REVIEW: The Keys to the Congo by Irene Brammertz (Zaire 1988-90; Malawi 2011-12)

keys-congo-140The Keys to the Congo: and Further Travels: Memoir of a 2x Peace Corps Volunteer
by Irene Brammertz (Zaire 1988-90; Malawi 2011-12)
Self-published
October 2015
207 pages
$30.00 (hardcover), $8.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)

Irene Brammertz has written a diary type memoir, drawing on journals and letters she wrote and subsequently edited intermittently for ten years after her first service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire. When Irene was 70-years-old she returned to Africa as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer for nine months in Malawi. Then she participated in a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in 2013, when she revisited the people and places she had left behind in 1990.

In her memoir, Irene recalls all the tribulations of culture shock that every PCV experiences:

It’s a wonder that anybody gets anything done to earn a living since it takes so long to just basically exist (water, firewood, food preparation, transportation — your own two feet.

She struggled with the local language, dealt with volatile African weather, and collaborated with international NGOs to make her health zone a success. She lived on $100 a month, had her computer and office supplies stolen, got dirtier than she’d ever been in her life, felt lonely at Christmas, came down with malaria and various infections, traveled like a native and at the age of 47 managed to keep up with younger Trainees and Volunteers. Irene records so many stories, details of her experiences, in a cheerful voice. She’s not a whiner. Many wonderful photographs illustrate the book, from “Gorillas in the Mist” to the solar lanterns she distributed to health centers.

What compels a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to spend ten years off and on working on a book? Does one relive powerful experiences in writing about them? Is the desire so strong to share with family friends and the world at large a major part of one’s life? Maybe it’s just a love story that must be written.

Irene is an extraordinary person, who today continues her service with the RPCV group of South West Florida. Irene’s fellow PCV in Zaire, John D. Yanulis, currently Project Director of the USAID Mikolo Project in Madagascar, wrote a touching commented in his foreword: “Irene is one of a kind. I was so very privileged to have had her as my post-mate for nine months in Zaire. She helped me transition into Zaire with the same grace, perseverance, tolerance and patience that she lives every day.” Irene surely has left many people who share the same sentiments in her wake.

Reviewer 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 (amazon.com or lkaldi@hotmail.com).

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