Reviewed by Deidre Swesnik (Mali 1996-98)
If you’ve been to Peace Corps, especially if you have been to Peace Corps in Africa, you know the feeling - the feeling of being dropped off at your site by a white Peace Corps truck. Peace Corps drops you off with your stuff and they drive away. And there you are. Alone.
And even if you weren’t in Africa, you will have that feeling at some point on your first day at your new site. Even if you are surrounded by people almost all the time - like I was for most of my service in Mali - you can’t avoid those moments of feeling totally apart. It’s a universal feeling.
Greg Alder has mastered portraying those (what I believe to be) universals of the Peace Corps experience. When I dove into The Mountain School, I was often transported back 15 years to my own experience. I relived some of those pit-in-your-stomach moments of being torn between two options and not knowing which to choose, as well as those deep-belly-laughing moments of connecting with my host family and friends.
The Mountain School starts with Alder’s arrival in Lesotho in 2003 as an English teacher. He lives close to but somewhat apart from the village of Tsoeneng, and becomes especially close with some of the students who board at the school. Many of his students are similar to him in age, which creates an interesting dynamic for him as a teacher. We witness his nervous preparation for first day of school, only to watch him teach nothing on that first day because that’s not how the first day of school works in Tsoeneng. And then he learns that every time it rains, it’s so prohibitively loud because of the metal roofs on the school buildings, that he can’t teach then either. He is quickly forced to adapt. But he’s not always happy about it.
It is fascinating to see how he deals with this and many other situations. He is brutally honest with himself and his readers and tells us even of things about which he is not proud. He is at times judgmental, open-minded, conflicted, happy, determined, easy-going, and frustrated. He shows us the good and the bad. He shows us that Peace Corps is a full life experience, not just what comes homes in letters and gets remembered after you’ve been home for a while.
A classic moment occurs immediately upon arrival when Alder is offered a meal of goat leg covered with flies by the village chief and the witch doctor (who happens to be wearing a Yankees baseball cap). Should I eat the meat? he wonders. Will it make me sick? The school principal advises him to dig in or appear devastatingly rude to his new hosts. You’ll have to read the book to find out what he chooses to do.
Greg is also given a new first name - Thabang. In Mali, the Peace Corps Volunteers also have local names for two simple reasons: one, because American names are so foreign to our hosts; two, and much more importantly, to give volunteers a local connection, an identity. Your name means something and it puts you in context. Thabang has the same with his new name. In some ways, his name allows him to get even closer to his surroundings and to forge a new identity that is separate from his home life in the United States. Indeed, he sees that he has changed, that he’s discovered a new part of himself when he goes home to Los Angeles for vacation. He is worried that he won’t be able to readjust back to Lesotho. But he is pleasantly surprised as he tells upon his return:
“In Tsoeneng, down on the school grounds in the middle of the fields, in my house, it was dark and I was alone, but I was not scared and I was not lonely, as I prophesied I would be from the Los Angeles airport. And I appreciated the way the evening invaded and blacked everything and focused my thoughts and prepared me for sleep.”
While Alder struggles and manages to fit in to village life, he also carries carrying his American values and baggage of trying to “fix” things he sees are wrong or don’t work right. For example, he tries to change the way the allocation of books is made to his school. He pushes hard and is able to change the allocation at least for one year. But has he burned his bridges for the long run? What will happen the next year? He also struggles with being a white foreigner in a land torn by apartheid and racism. How does he fit in? How does America resemble Lesotho?
When my stepdad came to visit me in Peace Corps, he noticed that many of my American friends and I had become closest with Malians who had something that kept them apart from other Malians, something that made them different. One volunteer was best friends with the local blacksmith, who was of a different ethnic group from than the rest of his village. One was best friends with a young many from the “slave” caste in her village. I was best friends with a temporary transplant who had family clear on the other side of the country. Although this may not translate to all Peace Corps experiences, it seems to translate to Alder’s. He seems to be closest with the boarding students who are also far from home and who are also looking to connect somehow. He is friends with other outsiders.
With all of the moral decisions in day to day Peace Corps life, it’s sometimes just fun to hang out and not worry about everything. Greg is able to do that with his new found friends in the village and in Peace Corps. We are happy for him that he can just unwind once in a while without feeling as if he is on stage performing.
It’s easy to see through this book why Peace Corps is an experience that stays with you for the rest of your life. In work and in family after Peace Corps, there are decisions we all have to make. We have to figure out how much to push for something we want while balancing the needs and desires of others. We must judge whether to face our fears, or hide in bed for a few more hours. We have to figure out how to inspire our children and our co-workers. I enjoyed and appreciated this book because it brought me right back to those moments during Peace Corps at which I was at my best and at my worst. I thank Greg for sharing this important time in his life with us.
Deidre Swesnik laughed for a lot of her two years in Peace Corps Mali and still does so uproariously with her RPCV friends at home in Washington, DC. DeeDee is the Director of Public Policy and Communications at the National Fair Housing Alliance, loves to edit and read, and is terrified of writing anything longer than two pages.