you-never-try-1401You Never Try, You Never Know: Six Year in Liberia
by Ruth Jacobson (Liberia 1971-77)
Court Street Press
$18.95, paperback; $6.95 e-book
402 pages
2011

Reviewed by Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)

RUTH JACOBSON AND HER HUSBAND HAROLD were in their 50s when they joined the Peace Corps in 1971. By then they were well experienced in their professions — she a nurse, he a mechanic. Their two daughters were grown. They were just the kind of people both the Peace Corps and host countries needed and valued. Well, it seems one of them was more valued than the other — we’ll get to that.

You Never Try, You Never Know is a collection of letters Ruth wrote to family members, primarily to her mother, about the Jacobson’s six years in Liberia. It is a one-way correspondence to people she loved about a life she embraced.

During their orientation and training period in Liberia the Jacobsons discover that Harold will receive an assignment, based on a request for his skills, to a demonstration rice project in the settlement of Gbedin, far up country between Ganta and Sanniquellie.  Ruth will be on her own to invent a job. Undaunted, she does so with vigor. Most of Nimba County, including the iron mining camp at LAMCO becomes her territory.

Seeing the evident need for medical services, Ruth establishes a belly clinic, a baby clinic, midwife and nursing training classes, organizes teams for mobile clinics to deliver inoculations to remote villages and sees a constant stream of patients who drop into their home with fever, wounds or worms. She reports having inoculated 1,000 patients a day during the mobile clinics.

Nursing is an inherently intimate act. Ruth’s openness and hands-on care-giving bring her into the claustrophobic birthing hut and beside too frequent deathbeds.  She develops a strong fondness for the tribal women. But illiteracy is the norm among them. They are wary of kwi (white people’s) medicine and susceptible to the mystical influence of the zo (native medicine man). Even though she sees the direct relationship between disease and the death of babies, Ruth is remarkably sensitive to not offending the zo when having to contradict his explanations for a child’s illness. Ruth knows the baby is sick from polluted water, not from a curse. But often as not, the mother will act on the zo’s interpretation and accepting that her baby is meant to die, will flee the clinic before Ruth can act.

Ruth and Harold are open to new ways. They learn Liberian English. They will eat just about anything. They don’t complain. Best of all, they know how to fix things. And in Liberia, there are a lot of things that need fixing. They are always busy — with their jobs, feeding visitors, tending their garden, raising chickens, understanding Liberian ways.

At holidays, they miss their children and the traditions they had taken for granted. But Ruth does not wallow in nostalgia or longing. She gets to work substituting scrawny chickens for turkey and cooking potato greens and rice in palm butter for her first Liberian Thanksgiving shared with their new friends, including the Chinese men who work with Harold on the rice project.

The elderly are revered in Liberia and with their white hair the Jacobsons are readily honored as “Ma” and “Pa.”  They keep their door open, literally.  They host out of town dignitaries, successive sets of new Peace Corps Volunteers on orientation tours, local girls stopping by for a sewing lesson, and little kids who just come in, watch the white people for a while and then get up saying, “I go now.”  (Ruth’s spot on the rendering of Liberian English reached deep into my memory of my years there.)

THEIR ELDER DAUGHTER, JUDITH, edited the letters and included a brief history and map of Liberia and photographs throughout the text. This presentation of original materials without comment is both the strength and weakness of the book. Additional editorial notes and an index would have been helpful. Some threads of events or characters are begun or hinted at and then vanish. A good bit of information is repeated to several, or even the same, recipients.

But these shortcomings are outweighed by the growing insight we absorb from Ruth’s carefully detailed observations.  In the immediacy of the moment, none of us knows what will become important and what is fleeting.  Ruth gives us her day as the fragment it is and only over time do she and we build the whole. When she slips in a Liberian expression we can feel her smiling at how at home she has become.

As it is, we all understand the self-editing that goes with writing to our mothers. In Ruth’s case, it seemed to require a determined and unwavering cheerfulness. At first, I found this irritating. But I soon calmed down as I recalled my own behavior. A decade earlier, I was a young Peace Corps teacher in Liberia, inexperienced and at sea in a culture I struggled to understand. But even then, I’m sure my letters to my mother were full of unwavering cheerfulness and innocuous details, carefully filtered so as to not alarm her.

The Jacobson’s casual comments about the difficulties and frustrations they face belie the depth of challenges trying to make something work in a society predisposed to nothing working. Fifty percent of their Peace Corps group terminates early. Where other Volunteers cannot function without support in jobs that were not what they expected in a culture to which they cannot adjust, the Jacobsons make lives and solve problems with what they find at hand each day. No angst, no navel gazing; just sunny, resourceful respect.

Eventually the repeated failure of the Liberian government to honor its promises to support the agricultural and health projects begins to have a cumulative impact on these good people.

At the end of each contract period, the Jacobsons eagerly prepare to go home only to surprise Ruth’s correspondents and us with their decision to extend their time in Liberia. When they complete their Peace Corps service and take positions with the Lutheran Mission in Phoebe, we don’t learn until years later that only Harold’s work is compensated. Ruth continues all of her nursing and medical education projects as an unpaid volunteer, but with the same sustained and cheerful devotion as when they first arrived.

Without a laboratory or diagnostic equipment, Ruth diagnoses, prescribes, and administers treatment — functions she admits her education would not allow her the professional or legal authority to do in the States. Harold keeps machinery running by vigilant maintenance and at critical junctures, handcrafting replacement parts. Knowing they will eventually leave Liberia, they both try to train Liberians to take over their jobs. But the discipline and order needed to keep bodies healthy and machinery running are not part of the DNA of Liberian culture.

You Never Try, You Never Know is an intelligent record of the Jacobsons’ time in Liberia. While it never directly asks, their six-year saga of clinics, menus, caring friendships, washed out roads, bush school, joyful work, devil dancers, secret societies, white chickens, and dying babies doesn’t let us escape the deeper questions of the relationship between the first and third worlds and especially what that means for the Peace Corps. I recommend this book to anyone struggling with that issue.

Geraldine Kennedy is the author of the Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award-winning Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara; editor of the best-seller, From the Center of the Earth; Stories out of the Peace Corps; and a publisher (Clover Park Press).