In this groundbreaking narrative,

Longtime Washington Post journalist Craig Timberg and award-winning AIDS researcher Daniel Halperin tell the surprising story of how western colonial powers unwittingly sparked the AIDS epidemic and then fanned its rise. Drawing on remarkable new science, Tinderbox overturns the conventional wisdom on the origins of this deadly epidemic and the best ways to fight it today.

Recent genetic discoveries have traced the birth of HIV to the forbidding equatorial forests of Cameroon, where chimpanzees carried a nearly identical virus for millennia without causing a major outbreak in humans. During the Scramble for Africa near the turn of the twentieth century, colonial companies blazed new routes through the jungle in search of rubber and other riches, sending African porters into remote regions rarely traveled before. It was here, during the age of european conquest, that humans first contracted the strain of HIV that would eventually cause 99 percent of AIDS deaths around the world.

Western powers were key actors in turning a localized outbreak into a sprawling epidemic as bustling new trade routes, modern colonial cities, and the rise of prostitution sped the virus across Africa. Christian missionaries campaigned to suppress polygamy, but left in its place fractured sexual cultures that proved uncommonly vulnerable to HIV.  Equally devastating was the gradual loss of the African ritual of male circumcision, which recent studies have shown offers significant protection against infection.

Timberg and Halperin argue that the same Western hubris that marked the colonial era has hamstrung the effort to fight HIV. From the United Nations AIDS program to the Bush administration's historic relief campaign, global health officials have favored well-meaning Western approaches--condom promotion, abstinence campaigns, HIV testing, abstinence campaigns--that have proven ineffective in slowing the epidemic in Africa. Meanwhile they have overlooked homegrown African initiatives aimed squarely at the behaviors spreading the virus. 

In a riveting narrative that stretches from colonial Leopoldville to 1980s San Francisco to South Africa today, Tinderbox reveals how human hands unleashed this epidemic and can now overcome it, if only we learn the lessons of the past.

More About Tinderbox


  • "An essential and engrossing read...Extensively researched, eminently readable and accessible...a notable and invaluable addition."

    —Booklist, Starred Review
  • “Reads like a detective novel. The authors have clearly done important research and have brought together amazing stories, bits of history, and scientific perspectives.“

    —The New Yorker
  • "A strong warning to those who would disregard the cultural specificities of those one is trying to serve"

    —New York Times, Editors' Choice
  • "Absorbing interdisciplinary study...this timely exposé advocates practical solutions to a seemingly intractable problem."

    —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
  • "...laced with science - virology, epidemiology, the mechanics of circumcision - but the writing remains crisp and clear. The story is full of real, live people that help the reader understand African cultures, colonialism and the devastating effects of disease."

    —Concord Monitor

Tinderbox News

Events & Appearances

March 14, 2012
Foreign Policy Research Institute, 11:30 a.m.
March 20, 2012
Seattle, WA
As part of the Seattle Science Lectures, Town Hall location, 7:30 p.m.
March 21, 2012
Corte Madera, California
Book Passages Marin County location, 7 p.m.
April 3, 2012
Washington, DC
Politics and Prose bookstore, 7:30 p.m.
April 25, 2012
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Flyleaf Books, 7 p.m.
May 1, 2012
Durham, North Carolina
Regulator Books, 7 p.m.
July 25, 2012
Washington, D.C.
World AIDS Conference (Corcoran Art Gallery), 7 p.m.



About the Authors

  • Craig Timberg

    is the former Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post. from his position, he visited twenty-three African nations and penned dozens of major stories about AIDS. He is now The Washington Post’s deputy national security editor.

  • Daniel Halperin, PH.D.,

    is an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and has taught at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. He was a top technical adviser in the U.S. government’s PEPFAR program to combat AIDS.

Published by
The Penguin Press
212-366-2850 ppresspublicity@us.penguingroup.com