Reviewer Bryant Wieneke is the author of a series of suspense novels exploring the idea that a practical, effective and far less militaristic American foreign policy may be achieved through Peace Corps-like principles. These novels are available at www.PeaceRosePublishing.com.
Thirteen Months of Sunshine
Peace Corps Adventures in Ethiopia 1962–1964
by Patricia Summers-Parish (Ethiopia 1962–64)
Reviewed by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 1974–76)
Thirteen Months of Sunshine made me wish I’d been a better Peace Corps Volunteer.
Patricia Summers-Parish was living in Milwaukee in the summer of 1962 when she was inspired by President Kennedy to apply for the first Peace Corps program in Ethiopia. Sent to an 8,000-foot-high, overgrown mountain village called Dessie, she taught English to eighth graders in a classroom with no books and innumerable flies. It is the story of many Volunteers over the Peace Corps’ 50-year history, but the author’s unpretentious style and thoughtful observations draw you into the Ethiopian mountains.
Summers-Parish sets the stage - a young Christian woman from Milwaukee who loves to read sets fearlessly off to Georgetown for training, then off to Ethiopia. She tells her story through modified versions of her letters home, allowing her to stay in the moment as she recounts her adventures and describes the Ethiopian people. She begins her job, teaching English as a second language at Woizero Siheen Timherte Bet. There were eighteen PCVs in Dessie -more or less - while she was there, and their trials and tribulations form a part of Summers-Parish’s story. Her focus, however, is on her interactions with the locals as she becomes part of a remarkable community.
This is the part that makes me wonder if I could have made more of my own Peace Corps experience. I was in West Africa, not East, but I was also at a school, Institute Practique Pour le Developpement Rurale, with two other Volunteers, George and Bil. Even though we were only teaching how to plant rice, use a hammer, and place a yoke on oxen, we were told that we were “professors” and should therefore remain distant from the students. Friendly, but distant. We mostly did so, but was something lost in that distance?
If Summers-Parish ever received such an admonition from Peace Corps, she ignored it. Because there are thirteen months in its calendar, Ethiopia is known as “The Land of Thirteen months of Sunshine”; coincidentally, the locals’ name for Summers-Parish was “Tsahainesh,” which means “You Are Sunshine”. It is a fitting nickname given her temperament and willingness to get involved.
In the book there are tales of meeting Emperor Haile Selassie I, King of Kings and Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. The Volunteers also received visits from Sargent Shriver and Harris Wolford, as well as Norman Rockwell. (Yes, Normal Rockwell.) In one anecdote, the Ethiopian mountain community grieves when they learn that John F. Kennedy has been assassinated. In another story, the PCVs in Dessie report a thief who has stolen some of their property and are shocked to learn later that the man’s hand was chopped off as a result. The Volunteers help to build a school at a leprosarium.
Beyond the extraordinary in Thirteen Months of Sunshine was the ordinary, the day-to-day experiences of an American living in Ethiopia, sharing life with people who are so different and yet like us in so many ways. The great tragedy is the story of Lakech Ali, Summers-Parish’s favorite pupil, whom she cannot save. In the end, however, there is a message of hope because the author-Volunteer discovers she made a difference after all. Isn’t that what we’d all like to say about our Peace Corps experience?
In his recent posting, “Peace Corps Worldwide One Year Later,” John Coyne stated, “[M]ost of us lived ordinary lives in the developing world and it is only the gifted writer who can take that ordinary experience and turn it into memorable prose.” In Thirteen Months of Sunshine, I believe Patricia Summers-Parish has achieved the memorable.