a punch, or clutching their baby and running for the border.

Just a sample of their frustration: At the 16th month of their adoption paperwork, when it's clear they must leave Zimbabwe because the Mugabe government is becoming hostile to foreign journalists, the original police report declaring Chipo abandoned went missing, technically making her ineligible for adoption.

Solution: Neely drove to the village police station where the infant was abandoned and scoured handwritten volumes of police reports to find it.

Another problem was the social workers, who are the key to the adoption process. They seemed to care less about keeping Chipo from foreign hands than assuring her a home, but they never once asked to see the baby. And because they didn't keep regular hours, Neely's solution was to camp out at their offices until they showed up.

Neely himself, though, in coming to grips with his own desire to stay on constant journalistic prowl was a frustration to Vita, who unexpectedly took Chipo into custody and 24-hour medical watch while Neely was away covering the terrorist bombing of the US Embassy in Nairobi.He was emotionally torn between job and family for a month before he could drag himself home.

Neely writes of those rare moments in life when "everything changes and you find yourself swept along in a series of events that are beyond your measure." His memoir will sweep you along, too.

Clara Germani is the Monitor's Op-ed editor and an adoptive parent.

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