africas-release-140Africa’s Release: The Journey Continues
(novel)
by Mark Wentling (PCV Honduras 1967–69, 1970–73; PC Staff Togo, Gabon & Niger 1973–77)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
May 2014
232 pages
$ 9.76 (paperback); $4.99 (Kindle)

Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

Mark Wentling says he was born in Wichita, Kansas, but “made in Africa.”  That’s not hard to believe when you consider that since Wentling became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Togo in 1970 he went on to build a career of 43 years in Africa mark-wentling-photowith Peace Corps, USAID, U.S. non-governmental organizations, and as Country Director for PLAN in Burkina Faso, and he has visited all 54 countries.  Wentling has published professional articles on development challenges and, to date, two books of fiction filled with magical reality, based on his own mystical, as well as practice experiences in Africa. Africa’s Release: The Journey Continues is the second in a trilogy, the first is Africa’s Embrace, and the third is yet to be revealed.

In the fictional African villages of Ataku and Aniko a Peace Corps Volunteer they call  Bobovovi works long and hard to unite the feuding villages, and put into place many development projects that the villagers either ignore or sabotage in their rivalries.  The villagers realize, however, that Bobo has magical properties when they see him ride a moonbeam.  They take him to a sacred baobab on a night of the full moon, hoping that the baobab would reveal certain mysteries to the “Whiteman”.  Instead, Bobo disappears overnight.  The villagers are astounded, believing he had been  transformed into a powerful spirit.  Chief Yofu of Ataku and Chief Gyasi of Aniko vow to follow all Bobo’s heretofore scorned advice, and to propitiate his spirit by  ending their feud, uniting their peoples, and working to improve and develop their villages.

It dawns on the chiefs that they can buy a corn grinder without outside assistance by pooling their resources.  They work out how to rebuild the school; they set up a sanitary committee to collect trash and garbage, as well as manure and compost for their gardens; they build latrines and improve their crops.  Their joint villages soon become a model project that people from all around come to visit, thus developing a small tourist industry.  Chief Gyasi tells the villagers:

Development is a process that starts with small steps and then leads to more complicated phases once the capacity and resources are available to tackle more.  We cannot rush the process.

They yearn for prosperity, but struggle with  the difficulty of changing their traditional ways.  They pray to Bobo to help them.

Through the voices of the people, Wentling describes ways to develop rural projects.  These guidelines could serve as a manual for Peace Corps Volunteers, developers or, ideally, villagers.  Turning advice into a story makes the lesson easier to learn.  This appears to be  Wentling’s not so secret agenda.

In the meantime, Chief Gyasi’s beautiful daughter, Celestine, finds herself pregnant after an amorous encounter with the all too human Bobo before he went to the baobab.  She seeks out an ancient  healer who lives among plants and trees, speaks their languages and knows their medicinal properties.  Celestine is dismayed to be told that she must stay as the witch’s successor, live in her sordid hut and learn all the secrets of the arboreal world.  She soon accepts her new calling as mother of plants, however, and feels that her life as such will be exalted.  The old healer also tells Celestine that she is carrying a boy who will eventually be joined by his father.

If this sounds like a fairy tale, it is one that would appeal to  most Africans. Actually, Wentling tells stories like a griot. His characters are vivid, and his plots turn seamlessly.  You can almost hear him say “in the meantime” at the beginning of each chapter.

During my years in Senegal I heard many such stories of enchantment and spirits. Griots are buried in baobab trees that are always surrounded by offerings. Children in my village saw me sitting beneath a tree in the cemetery once and, with my white hair and skin, they suspected me of being a spirit myself.

In the meantime, in a small town in Kansas an eccentric man who speaks to no one, but rambles in circles every evening and especially on nights of the full moon, becomes a favorite figure to the townsfolk.  They call him J.B. for his “jelly belly.”  They heard he had lived in Africa for a time, but J.B. never tells them about it.  One full moon night J.B. disappears, and people are mystified.

At this same time, Celestine’s son has grown into a light-skin prodigy named Letivi, whose extreme intelligence and goodness impresses Chiefs Yofu and Gyasi so much that they designate him to become the next great chief.  After grand ordination ceremonies, on the same night of the full moon that “disappeared” J.B., Letivi goes to the sacred baobab, hoping to find his father there at last.

Is it possible that Bobo has been magically transported back to the sacred baobab  that had swallowed him up years before?  How did he end up in Kansas?  Does he know that he has a son waiting for him in Ataku?   This charming fable has a powerful ending that no reviewer should give away, especially as it will segue into the next irresistible book.

Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon.