one-hand-does-not-140One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalo: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Volume One, Africa
Edited by Aaron Barlow (Togo 1988–1990); Series editor Jane Albritton (India 1967–1969)
Travelers’ Tales
May 2011
452 pages
$18.95

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–2002, Madagascar 2002–2003)

ONE HAND DOES NOT CATCH A BUFFALO: 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories: Volume One, Africa is the first of a series of four anthologies celebrating and recording Peace Corps’ accomplishments and contributions to the world through its first half century of life. The idea for this massive compendium came to Jane Albritton in 2007, and must have seemed to anyone willing to listen to her at the time an endeavor nearly as gargantuan, daunting, and Quixotic as the founding of the Peace Corps itself. Four volumes to cover the regions of the world where Volunteers have served — Africa, The Americas, The Heart of Eurasia, and Asia and the Pacific — written by RPCVs themselves, to be published and released in time for the 50thanniversary, which was less than four years away. Albritton must have heard plenty of incredulous, “Impossibles!” from folks with normal senses of limitations. Of course, people with normal senses of limitations will never really understand the Peace Corps, nor what RPCVs are capable of doing.

In her preface to the series, Albritton writes, “I had no idea what to expect from a call for stories. Now, I know what makes our big collection such a fitting tribute to the Peace Corps experience. Peace Corps Volunteers write . . . [because] writing helps us work through the frustrations of everyday living in cultures where — at first — we do not know the rules or understand the values . . . we write out our loneliness, our fury, our joy, and our revelations. . . . And because a Volunteer’s attempt to explain the experience has always contained the hope that folks at home will ‘get it,’ these stories are also a gift to anyone eager and curious to learn what we learned about living in places that always exceeded what we imagined them to be.”

Ultimately collecting over 200 essays, Albritton engaged Aaron Barlow, a writer who served in Togo, to edit the first volume, which spans five decades of Peace Corps work in Africa. What results is a handsome anthology, pleasing to look at, delicious to read. This is not a hodge-podge of middling memories slapped together just in time for an event. Rather, it’s a beautiful, lasting homage, a history, at once a broad and thorough visit to every corner of rural and urban Africa, while also a humorous and loving reminiscence of our still “nice-in-theory/more-complicated-in-practice” United States Peace Corps. It’s clear from opening page to last that only the most earnest of efforts went into this project, from the accomplished, vivid prose of the more than 70 Africa RPCVs who contributed, to the snazzy cover and layout design, to the obviously thoughtful and rigorous editing that gives the 450 page book a light feel. Barlow deserves commendation for crafting a flowing sense of movement with his pairings of essays in theme and time. The array of challenging moral questions we all faced as Volunteers are on display here with balance. For every essay that decries “female genital mutilation” or the consumption of bush meat — for just two examples — Barlow includes others in which the RPCV author discusses the cultural importance of “female circumcision,” or of not offending neighbors by declining to eat snake.

As I read through the book, I dog-eared those essays that most stood out to me, usually because they made me laugh out loud, or took me back in a wide-range of emotions to that village in northern Ivory Coast where I spent nearly two and a half years. My plan was to make a short list of those “best of” titles for special mention in this review. But after putting down One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalo, that task seems wholly American to me, and totally beside the point. While I will mention some of these essays by name, it would be wrong to think that what I came across in this book was anything but the collective voice of ourselves and every African village we lived in — our Peace Corps tribe, those of us few American who lived in Africa, loved and hated it, and tried to do the least amount of harm we could as we tried to do some good. This is our drumming in the night.

In “Boeuf Madagaskara,” Jacquelyn Brooks is splattered with blood as an honored guest at the opening off a Malagasy school when a bull is slaughtered immediately in front of her, and Thor Hanson in “Bury My Shorts at Chamborro Gorge” has such explosive bowel issues in Uganda that he makes everyone in a hot and crowded jeep gasp for air during a long and bumpy ride. Donald Holm chronicles side-splitting hi-jinks in “Gentle Winds of Change” as two Ethiopia Volunteers try to assemble a USAID windmill in a parched country, and when Kelly Morris disappears from his Togolese village in “Yaka” after being bitten by a potentially rabid dog, he returns to discover that his chief has commandeered his development projects to exciting and unexpected ends. Martin Ganzglass meets honorable men in a warlord-riddled Somalia in “The Forty-Eight Hour Rule,” and Janet Grace Riehl finds out that a part of her body she was uncomfortable with in the States lifts her to Venus status in Botswana in “Big Butts Are Beautiful!”

In Zaire, a simple mistake of language consigns Bob Walker to a service filled with rat dinners in “Monsieur Robert Loves Rats,” while Stephanie Bane in Chad discovers that a secretive neighbor hides the scars of a disease so familiar to her in “Testimony” that the two women form an instant and lasting bond. Paul Pometto’snights in Benin are filled with ghosts, voodoo, and music in “The Drums of Democracy,” and Eric Stone learns the answers to some of life’s hardest questions from an indefatigable Indian doctor working in the Kenyan bush in “Tapping.” Suzanne Meagher Owen finds herself playing an important role at a young Tunisian boy’s circumcision in “Holding the Candle,” and Enid Abrahami’s wrenching “A Morning” follows with a horrific, moment-by-moment recounting of the excision of the girls of her Senegalese village. An awestruck Carol Beddo greets the diminutive Emperor Haile Selassie in “A Visit from H.I.M.,” and a very wet and naked Morocco PCV Shauna Steadman meets almost every woman in town at once in “The Hamman in Rabat.”

I found something bitingly familiar in every story in this collection. Bryant Wieneke’s ‘The Civilized Way’ about a class field trip to castrate bulls in Niger, took me right back to the savannah and Fulani. Of the many standout quotes, this one from Bob Hixon Julyan’s, “I Wanted To Go To Africa . . .,” spoke closest to my own understanding of my service almost ten years later: “The Sierra Leone I experienced, the Sierra Leone that disappointed me for not being Africa, was indeed Africa, the realAfrica, of ordinary people facing disease and inadequate health care, pervasive corruption, food shortages, and lack of opportunities. What most Americans see — the animals, the photogenic tribesmen, even the exotic snakes — are just Africanized versions of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.”

Editor Barlow writes in his preface to the book, “For the better part of a year, I’ve lived with the essays, going through them, sorting them, cutting them down so they could all fit in this volume. They’ve provided me with recognition, with joy, sadness, hope, disillusionment, and memory . . . The Peace Corps may not change the world in grand ways, but it does change individuals . . . whatever its legacy in development, the Peace Corps will always be known world-wide as one of the United States’ most significant contributions to human kind.”

Barlow’s own essay in the collection best serves as a closing metaphor for this review. In his “Elephant Morning,” he recounts being nearly trampled by a pachyderm marauding through his Togolese village. This would have been the singular event of a lifetime for almost anyone else — but Barlow simply brushes himself off, and makes a cup of coffee. If you don’t understand how he could have taken such a thing in stride, then you weren’t in the Peace Corps. One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalois a fine fulfillment of the Peace Corps’ Third Goal, and a great opportunity for non-Africa RPCVs, as well as people who weren’t in the Peace Corps at all, to “get” our years on our beloved continent.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s  new novel Mule, releases from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

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