Connecting Two Worlds: An Environmental Journey from Peace Corps to Present
By Anthony Simeone (Burkina Faso 1971-73)
A Peace Corps Writers Book, $19.95
Reviewed by Mike Tidwell (Democratic Republic of the Congo 1985-87)
The cover of Anthony Simeone’s memorable but bumpy new book says it all. It shows photographs taken from outer space of Earth and Mars, side by side. One orb has a fertile blue-green hue, radiating the aura life. The other is dark-orange, shadowy, and lifeless. Simeone spends much of the next 124 pages of this short work explaining how environmental degradation inflicted by humans could push the lush green orb to one day more closely resemble the barren-orange orb.
Simeone writes in the prologue that his book, Connecting Two Worlds, is also about the “contrast between my life and experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa and my life in the more environmentally friendly Mid-Atlantic States on the east coast of the United States.”
The author succeeds most in writing about the Peace Corps part. Simeone dug water wells in Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) from 1971-73. About half this book is a good old-fashioned memoir of village life in the great literary tradition of Peace Corps writers. Simeone took me back, vividly, to my own days as a fisheries volunteer in the Congo in the 1980s.
He writes about the bad and the ugly, along with the good. There are the vivid night skies where the Milky Way engulfs him in stars on a continent nearly totally devoid of light pollution. One night, in his dusty village a hard day’s ride from the capital of Ougadougo (the city name means “where people get honor and respect”), a neighbor asks Simeone if there are stars in the night sky in America. Seems like a preposterous question until you remember most of us Volunteers really were like aliens from outer space. I got the same question about stars in my Congolese village. And like most rural Africa volunteers, Simeone experiences dysentery and snake encounters and loneliness and a love-hate relationship with kola nuts.
But most fascinating is Simeone’s Peace Corps work itself: digging water wells. The wells are excavated by hand with crude tools. They are on average six feet in diameter and 50-60 feet deep. Sometimes village men would have to tear through entire layers of bedrock with steel bars. The hard work, in Simeone’s telling, is leavened with stories of delightful humor.
The author worked in partnership with local water “diviners” who used metal rods to “find” the best spots for wells above the deep Sahelian aquifers. The technique, which works, is still used throughout the world and is called “water witching” in the American west. But one day a diviner arrived to work with Simeone in an isolated village, riding up on a rickety bicycle. It quickly became clear that the diviner had forgotten to bring his metal witching rods. But not to worry. Simeone writes:
“(The diviner) went back to his bike and began to disassemble the fender. He removed and reshaped the wire used to hold the fender on the bike frame. He was ready to go. He could worry about the fender later. It took about thirty minutes to walk-off the lines he would use to identify the underground source of water for the well that he determined would be fifty feet deep. Soon after, the elders were satisfied with the site selection and work on the well was begun. Three weeks later, we found water at a depth of forty-five feet. No one was surprised but me.”
One day, at another well that was tens of feet deep but not yet complete, Simeone arrived to find a mule had fallen accidentally into the well. The animal was stunned but unharmed. More shocking still, a young boy had also fallen into the well and was standing side-by-side with the mule, looking up at Simeone. A rope was lowered and both boy and mule were pulled up, wobbly but unharmed. Only in the Peace Corps!
Unfortunately, Simeone doesn’t get around to expounding on his well-digging experiences until the final chapters of the book. It’s too bad because this is by far the most compelling portion of this hybrid of memoir writing and environmental meditation.
As for the ecological part, it unfortunately comes off as flat and a bit canned. There are jumbled statistics about global overpopulation and resource depletion and climate change. Inexcusably, however, he suggests a couple of times that many scientists are still “debating” the cause and nature of global warming. In reality, 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists are very clear that human combustion of fossil fuels is the biggest driver of climate change - and that the warming is accelerating.
I wish Simeone had stuck with his true expertise in this book and filled 90 percent of his pages with stories from his well-digging experiences. He left me hungry for more in this realm and disappointed on the environmental front.
Mike Tidwell is an environmental writer and activist in the Mid-Atlantic. He is the author of The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn, winner of the Peace Corps Writers Paul Crown Non-Fiction Award of 1991, and other environmental books.