Reviewed by John Kennedy (Ghana 1965–68)
Under Chad’s Spell is a fine book.
I enjoyed reading it from start to finish. It’s an easy read. Michael Varga’s story kept me entertained on many levels. I recommend this book to all over the age of eighteen. Read this book and you will know more about Chad, the people of Chad, and the experience of being a Peace Corp Volunteer in Chad. I also believe that if you are open to exploring the possibilities of how your life might have been different if you had been a PCV in Chad, you will learn something about yourself, your past and possible future by reading this book. That’s a heavy burden to place on a book, but for me, Under Chad’s Spell did provide all of that.
When looking for a map of Chad online, I happened on a Lonely Planet web site that has this to say about traveling in Chad:
Wave goodbye to your comfort zone and say hello to Chad. Put simply, Chad is a place and an experience that you’ll never forget! If Ghana and Gambia are Africa for beginners, Chad is Africa for the hardcore.
Maybe the same could be said of being a Peace Corps Volunteer — Ghana and the Gambia, good for the “beginner” PCV; Chad suitable only for the hard core.
But that’s too simplistic. Every Volunteer experience is unique in its difficulties and rewards, and Mr. Varga’s protagonists, Madison and Charlene, are not typical Volunteers even in Chad of the 1970s.
The story begins with in-country Peace Corps training in Chad, a startling and sometimes painful experience for the trainees in different ways. When Peace Corps switched from training at American universities to in-country training I was in my third year of service in Ghana and I watched the trainees come into Ghana fresh from the colleges and streets of the US, and wondered if this was a research-based change for the agency — or at least one carefully considered. I remember how important the information provided to my training group by returned Volunteers and Ghanaian US college students concerning customs of Ghana was in preparing us to work in Ghana. No one in our group got a scalded hand because of inappropriate hand signals. (Years later I did happen to talk with someone who knew the reason for the change to in-country training — it’s cheaper to train in Chad or Ghana than it is at an American university.)
After training, Madison, is assigned alone, to Baibokoum, a remote village in the south of Chad, to teach English in a secondary school. He doesn’t exactly prosper, but he survives and immerses himself in Chadian life and culture. His experiences are unique to his location and personality. His life improves or goes downhill, depending, I think, on the reader’s point of view. (I really couldn’t decide.) Then, because of an insurgency in the capital that has led to the termination of Peace Corps programs in Chad, he has to make a snap decision on whether to leave the village or stay and continue his work and life on his own. The story ends with Madison ruminating on his decision. Many of us have had similar thoughts when leaving our country of service even under less difficult circumstances.
I asked my wife, who was also a Ghana PCV, if we knew anyone who had been a Volunteer in Chad. We did. He was one of those well-digger Volunteers that Madison confides in a letter to Charlene that he envies. Our friend served in the nineties. (Yes, Peace Corps returned to Chad in calmer times.) The Volunteer we knew stayed in Chad for three years and has worked in refugee camps in various parts of the world including Chad. The last time we heard of him he couldn’t stand returning to the US for more than a few weeks at a time. In the modified words of a Kingston Trio song, “Did he ever return, no he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned.” So maybe there is something about Chad even without an abrupt exit.
In Ghana we were sometimes called Peace Corps with the “ps” in Corps pronounced. Perhaps some clever lyrics writer after reading Under Chad’s Spell will change the words of “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” to “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Peace Corps Volunteers.” I don’t think the song — or the book — will become recruiting tools for the Peace Corps, but I really did enjoy reading it and thinking about Michael Varga’s story of Madison and Charlene.
Reviewer John Kennedy is the author of Last Lorry to Mbordo: Misadventures in Nation Building. He lives in Easton, PA, and can be contacted at email@example.com.