Adventures in Gabon: Peace Corps Stories from the African Rainforest
Edited by Darcy Munson Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras 1975–77)
IF YOU SERVED IN GABON as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Adventures in Gabon will be like a yearbook and a reunion all in one. It is a book of anecdotes by more than thirty writers who served between 1962 and 2005. This is the only Peace Corps book I have ever read that included accounts from years covering the entire Peace Corps experience in one nation (the Gabon program closed in 2005). Unlike most Peace Corps anthologies, this one includes contributions by Volunteers who served after 1980. Equally unusual, the name of Sargent Shriver — first director of the Peace Corps — is never mentioned, and President John Kennedy is mentioned only once.
Divided into seven sections (Joining the Peace Corps, Not in Ohio Anymore, Health and Safety, Impressive People, Magic and Belief, Lessons in Culture, and Fiction), the book notes each author’s name, dates of service and job. However, the anecdotes are actually answers to questions posed over the years by the editor of the Friends of Gabon quarterly newsletter called The Gabon Letter. Since they are answers to questions (What was the dumbest thing you did? What language mistakes did you make? Were you ever sick? etc.), they are generally very short, and often filled with Peace Corps jargon (PCV, COS, TEFL, PCVL, CIRMF, STDs). There are many exact dates, times and names in these answers that gives the reader the strange feeling that we are in the middle of a high school reunion — “Remember when . . .?” and hee-haws.
There are exceptions. Charlie Lafave’s description of his Martin Luther King Jr. lesson plan is touching. He skillfully describes how he engaged his students with a discussion about inter-tribal marriage and helped students imagine the African-American experience. Terez Rose’s escape from an unexpected suitor, and an awkward dinner date thanks to her date’s hot sauce induced hiccups is amusing, as is Joby Taylor’s story about eating grubs. Jonathon Shacat’s bout with intestinal worms is well told, and Brooks Cotton’s piece about hitting a Gabonese woman with his truck, taking her to a hospital only to be pursued by a mob, is disturbing.
Tom Leblane’s explanation of his tribal initiation is captivating. “My initiators spent two months gathering from the forest in preparation,” he begins. Twelve initiators “played various drums and chanted” all night. At dawn, he was stripped and redressed in a red loin cloth and red makeup, then fed slices of root bark which induced vomiting — like Dead Man’s vine (ayahuasca) in South America. “I turned to vomit . . . (and) saw the light bend.” The hallucinations began, guided by his magic twelve. Following their advice, he closed his eyes and felt his “spirit shoot through the top of my head.” He met someone in “the land of dreams, the land of the dead” who answered his questions before he awoke some three hours later next to a dead chicken, sacrificed so that he might return. One hundred people came and for the next three days, celebrated that “le blanc had been initiated into Bwiti.” For the first time, he understood the African ceremony.
Lawrence F. Lihosit is the author of four books about or inspired by the Peace Corps including: Peace Corps Chronology, 1961-2010; South of the Frontera – A Peace Corps Memoir; Whispering Campaign – Stories from Mesoamerica; and Years On and Other Travel Essays.