Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
THE TITLE, RUNNING IN FLIP-FLOPS, CAUGHT MY ATTENTION because it indicates doing something improbable, if not impossible, as does the title of my own memoir, Roller Skating in the Desert. In this novel Fay captures the classic Peace Corps Volunteer experience of trying to fit into a very foreign culture; tolerating the tedium of daily village life that includes rituals of long greetings and strange social mores. The protagonist, Shannon, suffers the discomforts of unrelenting hot weather, lack of sanitary comforts, unfamiliar foods, physical illnesses and irritating behavior from unwitting locals. She is frustrated when she visualizes beneficial projects that people in her village cannot seem to implement. Her counterparts, Ibou Diop and Ndey Sekk, however, help her win some victories, such as building latrines and improving a local school through a Peace Corps Partnership Small Projects grant. She also helps villages girls to win school scholarships, and provides training for others to make soap, neem lotion and enriched porridge, though the latter endeavors do not become sustainable. When reflecting on these projects at the end of her service, Shanon exclaims to herself, “That’s something, isn’t it?,” realizing that, in spite of her sense of failure, she did accomplish many things. But Fay mostly describes her daily existence, slogging through ideas, relationships and time; like trying to run in flip-flops.
Portraits of the village of Keur Souleye, with its grass-roof huts and family compounds surrounded by arid fields from which farmers struggle to extract peanuts, transported me to a similar village where I spent three years, not far from there. We did not have the luxuries of iPods and laptops in the 1990s, so my sense of isolation was probably greater than modern PCVs. As an older PCV, I was also treated with more respect than someone of Shannon’s young age. She bristles at young men who harass her, and reacts angrily to Wolof chants of toubab (foreigner), sai-sai, a sort of rascal, and xonq nap, red ears. Loneliness exacerbates her sensitivity to teasing that she interprets as hurtful affronts, when often it is an expression of Senegalese social interaction. When she can’t face any more, she hides in her hut, reading books, listening to music or watching movies on her iPod. She spends a lot of time taking her emotional temperature, which fluctuates wildly, bewildered by mood swings that are symptomatic of culture shock and loneliness.
Shanon’s parents’ visit is a reprieve that gives her new self-respect when they admire her savoir faire in dealing with people in the cities and rural areas of Senegal. The villagers laud her activities, and her parents’ pride in her helps to restore her self-confidence.
She longs for a relationship with a man, and finally finds a Portuguese fellow who wines and dines her, takes her to upscale resorts, and satiates her sexual hunger, until he confesses that he is married. (Descriptions of their erotic encounters were not as tantalizing as the peek we have into her hut on a lonely night as she caresses herself.) Fay’s book is supposed to be a novel, but only the illicit romance read like fiction to me. I interpreted the rest of the book as pure memoir.
While Fay dwells on the tedious miseries of village life, her anguish at parting tells a story of its own, a tale of growth that marks every PCV who makes it through “the toughest job.”
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for 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 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and is working on a memoir of Haiti.