Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Book Review: The Scent of Water by Kelsey Klippenstein

The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken

            Prior to coming to Ghana our instructor had laid out about 15 books and asked each of us to choose one; she wanted us to read one of these novels to help improve and deepen our knowledge and understanding of African culture. At the time weight and space were precious packing commodities, so I grabbed the smallest one titled The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken by Naomi Zacharias. I remember thinking to myself that this book seemed pretty irrelevant based on the cover photo of bamboo in a pond and the description about brothels in Mumbai, tsunami survivors in Indonesian, and victims of domestic abuse. Little did I know, I would be very wrong.

            The Scent of Water is an autobiography of Ms. Zacharias’ life and her journey of finding herself largely through spirituality. It is told through heartwarming, heartbreaking, refreshingly and, at times, tragically honest stories about her life and the lives of women all over the world. These enthralling stories speak of prostitutes in the red light district of Amsterdam, of a 19-year-old waiting for a kidney transplant in Malaysia, of a chef who was a former drug addict and prostitute in South Africa, of burned brides in India, and many others with similarly disheartening descriptions.

            I began reading this book about two weeks into our trip and could not put it down; however, I could find very little connection between our trip and Ms. Zacharias’ stories. I told my roommate that I thought I would have to write an entire book review based on a description of India that paralleled Africa with images and sentiments that we all had felt in our first two weeks. The excerpt that I found most paralleled our vision of Ghana at that point is:

…leave your need for personal space behind, for at any given moment, whether enclosed in a taxicab or exposed on the street, you will be surrounded by men, women, children, …, exhaust fumes, …, and trash warmed by the blazing sun. It will fill and enhance your senses. It is a portrait of life at work with apparent beauty and glaring tragedy, and it asks you to look on it all. The heart of India is its people, and it is a heart like no other. It is rich, not from what it owns, but from what it will offer to you, even while you are still a stranger (p. 64).

There is another excerpt early in the book that struck a familiar chord, as most of us are in our very early twenties, full of hope and dreams that brought us to Africa: “…the one saving grace is ignorance. I’m convinced this is the magic of the early twenties, a naiveté that actually serves a purpose in propelling us to risk, to aspire, to dream. It’s what makes us really annoying, yet potentially successful” (p. 77). After having read the book at the beginning of our endeavors, I unfortunately thought that these short excerpts were all that the book had to offer me for relevancy; however, after being in Ghana for several weeks, I have come to recognize there was so much more to it than that.

As previously mentioned, the stories told by Zacharias have slightly alarming and potentially disheartening plots. During my first read of the book, that is exactly how I interpreted them. Now, having read them back with more experience under my belt, I see them with a new attitude and perspective. Where I had previously felt only tragedy in a mother losing two children due to drug habits and prostitution, I began to recognize a woman who was shocked into turning her life around. With help from Ms. Zacharias, this woman was able to return to culinary school and now runs a restaurant in South Africa with her two children at her side again. We have heard and seen countless heartbreaking stories through our work at 37 Military, but underneath what to us seems to be a tragedy, is also beauty. Some of the children and families we have seen seem to be happier than individuals we see in Canada, even with so few material possessions and money. As I said, though, this was not an overnight realization. It has taken several weeks of experience and a lot of time reflecting to even begin to understand this sentiment: to begin to simultaneously see sadness and beauty in the same situation. We are all slowly developing this attitude, this broader sense of seeing the world.

            There is one particular story in the book that I would like to share that resonated with me because of the nursing experiences several people in our group have had. Ms. Zacharias was visiting an orphanage for mentally and/or physically disabled children in South Africa and she noticed a young boy around 8 years old strapped to a board lying in the corner of the room. The workers suspected he had been dropped on his head as a child and consequently became a quadriplegic. Ms. Zacharias sat down beside him and as she wordlessly stroked his cheek, the little boy had silent tears streaming down his cheek, only breaking his gaze at the roof to look at her as she left. That night as she cried herself to sleep, she began to understand, as we have here, that although words may have been lost in translation, there is something much more powerful about human touch. It carries a much bigger meaning than any of us can truly understand. Several of our group members have learned this as they held the hand of a dying individual at 37 Military, unable to breach language barriers.

            Even though Ms. Zacharias’ stories often inspire feelings of hope, they also illuminate the elements of true sadness, poverty, and cruelty in the world. Some of these problems can have quick, simple solutions, while others are much more complicated but, “Once you have been made aware, you have a responsibility to care” (p. 163). I believe we all truly feel this way after having spent a relatively short 6 weeks in Ghana: that we will never stop caring about poverty we have seen here, and that in some way, we will all continue to try to help.

            I’d like to end with an explanation of the title, The Scent of Water, as I didn’t understand it until Ms. Zacharias explained it. Humans, like trees, develop roots and branches that will flourish and fall with different life events. Hope begins as a promise, much as even the scent of water acts as a promise to tree roots that there will be water and the roots “…will awaken and extend themselves – at the very hint of its refreshment and sustenance” (pg. 214). I like to think we have seen hope in Ghana in the patients healing in hospital, and that as nurses, we provide the promise of hope—that scent of water—through our daily work.


Zacharias, N. (2010). The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan

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