Naming the best memoir by an RPCV who served in Africa has stirred some interest. A number of first rate books have been cited, from Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87) The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn published in 1991, to Kris Holloway’s Monique and the Mango Rains that came out in 2006. What we are seeking is a memoir of the Peace Corps experience, not fiction.
Readers seem not to remember a few other good books published by RPCVs. Jason Carter’s account, for example, of being a PCV in South Africa entitled Power Lines published by National Geographic Books in 2002, or Jeanne D’Haem’s (Somalia 1968-70) charming The Last Camel: True Stories About Somalia published by Red Sea Press in 1997, or even Mango Elephants in the Sun by Susana Herrera (Cameroon 1992-94) put out by Shambhala Publications in 1999.
Selecting the best book is not easy. Very few readers remember the late Tim McLaurin (Tunisia 1978-80) The Keeper of the Moon: A Memoir published by W.W. Norton in ’91 or George Packer (Togo 1982-83) story of his one year in the Peace Corps entitled The Village of Waiting that Vintage/Random House issued in 1988. Susan Lowerre’s Under the Neem Tree (1991) gets a mention, but not Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by the beautiful Sarah Erdman who was in Cote d’Ivoire from 1998-2000.
Another overlooked great piece of non-fiction prose is Geraldine Kennedy’s (Liberia 1962-64) Harmattan that came out in 1994. This book was Geraldine’s account of five women who decided to cross overland the Sahara Desert when they had nothing better to do between their first and second years in the Peace Corps. Okay, it is not quite what I mean by a “Peace Corps book” though it is a page-turning adventure.
There is one one person who lives on in many of our memories and that is Maria Thomas, the pen name of Roberta Maria Thomas Worrick (Ethiopia 1971-73). Maria did not write a memoir of her years in Ethiopia, but all of her books were filled with tales (her tales) of East Africa. She died too young and ever since we had missed the stories she might have told us, the books she would have written.
With that all said, and giving a nod to the many other self-published accounts and other recollections of their tours in Africa, I have to join the choir who believes–and rightly so–that Mike Tidwell’s account of living through his rough years in Zaire, and coming home again, is the best memoir by a PCV who served in Africa. Mike fills every page of his book with his strong personality, but also has the wisdom to include the stories of the HCNs he meets along the way, and to add his sins and successes in his tour. Like many of us, this kid from Georgia and just out of college, was having the great adventure of his life. But unlike us, he also had the talent to brilliantly tell his story.
So , what is the best Peace Corps memoir of Africa? Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalmabayi: An African Sojourn published in 1990 by Lyons & Burford.
This book was turned down by at least 9 other publishers before a small press in New Jersey accepted the manuscript because they published books on fishing and they thought Mike’s adventures might be of interest to their readers, even thought it was about this guy in Africa who built fish ponds for the Peace Corps in Zaire.
The book is still in print.