Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-96)
Nancy Sellin’s Avoid Mosquitoes and Other Impossibilities is a memoir of her Peace Corps service in Liberia in the 1960s and her life in general, with vivid insights into what it meant to be a young woman of that era. Being of “a certain age” myself I was painfully reminded of the pressures put upon young women by a male-dominated white society, the experimental phase of contraceptives when we all got fat and grouchy, the naïvete of sexual encounters that were either wanton or wanting, and the secret longing for adventure and liberation.
Nancy’s husband, Dale, convinces her to leave Alaska with him to join Peace Corps shortly after their marriage. They both have teaching assignments and while Dale is fulfilled in his structured high school, Nancy struggles with sporadic elementary classes where teaching is done by rote and with switches. She eventually holds lessons in her house for gregarious students as well as teachers who must leave their switches at the door. There is little conflict between the Sellins, their colleagues or neighbors and, in fact, their daily life is congenial and even easy by PCV standards. They live in what looks like a “modern ranch style house, love their cheerful, efficient houseboy and all the people who pass by their house with affectionate greetings on their way to fetch water. Cultural shocks such as people having more than one mate or putting a dozen red peppers into a stew resonate, typically, as eye-openers about moving beyond one’s limits and questioning one’s values. While each chapter is a fascinating, mostly humorous story of life in Liberia, a dark thread of Nancy’s dissatisfaction with her marriage and underlying depression weaves through the narrative. Finally, increasing migraine headaches and mood swings caused in part by those early contraceptives culminate in the Sellins’ early repatriation. Their marriage ends six years later and Nancy goes to New York to fulfill herself as an actress and to view her unforgettable experience in Liberia “through her own eyes.”
Sellin’s writing voice is clear, charmingly personal, sometimes self-deprecating (insisting on the folly of hair spray and padded bras in the African heat) and sometimes poetic (”Giant ceiling fans hovered over us like swooping eagles.”) She nimbly manoeuvers the reader back and forth between her distant past, her PCV present and her post-Peace Corps future. Her account of Liberia during the reign of President Tubman is a nostalgic document in view of the country’s long history of brutal conflict. She describes decent schools, peaceful villages and Monrovia as a relatively thriving capital. Near the end of their tour, Nancy and Dale agonize over their decision not to adopt a Liberian baby and many years later they “risk sadness and regret” wondering if she survived the decades of violence.
As a member of UNA/USA Sarasota I’m involved in a project to raise funds for education in Liberia. I also direct a book club for UNIFEM/USA and we recently read Helene Cooper’s The House on Sugar Beach: In Search of an African Childhood, a moving account of growing up innocent in Liberia and coming of age with Samuel Doe’s regime. Nancy Sellin’s book holds another mirror up to that tentative piece of history. It would surely be of interest to Friends of Liberia. Under President Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson Liberia is limping back to recovery and one sure sign of its progress is the fact that Peace Corps Response is paving the way for Peace Corps’ return.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations in New York and UNESCO in Paris, for international development programs at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of fifty-five, then went on to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002.