John Ashford was a library director at Seattle Community College for almost twenty years when he decided he needed a change of scenery, a change of activity, and a dose of another culture. In preparation he obtained a certification as a teacher of English as a Second Language. Then, both he and his wife Genevieve ended their careers and went to Botswana in 1990 with the Peace Corps as teachers. John spent his two years as a lecturer in library studies at Tonota College of Education.
Facing the end of their Peace Corps service in Botswana, the Ashfords began making plans for travel with the purpose of learning more about the San, an indigenous people of Southern Africa — also known as the Kalahari Bushmen. Years earlier, while still in college, John had been introduced to the Kalahari Bushmen in an anthropology class and had retained a fascination with them. In Botswana, his curiosity was sparked when he read a newspaper article about an elderly white man named Freddy Morris who had been living with the Bushmen for over 70 years. When their tour of duty was complete, John and Genevieve set out to locate this man in the Kalahari Desert.
Ashford thought that meeting Freddy would be the culmination of his journey. Instead, Morris referred him on to John Hardbattle, a prominent activist on behalf of the Bushmen, and Ashford found himself plunged into a series of events where he received a whirlwind education about the life of the Kalahari Bushmen in the modern world.
Ashford took copious notes and made tape recordings during his travels, but he wasn’t sure how to approach writing about the experience. He returned to Seattle in 1993 knowing he had a story that he could turn into a book. In order to make it possible, he went back to school, enrolling in a writing program at the University of Washington, participated in classes at the Hugo House — a center for writers in Seattle, and along the way presented chapters of his future book and received feedback from a long string of writing critique groups.
By 2002 the story about the Ashford’s journey into the Kalahari Desert had grown to 400 pages in length. The feedback process resulted in the extraneous material being excised and the story cut to about half the length, but critique groups tend to look at single chapters isolated from the rest of the book. In 2013 Ashford realized that he needed to have someone work with him on the total manuscript. That meant he needed a good editor, and in July of that year, he began working with Mary Beth Abel. The Meeting the Mantis: Searching for a Man in the Desert and Finding the Kalahari Bushmen is now finished and in retrospect, it’s clear that the writing of the story took Ashford on another journey, one that lasted far longer than the one he took in the Kalahari.