Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
Julie R. Dargis was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco more than twenty-five years ago. After her service, she “. . . continued kicking around the world in search of adventure.” She got more than she bargained for in war-torn countries like Serbia, Congo, Somalia, Pakistan, Darfur, Rwanda, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire. Eventually Julie finds the real goal of her search . . . herself.
Not only has she written a fascinating memoir of her exploits, but she writes poetry as well, and has published a collection, Seven Sonnets. Here’s an excerpt from an ode to Peace Corps.
I lay in bed, then sat up with a start.
The Peace Corps was for me a time to seek;
To live and work abroad would set apart
A tourist from an optimistic freak.
After Morocco, Julie worked as a Peace Corps program coordinator in Washington D.C. (“I had found a family in the Peace Corps — it was my home.”) But she offended a colleague and was let go. (“I had made a mistake, and the cord had been cut swiftly.”) She tried working with other organizations, but could not accept the fact that money, not mission was their bottom line.
From 1995 to 1997 she worked in Kigali, Rwanda. It’s not clear which organizations she worked for throughout Africa, but in Rwanda she was a project director. She gives an insightful account of that fragmented country after the horrific genocide, where stacks of bodies were decomposing in the earth and “ . . . the essence of death permeated the soil around us.” She managed administration and finance, policies and procedures programs at several sites, working with traumatized Rwandans who, among other tasks, were trying to clear land mines. She became close friends with Assumpta, whose family was massacred and who, in the end, dies of what seems to be HIV/AIDS. Julie’s grief was “unfathomable” and interminable.
From 1998 to 1999 she worked in Belgrade, where she was regularly evacuated and reposted, despised as an American by many, but befriended by some, living in buildings under bombardment, writing poetry about blood and bones, outer conflict and inner peace until she moved on to Bulgaria. There, for a change, her job was “. . . manageable with a full and competent national staff . . .” and she had time to write poems and develop a stock portfolio, drink slivoviz and find a romance that would be unrequited.
Julie mentions some of her favorite authors (and mine): Vikram Seth, Anne Fadiman and Naguib Mafouz, who write about families whose pieces don’t quite fit their dynastic puzzles. The opening lines of her poem, “The Likes of Me,” expresses the soul of world wanderers:
To ancient cultures I held out my hand.
Walled cities, desert, the ocean, the sea,
Beyond every mountain the promised land
Has welcomed with wonder the likes of me.
Julie moves on to Brazzaville from 2003-2005, the “world of emergency response,” managing programs that faced funding gaps as the emergency phase dissipated and desperate women and children were abandoned. She meets Faith, an eight year old girl who had been living in a brothel before she made her way to a center for street children. Julie tries to place her in an orphanage, but Faith attacks the other children and is sent out. Julie eventually reunites Faith with her village family, where she attends school and does well, a rare happy ending that touches Julie with a heart-warming joy she had not felt for a long time.
On to Abidjian, the “Paris of Africa,” in the midst of student revolts against expatriates funded by Côte d’Ivoire’s president. An interesting man pops into her life, but Julie is already off to Chad. She had “ … missed living in the desert.” She somehow manages programs there in the midst of military skirmishes, surviving 100 + degree temperatures without electricity or plumbing. There, she falls in love with a pilot, who is subsequently transferred to another country. She expects this would spell the end of their relationship, but her heart is shocked when she later learns of his death.
Julie Dargis vividly captures the arduous life of an American working in developing countries. I related to her stories emotionally, remembering my own years as an administrator in Haiti, sabotaged by people I was trying to help, and by colleagues who turned on each other in angry frustration. I am filled with admiration and respect for Julie’s strength and courage. The life of an expat can be lonely and painful, “blowing like leaves around the periphery of the world”, as John Cheever put it. We are fascinated by our planet, love its people, and wonder if “making a difference” is a mere conceit.
Julie’s health fails, as she struggles through recurrent malaria. Her intestinal worm story is nightmarish. Finally, in Juba, Southern Sudan, Julie decides she has had enough. Enough of dragging herself around to get the work done: the ever daunting work, sometimes sustainably successful, more often obliterated the minute you leave. Sick and tired, she inevitably questions herself. What’s it all about?
The lessons have been many, but the themes have been few. Through my travels, I learned that people want a better life for themselves and their children. They want to feel safe and secure. They want to live their lives with respect and dignity. But most importantly, people want to be loved. The people I have met around the world have taught me that – notwithstanding our many cultural differences – at our very core, we are all the same.
That’s what it’s all about!
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University 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, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon.