Reviewed by Richard M. Grimsrud (India 1965-67)
For the most part, Dan Grossman’s novel Rogue Elephants is a fast and informative read about Peace Corps operations during the early Nineties in southeast Niger, a little-known area in West Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara adjacent to where the terrorist group Boko Haram (which literally means “Western education is sinful and forbidden” in Hausa) recently kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. The book provides among its many interesting insights a look at how the Peace Corps experience can affect sexual diversity and assault and a good ethnographic sketch of Hausa culture, from which Boko Haram has drawn most of its adherents.
Hausa culture is a fusion of Arab and traditional black African systems, which grew up in the Sudan/Sahel zone with the spread of Islam across the continent in the 14th century, and Rogue Elephants provides a lot of anthropological detail about these Hausa people, who are the largest ethnic group in both Niger and neighboring Nigeria and among the poorest peoples anywhere in the world. The book’s point of entry into Hausa life is through the eyes and activities of American Peace Corps Volunteers stationed in southeast Niger in 1992-93, when the author Grossman (now a journalist) was an Agroforester Volunteer there.
The story of Rogue Elephants begins through the classic framing device which has been utilized in Arabic literature since the time of Scheherezad’s A Thousand and One Nights. Terry Lawson, an American journalist who had been dispatched in early 1993 to investigate the suicide of Adam Goldstein, a Jewish Agroforester PCV and adept artist who had been stationed in Gidan Hatsi village near the south central Nigerien city of Maradi.
Lawson concluded that Goldstein could not survive the stress he voluntarily undertook when he went “native” to better accomplish success in his PC project of using a tree garden to arrest the Saharan sand’s southward creep. In the process of so digging in, Adam had become involved with a teenaged Hausa girl, which did not go over well with his strict Islamic hosts and coworkers in Gidan Hatsi, and the resultant conflict caused him to take his own life.
From this introductory frame, Grossman drops back and begins to tell Goldstein’s tale from his first day of in-country training the year before. When Adam is stationed in Gidan Hatsi, he quickly becomes associated with Nasiru, the Hausa owner of the compound in which he was placed “while the harmattan wind was still blowing.” He is then presented to the village chief, who tells him, “Adamou, you are here and you have a family of your own in the village. That is good but you must also meet the [other] people of your village.”
Using his skill at sketching portraits (which he exchanges for help in learning to speak Hausa) and finding his favored goat liver in the local market, Adam follows this advice literally. But there are misadventures along the way too. When he is interrupted cutting on a Muslim prayer board picked up as a souvenir the kosher summer sausage his mother had sent him, he is chastised for “defaming Allah in such a manner” that the local ag-extension agent, who was peeking in the window of his small room or daki, is “outraged by your behavior.” Then when he squirreled away the treat in his pack again and a rat gets at it, he put “the chunks of prechewed sausage on…[his gas] burner, cooked them on high heat to sterilize them, and then ate them.” Later when he secretly tries to burn the defiled prayer board outside the village, he ends up setting fire to a good proportion of Gidan Hatsi’s precious millet fields, and Nasiru, who discovered the board’s charred remains when he helped put out the fire, tells him, “‘Babu dadi’” (”What you’re doing is wrong”).
Later Adam is introduced to marijuana by a hippy Volunteer and then develops a friendship with Sheryl Johnson, a neighboring Volunteer nurse who had earlier been raped during training and medevaced out for psychological treatment. But like an awkward young, rogue elephant, “separated from his herd…because there’s no mate for him or he’s not strong enough to claim” one, he sketches her nude when she agrees to sit for a portrait, and she tells him to slow down. In the meantime, another Agroforester Volunteer Ed Espada, a gay Cuban-American stationed near Diffa in the extreme northeast corner of Niger, comes into the story when he is forced to hide his sexual preference from his father, who pays him a surprise visit after he takes a job with Shell Oil not far across the border in Nigeria.
So when Ed decides to throw an all-Niger PC bash at the nearby dunes in the Tal Desert, Adam decides to drown his sorrow and attend, gets stone on strong hash there, and then is briefly seduced by Ed in the sands before he is filmed copulating with a mysterious Palestinian woman in the middle of the party. These developments soon push Sheryl into a liaison with a local Hausa government official and Ed to go on the run from renditionists of the Homosexuality Center in Nigeria, who have presumably been put on his case by his father there.
Most importantly, though, in this chaos that is the denouement, Adam in shame decides to actually accomplish something as a Volunteer other than smoking, drinking, and getting himself “fucked on television.” So he resolved to “go native” and “renounced his Judaism”, burned his sketchpad and began to study the Qu’ran and pray in the village mosque. Finally, to make matters worse, he proposed to Nasiru’s visiting niece Jamila, whom Adam’s helper Ibrahim had wanted to marry, and after she seduced him with her “rich scent”, bright savvy, and prayer that Adam “would rescue her from her life of grinding poverty” , they are interrupted when Nasiru entered Adam’s daki as they are making love.
If things were spinning out of control before, this incident resulted in Adam being cast out naked into the wilderness, and then his body was discovered near the local elephant pond. But 3 months later when he was sighted drawing murals on the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, Lawson’s paper dispatched him there to find out what really had happened to Adam Goldstein.
While Rogue Elephants as a whole is well-constructed and its Epilogue about Lawson’s return investigation has some nice passages on how modern art is representing the reality of contemporary Africa that draw the reader inexorably on to turn the last page, the book’s final scene is unsatisfying. But that ultimate in a number of Peace Corps parties, which occurs so near the site of the recent Boko Haram kidnapping and propels the novel’s plot into the chaos that leads to its contrived ending, left me pondering the acceptable relationship between Guest and Host in the Peace Corps experience. While I did things I’m not so proud of when I was a Volunteer, most of us never participated in anything that would have so offended our host country’s sensibility as the party in the Tal dunes that must have enraged the enveloping but genuine ethics of the Hausa.
The extreme party may well have been a fictional device. But if anything even remotely like it did actually occur, the arduous Niger environment of the Nineties must have knocked the Peace Corps off kilter there. For there is likely a direct causal effect between such deliberate flouting of Hausa morès (that must spread like wildfire through Hausa communities on both sides of the Niger-Nigerian border) and the increasingly extreme agenda of the Boko Haram, which no one can condone but all must accept as having its genesis largely in the continuing unemployment and grinding poverty of the Hausa people today.
Reviewer Richard Grimsrud was a fleet management adviser to the Bihar Health Transport Organization as well as a well-drilling coordinator for the Bihar Relief Organization in the Peace Corps.. Returning to the States he started at Harvard Law School, was derailed by the Viet Nam war, served as a VISTA Volunteer to the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Newark, NJ and graduated from law school in 1971.
After an apprenticeship as the Law Reform Director with the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Program and as a Trial Attorney for the Denver Litigation Center of the EEOC, he left law to teach Comparative Religion, Native American Law and Government, and Constitutional Litigation at Yavapai College and Northern Arizona University, then returned to practice law in Flagstaff, AZ, specializing in employment and Indian Law from 1980–2011. He also obtained a Masters in creative writing from Northern Arizona University. Having left his law practice, he is now writing full time.
To purchase Rogue Elephants from Amazon.com, click on the book cover, the bold book title or the format you would like — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support our annual writers awards.