Reviewed by John F. Fanselow (Nigeria 1961–63; Somalia staff 1966–68)
When I read a book for a review I put post-its on pages that I want to return to after I finish reading the book. After reading the first twenty pages of Julian’s memories, I noticed, that I had pasted post-its on every other page!
As I read on, I kept pasting post-its, not only on every other page, but in some cases also on every page. I was unable to highlight important points and unimportant points because I found that each page contained worthwhile insights or questions, or both.
While Julian repeats some themes — loneliness, the racism of some colleagues and his headmaster, his curiosity about the culture of his students and those in his community, limitations of his Peace Corps training, his central message is how what he is doing benefited him and those he was teaching and living with. Said another way, Julian is not a complainer but an explorer. Whether what he discovers he sees as positive or negative is not as important as the fact that he has learned something new about himself and those he has experiences with every day.
One of the features of Julian’s book is that he shares his life in many genres: letters to family and friends, letters from friends, poems, photographs, his own personal narratives, narratives of friends, and factual reporting, to name the most frequent different styles of presentation.
As I was reading Julian’s reflections, Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author of the highly acclaimed Things Fall Apart died. I had the privilege of teaching Things Fall Apart in 1962 in Eastern Nigeria, a couple of hundred miles from where Julian was teaching chemistry. It was the first year that the syllabus allowed a book by a non-native speaker of English to be required reading for the external examinations. I think it would be an extremely enriching experience if teachers around the world could teach Things Fall Apart and Imagonna in the same class. Though Achebe’s narration takes place decades before Julian’s, and Things Fall Apart is a novel rather than a memoir, the themes, the conflicts in values and the insights both authors provide into local and universal values are profound.
Though Imagonna is likely to be particularly moving and engaging for Peace Corps Volunteers who taught in Eastern Nigeria in particular, and Nigeria in general, it is just as moving and engaging for junior and senior high school students who are thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Said another way, Imagonna, I think, can serve as an inspiration for any people who want to expand their horizons and challenge themselves to understand others and themselves at a deeper level. Though the Peace Corps is still an option, there are scores of NGO’s that people can join to learn about themselves and make them better citizens.
Julian shows how he moved a few steps forward and a couple of steps backward in such understanding. He showed how what he thought was important at one stage of his life become less important at another stage. His concluding comment on page 221 reminds us that the goals of the Peace Corps were not limited to making contributions to other countries. Julian implies, and I would support his idea, that the main gain for the U. S. from the Peace Corps was we, as Americans, learned about ourselves and others very different from us. As Julian says on page 221: “I learned more in those two years among the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria than any other period of my life. I learned to appreciate the beauty of a people physically different from me — I shed some of my racial prejudice.”
What a moving statement and how many hundreds of thousands of us would say, “YES, YES, YES”
If you check out Julian’s book on Amazon you will see at least 4 positive reviews. I agree with the comments in each of them, want to emphasize the points the others made, and am writing these comments only to mention a few points from my perspective as a fellow PCV in Easter Nigeria in the early sixties.
As I suggested, Julian’s book should be read by junior and senior high school students as well as by returned Peace Corps Volunteers. It is a treasure that is very, very accessible. The End of Education [Neil Postman, 1995] suggests a revision of the curriculum in schools. Most of the topics he suggests Julian and Chinua Achebe deal with. If you teach, check out Neil’s book and then order Julian’s Imagonna and Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and you will be able to engage your students in ways that many would find unimaginable!
P.S. On page 33, Julian says that a PCV from my group, Nigeria I, dropped a postcard intended for her parents. In fact, it was intended for her boyfriend. And whether she dropped it or it was taken from the mailbox has never been settled. But as Julian shows in his book, both he and about 99.9% of the Volunteers wrote similar things on post cards, in journals and in letters. There were many in the U. S. as well as in Nigeria who wanted to sabotage the Peace Corps. Fortunately, they failed.
On page 54, Julian says that he was told things about Nigerian students that were not true at his school. In other places in his book, he says that though Peace Corps staff wanted to help him, they were not always able to. To the credit of the Peace Corps, it started to engage returned Peace Corps Volunteers in training programs, moved some programs in-country and hired educational professionals to work with Peace Corps Volunteer teachers.
The Peace Corps took to heart the criticisms that Julian and others made about the agency. I, for one, taught in Peace Corps preparation programs at Columbia Teachers College and I was hired to work with Peace Corps teachers in Somalia partly as a result of the comments Julian and others had made. Because of the concerns that PCVs like them, the Peace Corps continues to become the best investment that the United States has ever made in the advancement of our own citizens and the advancement of the citizens of the world.
John F. Fanselow blogs on our site You Call Yourself a Teacher?! worked with Peace Corps Volunteers for two years as a Contractor’s Overseas Representative from Teachers College, Columbia University in Somalia from 1966 to 1968, as an in-service trainer in Togo, The Ivory Coast and Senegal, and then as a trainer at TC for groups going to Africa. He earned his Ph.D. at TC and was then invited to join the faculty there. In 1987 he started an off-campus M.A. Program in Tokyo for Columbia University, Teachers College in 1987 that grew out of work he had been doing with teachers in Japan. After becoming Professor Emeritus at TC in 1996, John was invited to become president of a private tertiary institution in New Zealand. Nine years later he left that institution, and returned to Japan where he is a visiting professor at Kanda University of International Studies.
His book publications include Breaking Rules: Generating and Exploring Alternatives in Language Teaching, Contrasting Conversations: Activities for Exploring Our Beliefs and Teaching Practices and Try the Opposite.