An Imperfect Offering

An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action in the Twenty-First Century

James Orbinski: $22.00 trade paperback,
978-0-385-66070-9, 448 pp.,
Anchor Canada, 2009

How am I to be, how are we to be, in relation to the suffering of others?”

The question haunts James Orbinski, as it haunts many of us who look out on a world in need of humanitarian action.

In 1994, Dr. Orbinski went to Rwanda to serve as Chef de Mission for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/ MSF). He and his team stitched wounds and stemmed the flow of blood for thousands of victims during the dark months of genocide that saw millions of Rwandans heartlessly murdered, injured or displaced. Orbinski had worked in times of famine, war, and cholera, but the relentless brutality and cruelty of Rwanda overwhelmed him. He struggled with faith, politics and his personal sense of mission. How to be human in the face of such inhumanity?

In An Imperfect Offering, Orbinski finds the balance between dark truth and hope—a difficult challenge with subject matter that might make some readers want to turn away. We learn the bald details of his story but never want to disengage, and in fact, would find it difficult to disengage. Page after page we stay with him as he shares how it was and how he wishes it could be. “Why would I want to see the world any other way than the way it is,” he asks, and he compels his audience to do the same. The reader must share the journey through human darkness that we need to accept but don’t like to accept. But, ultimately, there is hope. “It is about a way of seeing that requires humility, so that one can recognize the sameness of self in the other. It is about the mutuality that can exist between us, if we so choose,” he says.

An Imperfect Offering is Orbinski’s deeply personal tale of the struggle between self-preservation and outreach, and how he manages to find both. His story spurs us to find our courage and let it live.

She was slightly older than middle-aged and had been attacked with machetes, her entire body rationally and systematically mutilated. Her face had been so carefully disfigured that a pattern was obvious in the slashes. I could do little more for her at that moment than stop the bleeding with a few sutures. We were completely overwhelmed. She knew and I knew that there were so many others. She said to me in the clearest voice I have ever heard, “Allez, allez. Ummera, ummera-sha”—‘Go, go. Courage, courage, my friend—find your courage and let it live.

At best we can make an imperfect offering, but an offering nonetheless. Orbinski says, “. . . no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on May 2, 2012, in Anchor Canada, Book reviews, Books I bought, Books to read again and again, Non-fiction, Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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