Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon
by Jason Gray (Gabon 2002-04)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Susi Wyss (Central African Republic 1990-92)
Within the first few pages of his book, Glimpses through the Forest: Memories of Gabon, Jason Gray establishes at least one of the intended audiences for his book. “For any prospective Peace Corps Volunteers who might be reading this,” he writes, “I do feel that it is important to acknowledge that for all the excitement and frustrations of the actual work assignment, there are countless days and nights spent getting to know one’s neighbors, community, and new friends.” Reading that sentence, I couldn’t help wonder how successful the book was going to be in describing the Peace Corps experience to a would-be volunteer. Moreover, would there be other potential audiences for Gray’s memoir?
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Gray worked on a conservation program in southwestern Gabon; he stayed on after his two years to continue building local capacity, this time with the World Wildlife Fund. The book is aptly entitled, for each chapter provides the reader with a peek at a particular slice of Gray’s Peace Corps experience. Some examples include: his time as a trainee, work as a teacher, the roads and transportation, local food and palm wine, the market, funeral ceremonies, drumming and dancing, bathing in Ndougou Lagoon, the neighborhood children, encounters with elephants and many other animals, and his relationships with people who touched him the most. Gray’s prose is clear and descriptive throughout, sometimes even lyrical, as in this excerpt from a chapter entitled, “Mist on the Lagoon:”
For me, the morning mist was like a prelude, covering over a magnificent masterpiece, unveiled in an instant when patience starts to run thin and anticipation runs thick. And I remember that feeling, like the cresting of a steep hill with a beautiful vista laid out before me, the feel of sitting in the boat, waiting for the mists to lift to show the wonder beyond.
While each of the 38 chapters can stand on its own as a mini-essay (in some cases as short as four pages), taken together they paint a full and vivid mural of a rewarding Peace Corps experience. Even though he served in a different country, decade, and technical area than I did, many of his experiences felt incredibly familiar to me. Getting stuck on the side of the road when the rainy season has left the roads particularly muddy, joking around with the neighborhood kids (and that one child that is initially terrified of you), trying the local brew-these were just a few of the things that resonated with me. Ultimately, I think this feeling of familiarity had less to do with my having served in the same region of Africa, as it had to do with Gray’s ability to capture the universality of the Peace Corps experience. Regardless of the region they served in, every RPCV has memories of that one family that took them in as one of their own, the challenges of learning the local language, the many frustrations and occasional breakthroughs, and finally, the realization (usually toward the end of one’s service) that despite well-intentioned and naïve designs to change things for the better, the biggest change that happens is inevitably within the volunteers themselves.
As a result of Gray’s success in capturing the universality of the Peace Corps experience, his book lives up to its goal of being a helpful and engaging read for prospective volunteers; I would recommend it for people considering applying to the Peace Corps regardless of what kind of program they ask for or what part of the globe they are eventually assigned to. But I would also recommend Glimpses through the Forest to other groups of people. Gray’s memoir makes for an interesting read for people who are curious to learn more about Gabon, or those who want a better idea of what conservation work in a developing country looks like. And finally, former RCPVs from Gabon are likely to enjoy it as a trip down memory lane.
Susi Wyss is the author of The Civilized World, a novel in stories set across Africa that received the 2011 Maria Thomas Fiction Award from Peace Corps Writers and was named a “Book to Pick Up Now” by O, the Oprah Magazine. You can find her online at: www.susiwyss.com.
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