Allen W. Fletcher was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard in 1969. He served in Senegal as a Communi ty Development Volunteer. Returning home, he earned a Master’s Degree in Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley (1984) and worked as a general contractor/designer/builder in Northern California. Recently he returned home and founded Worcester Publishing Ltd., publisher of several local newspapers and magazines. He is also an instructor at Boston Architectural College. His “Peace Corps stories” are published in this beautiful edition by his company, Worcester Publishing, and Lawrence F. Lihosti (Honduras 1975-77) has given it a glowing review. Take a look!
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
Allen W. Fletcher has written and published an extraordinary account of his service and in so doing, bears witness. Rather than write a chronological journal of his personal adventures and travails, he has followed the James Joyce model of offering epiphanies. Each one skillfully unveils a small truth about another culture and, of course, his ability to adapt. He recently explained, “The stories take the reader through a crop cycle and talk about all the major aspects of culture.” The book is an example of superb description wedded to sage experience and a keen editorial eye.
Written within three years of returning home, this volume demonstrates the power of editing. Nearly thirty-five years after its creation, Fletcher began the arduous task of culling. “I cut stuff that still pains me,” he confessed, “But I thought I had to streamline a bit.”
Fletcher treats us to a renewed sense of wonder. Each vignette has a topic which dances around the story. For instance the concepts of spirits, magic, and monsters are explored as well as home and family. By sharing, the author forces us to reflect upon our own lives and surroundings. My favorite, titled “Adjuma,” describes a local madman who often visited the author to ask for matches and during his stay sprinkled water on tree trunks while muttering. Another friend counseled, “Allah help you if you ever cut down a tree in that old fool’s presence.” Yet, each village had its idiot, usually someone who had forsaken tradition, gone to the big city to earn money, and was forever haunted by evil spirits who appeared to them as white men.
In another titled “Coq,” Fletcher recounts the tale of a wife-napping to illuminate the family’s sacred fire. “Each family had its rabbs, or spirits, which lived down in the ground among the roots of trees. In every compound, near the base of a tree, there would be a little cluster of old millet-pounding pestles buried in the earth stained with offerings.” The women “lived their lives at the heart of the compound at the source of the family power.”
The physical presentation of the book is unusual, with expensive, thick paper, balanced layout and high contrast portraits of his African neighbors. He recruited a designer to help guide cover production, layout, design illustrations, select paper and photographs. The photos are based upon 35 mm negatives, a lost art. “Film was precious. I had it developed in Dakar, so there was a two month delay in seeing the results.”As Robert Pirsig once wrote, “Quality…you know what it is.” Well, this is quality. These are not grainy photos of large groups of indistinguishable people but loving portraits. “They are pictures of friends,” he humbly explained. The result is a book most comparable to an expensive art book.
Fletcher waited to produce his book. His own life experiences since the Peace Corps aided him like muses. Reflecting on his Peace Corps work, he wryly explained, “We attempted a few projects. Mostly we simply lived there providing the Sengalese with a frequent source of amusement.”
As a debate takes place about the future of the Peace Corps, this book offers a clear message that the miniscule investment to send ambassadors of goodwill offers a wonderful prize: unique understanding and empathy. Can this be measured? Only as accurately as one could weigh a snowflake on an outstretched tongue. The question is, why measure? We all know what quality is.
The book is available from Allan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lawrence F. Lihosit works as an urban planner. Several of his literary books and pamphlets are available on-line at www.abookcompany.net.