Africa on My Mind: Living Peace Corps’ Third Goal
by Angene Wilson (Liberia 1962–64)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Julie R. Dargis (Morocco 1984–87)
“Once upon a time, I planned to write a novel set in Liberia,” writes Angene Wilson in her recent book, Africa on my Mind. “I was not alone. A number of Peace Corps Volunteers have wanted to be novelists or at least writers of memoirs. My novel would feature Liberians, of course . . . I described Mother Mae . . .. She adjusted the knot of the lappa cloth she’d wrapped around her faded housedress. The lappa was bright blue and red . . .. Behind gold-rimmed glasses, her liquid brown eyes laughed and her voice was gently mocking, but her rather thin lips remained pressed together in a straight line . . ..”
Wilson reached out to publishers. She waited. She continued to write. She read, and read some more, achieving an impressive list of some of the most important African writers currently known. She continued to write fiction. She dabbled in poetry. Religiously she kept a journal. She penned personal essays that documented her early years. She submitted articles to popular magazines. They were rejected. So she went back to school. She obtained a masters degree, and later a doctorate.
She began a life-long career as a professional writer and educator. Her creative approaches to developing and sharing lesson plans, provided invaluable technical support to hundreds of social studies teachers and other educators in the US and Africa. “The world is like a mask dancing,” she shares through the Igbo proverb from Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe. “If you want to see it well you do not stand in one place.” Proverbs became a staple in her lesson plans, challenging students from a plethora of countries to consider the lives of others from cultures spanning a continent. For years, she counseled her African students to follow a path that a student from the U. S. might be encouraged to follow. But it was only when she learned to let go, and allow her students from Africa to define their own futures, that she became truly rooted in her own profession. “Think globally,” she told her students, “it’s your world.” Through her personal writing, Wilson shared stories from the lives of her many friends and colleagues from around the world. From remote villages to capital cities in Africa and the U. S., Wilson continued to hone her craft as an internationalist, educator and advocate.
Now, Wilson is also a creative nonfiction writer. In Africa on my Mind, Wilson spins a tale of a university scholar, travel guide, professional writer, and friend. The result is an anthology that beautifully blends memoir, professional articles, poetry, and personal essays, capturing a life of five decades that straddles two worlds. As one of the first Peace Corps Volunteers to serve in Liberia in 1962, Wilson remains engaged with her many colleagues and friends from that time of her life. As the years passed, however, her life began to mirror the fictional character that she once had imagined. “Mother Mae became a legendary matriarch. In the early years, sun helmet on her head, she killed black cobras coiled in the cottonwood trees with her shotgun and sometimes monkeys for meat. She directed the mission farm . . . delivered hundreds of babies and personally made formula for and rocked the orphaned ones.” Later in life, Wilson’s first post-retirement project was a publication for the National Council of Social Studies. Co-authored with another returned Volunteer, Merry M. Merryfield (Sierra Leone 1977–79), Social Studies and the World: Teaching Global Perspectives” explored the richness of proverbs, among other topics, from a number of African countries. In the epigraph for the chapter entitled, “Teaching for Understanding of World Cultures,” she included the proverb: “Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Early in her career, Wilson reached out to traditional publishers to legitimize her art. Today, she no longer seeks a publishing contract for her fiction. “I did not write a novel. Instead, I became a professor, who tried in various ways to teach future teachers . . . that there [is] a fascinating historical and current Africa.” What Wilson has taught us through her decades as an educator, is that a life can be rich on its own merits. The art that Wilson once sought to share more widely through creative writing was initially lost on others. In Africa on my Mind, by recounting her personal stories, Wilson has eloquently — and creatively — expressed to us all, the art of living a fulfilling and meaningful intercultural life.