Leopards at My Door, Peace Corps Tanzania 1966-1967
by Harriet Hayes Denison (Tanzania 1966-67)
Powell’s Espresso Books, $15
236 pages
2013

Reviewed by Deidre Swesnik (Mali 1996-98)

Many Peace Corps stories are filled with hilarious and embarrassing food moments.  And Harriet Denison doesn’t disappoint with hers.  At the very beginning of Leopards at My Door, Harriet gets dropped off by the Peace Corps Land Rover at her home for the next two years, a secondary school in the relatively bustling town of Mwanza, Tanzania.  Right away, she meets Mrs. Makonde, the beloved headmistress of the school, and gets a quick tour of the grounds.  Then it’s onto lunch.

At lunch with Mrs. Makonde I was self-conscious, trying to please, impress and chat all at once.  Politely, I choked down a very spicy bite of tongue stew with rice and decided we’d better settle the housing quickly.  You know tongue is my least favorite meat.  The stew was so hot I needed a large portion of her rice.  She noticed the tears streaming down my cheeks and diplomatically pushed the mango chutney in my direction.  Harley pausing in the conversation, she said, “It really cuts the heat.”

Harriet is vulnerable like any other new PCV, but she is brave and ready to laugh at herself.

This book is mostly made up of letters Denison wrote home during her service.  The letters tend toward the factual without too much editorializing.  For the most part, the stories can stand for themselves.  While I was reading this book, I tried to imagine myself on the receiving end of the letters in 1960s America, during the time of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, only a few years after John F. Kennedy’s death and the year or two before Martin Luther King’s and Bobby Kennedy’s.  And then trying to imagine what it was like in Tanzania which had only just gotten its independence in 1961.  Some of this history and feeling makes its way into the book, but much is simply left unsaid due to the fact that the book is made up of letters between people living during that time.

And now onto the leopards at her door!leopard

The leopards are a dazzling part of the book.  It is simply amazing to hear that a leopard occasionally comes to stand on her patio looking for food.  It is such a regular occurrence as to become not a big deal to Harriet.  But it was a bit harrowing to read.  And I think I have been back from Peace Corps for too long because some of the stuff grossed me out.  Like fleas laying eggs under your toenails and how to get them out (eewww.)

The book reminds me of the letters I wrote home from Peace Corps filled with stories about all of the diseases and close calls I had.  After a couple of those, during one of my monthly calls home, my dad got on the phone first and whispered, “Can you please cut out all those scary health stories? You are giving your mother a heart attack!”  He then yelled in a jolly manner, “Honey, pick up!  It’s DeeDee calling from Africa!”

Perhaps even more terrifying in the book is the mention of the death of one of the Peace Corps Volunteers in Tanzania while Denison was there.  The PCV’s husband (another PCV) was put on trial for her murder, but he was not proven guilty.  Read more in John Coyne’s column here.

A few times, Denison goes a bit further than her day-to-day descriptions and writes up longer, interesting stories.  She tells of the time she hitchhiked home and describes her trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro.  Other gems that I’d love to know more about include the students who had to leave because they were pregnant (apparently set up by their fathers so they wouldn’t have to pay the school fees anymore) and the nuns in their flowing habits coaching sports lessons.

I warmed to Harriet as the book went on and I wanted to know what was going to happen to her.  She is a very independent spirit.  She talks about things that she does alone simply because others do not want to do them - but she doesn’t mind.  She climbs, looks at lizards, gathers insects, and really appreciates her surroundings and her opportunity to be there.   And she’s definitely got a sense of humor that comes through in her letters.

This book is a nice window into the time when our nation was rapidly changing and the Peace Corps was young.  Harriet was young too, and we see her grow and learn during her service.  Harriet’s story is a more intimate glimpse into one person’s life during a time in history of so much upheaval.

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.