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Searching for Sitala Mata: Eradicating Smallpox in India

By Davis, Cornelia E.

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Kirkus Review

By Kirkus Review

An American doctor tells of her experience fighting smallpox in India.In this debut memoir, Davis recounts the years she spent as a young doctor working with the World Health Organization in the 1970s. The book blends elements of travelogue, as Davis was determined to experience the country of India during her stay, with descriptions of administering a smallpox vaccine program, tracking the spread of disease in rural communities, and navigating post-colonial and intergovernmental bureaucracies. The author was the only African-American woman in a group composed largely of white American and European men, which offered her a unique perspective on the communities she worked with. However, as a Western woman, she faced some challenges in the field that her male colleagues didn’t (“Experienced field epidemiologists told me that I would ruin my kidneys and that I needed to drink more water. They were all men. Where was I to pee?”). She was exempt from many of the traditional local restrictions placed on women, though, and at times her complexion allowed her to pass as Indian and access dangerous areas that the WHO had forbidden its staff to enter. As a Catholic, she found lodging and friendship among the rural missionaries, and she writes movingly of a visit to Mother Teresa’s hospice. She draws a vivid picture of India and the regions she worked in, from West Bengal (“the kaacha roads, the heavily overloaded bullock carts headed for market, the bicycle rickshaws vigorously moving in and out of the congested traffic, and the ubiquitous sacred cow just wandering down the middle of the road”) to Rajasthan (“I met children living in the desert who were ten years old and had never seen rain”). Her descriptions of small details of daily life will allow readers to easily picture the world that she encountered 40 years ago. An engaging, readable depiction of the foreign-aid worker experience.

By IndieReader

“A compelling, though imperfectly-told, true story of one brave woman’s role in eradicating smallpox in India.  SEARCHING FOR SITALA MATA is the true story of a remarkable woman making medical history, and for that reason it’s worth reading.”

IndieReader Approved: 4.7 out of 5 Rating
2019 B.R.A.G. Medallion Award
Semi-Finalist, 2019 Kindle Book Award

Sent by the World Health Organization to assist the Ethiopian government in preventing meningitis outbreaks in 1990, Dr. Cornelia Davis eagerly accepted this posting. She headed to Addis Ababa, unaware of an obscure war that had gone on for two decades. The doctor had an ulterior motive — she wanted to adopt an infant girl. While providing expert assistance to control epidemics in several countries, Connie submitted her adoption application. Rebels captured previous strongholds of the Ethiopian government and the Prime Minister fled. Connie was left in charge of the WHO EPR Unit. The airport closed and the rebels entered the capital. In the midst of this chaos, Davis was approved to look for an orphan. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as you read about the explosive series of events which destroyed Connie’s house and led her to an infant girl found on the steps of St. George Cathedral. One look, and Connie knew she had found her daughter. Five days later, she was ordered by WHO to evacuate to Geneva. But not without her daughter!


Chloe Rabinowitz for IndieReader

Starting from Dr. Davis’–Connie as she prefers to be called–first days spearheading the development of guidelines for preventing, controlling, and responding to meningitis outbreaks, the memoir sweeps the reader through the gamut of life events, both the every-day and the monumental. From nearly being killed in the explosion of an underground ammunition depot, to risking her life assisting a family caught in the crossfire of the conflict, the stakes are consistently high in this thoroughly detailed memoir. Through all of this, she is eventually led to the most life-altering event of all–her fateful discovery of the little girl who would one day become her daughter.

Undoubtedly one of the best elements of the story is the hope, determination, and patience Davis displays during the lengthy process of looking to adopt a baby. When she finally meets the infant who will become her future daughter, a beautiful baby girl orphaned during the height of the conflict and brought to the local hospital, it is hard not to believe in the power of faith and purpose. Davis’ wonderful attention to detail only made me wish that there had been as much time spent on those special moments of new motherhood as there was on the buildup to it.

Both the storytelling and the story itself is impressive in this memoir. The pacing is great, weaving the reader seamlessly through the culture, the language, the traditions, and the everyday experience of living and working in the capital of Ethiopia during the apex of the Ethiopian Civil War. This story provides an interesting perspective on a time and a place that few people would be able to tell– and certainly not as colorfully and comprehensively as Davis manages to tell it.
Equal parts engrossing and inspiring, Cornelia E. Davis delivers a memoir rich in adventure, culture, and immersive storytelling in THREE YEARS IN ETHIOPIA: HOW A CIVIL WAR AND EPIDEMICS LED ME TO MY DAUGHTER.

Kirkus Reviews

In this memoir, a doctor recounts working in Ethiopia as its civil war rises to a fevered pitch and her struggle to leave safely with an infant girl she intends to adopt.

Davis (Searching for Sitala Mata, 2017) longed for a respite from her work as a physician for UNICEF in Senegal, and headed for Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. But she had more than restorative leisure on her mind–she was interested in pursuing a position with WHO as an epidemiologist battling the spread of meningitis, a deadly problem throughout Africa. In addition, she wanted to adopt a child, specifically an infant daughter… And armed rebels in the north agitating for political autonomy were increasingly making progress… The situation in the capital worsened with alarming speed, until the American embassy, followed by the United Nations, ordered the evacuations of nonessential personnel, a deterioration portrayed by Davis with the artful drama of a novelist. Obeying some inner voice, she chose to stay, a moment poignantly conveyed in her memoir: “I replaced the phone in its cradle and took a deep breath. I sat there letting the enormity of the situation sink into my brain. I had just volunteered to stay in a war zone because my intuition was telling me to stay.”

The story is a gripping one, and crescendos with the doctor ultimately meeting the orphaned child she knew “in an instant” would be the girl she would adopt. In addition to a riveting account of her personal experiences, a recollection aided by black-and-white photographs from various sources, Davis also provides a thoughtful synopsis of the history that led Ethiopia to such peril.

A thrilling war remembrance, as moving as it is historically instructive.