“Bookmarks: Two Peace Corps Memoirs” by Craig Storti (Morocco)

 

BOOKMARKS: TWO PEACE CORPS MEMOIRS

published in The Interculturalist, a periodical of SIETAR USA

Craig Storti

Two Peace Corps Memoirs: Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman; The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell.

Reviewed by Craig Storti (Morocco 1970-72).

 

The column this month is the 2nd half of a two-part look at the writings of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). We believe that the inherently cross-cultural nature of the Peace Corps experience—hence of the books RPCVs write—will be of interest to SIETAR members, many of whom are themselves RPCVs. In the September column we looked at the website that promotes, publicizes, and in some cases publishes the work of RPCVs; in this column we review two RPCV memoirs.

The Peace Corps experience is about as close as you can get to the quintessential cross-cultural experience. The core elements of a classic Peace Corps assignment—you learn the local language (often very local), you get sent to a remote village, you are the only American and often the only westerner for miles around, you live the way the locals live—these elements more or less guarantee that every day is a parade of cross-cultural moments. More than serious travelers, more than most other expats, PCVs see the culture from the inside, or as much as outsiders ever can.

The typical Peace Corps memoir unfolds in three acts:

Act One: What have I gotten myself into? My language skills are pathetic; I make all kinds of cultural mistakes; no one really trusts me—heck I wouldn’t trust me either if I was one of them; my project is not coming along that well; the chocolate-covered ants aren’t really my thing.

Act Two: This might just be possible (in spite of me, I should add). I can say whole sentences; I’ve made one or two friends, I think; I’m more of a village fixture and less the village idiot; a few people are interested in my project; I’m getting used to this place.

Act Three: I might actually be making a difference. Two years now doesn’t seem that long; I’ve accepted a lot of things I thought I could never accept; I see results in my work; my biggest worry isn’t whether I’ll ever accomplish anything but whether what I did is sustainable when I’m gone; leaving this place isn’t going to be easy

This description is a bit unfair, making the typical Peace Corps memoir sound like it’s all about the writer, a story of personal growth and self-development. It is that, of course—all memoirs are—but not to worry: that’s not what you’ll find on the page. Rather you will find compelling incidents and unforgettable characters, the stuff of any good story. To be sure, you’ll get brief glimpses of the narrator now and then, just enough to care what happens to him or her, but the main event is the village and the people. The three acts merely give the memoir its plot; all it needs then to come alive is a writer who is unusually observant, exceptionally self-aware, and who never takes him/herself seriously.

 

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman (Cote d’Ivoire 1998-2000)

I’m trying hard to understand this place. She’s mocking my efforts and my ignorance…. “I like to have fun,” she has told me many times. But this isn’t fun…. She is my closest female friend here, but I don’t know if I can trust her.*

I did try to find another word to describe this book—“touching” was a strong candidate—but in the end I came back to my first instinct: “charming.” I was wary of charming because it feels quite inappropriate for a book with its fair share of death, disease (AIDS among others), and grinding poverty. But I came back to the word because of the people Erdman gives us; they are so honest, so strong, so funny, and so true that you can’t get enough of them.

Erdman was a health volunteer in the remote village of Nambonkaha in northern Ivory Coast, a village with a modest health clinic run by the book’s hero Sidibe. Erdman’s job is to help Sidibe add to the clinic’s repertoire of services, especially in the maternal/child care arena. The book builds slowly to a lovely climax, with all manner of setbacks along the way, small and medium-size triumphs, one or two crises, and a few moments of introspection giving us just enough about Erdman to make us care what happens to her next. When Erdman’s tour ends and she leaves for home, you want to get on the next plane to Abidjan and pick up where she leaves off. After all, these people are all now your closest friends, thanks to Erdman’s lyrical writing and her ability to create indelible characters. These people need me!

At the cost of an embarrassing revelation, let me say that I was not planning to read this book straight through, thinking instead that I would jump around to get enough of a feeling for it to be able to write a review. But I was so captivated—so charmed—that I devoured it. I know of no higher praise for an author.

(*In an email the author recently wrote: “You might be interested to know that I saw Abi (the woman from the quote you used) last year on a trip back with my husband and my son. The reunion was so wonderful, like finding my family after so many years. I joked with her about how she used to make fun of me, and she said, ‘Really, I did that?’ and she was genuinely chagrined.”)

Author Interview: Sarah Erdman

1. Why did you write this book?

I had to. When I finished my Peace Corps service in Côte d’Ivoire in spring 2000, I traveled overland from Nairobi to Johannesburg. While we saw and did some amazing things, West Africa was the Africa I understood and loved, and I missed it terribly. Oddly enough, my culture shock came not when I returned to the States, but when I rode into South Africa from Mozambique on the fanciest bus I had seen on the continent. We stopped at a gas station with a big, shiny convenience store and a deli and I panicked—I wasn’t ready to return to the Western world yet, especially when I was still in Africa. I realized what I had to do next was write the experiences I had lived and tell the stories of the people of my village. Friends of my family had a house in the Montana Rockies that was empty at the time, and so I settled in there by myself and wrote for three straight months. It was my way of reacclimatizing to my own country, of processing all I had experienced in West Africa.

2. What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?

My greatest takeaway from living in a remote traditional village with no running water and no electricity—where funerals involved many hours of dancing and medical issues were tied up with sorcery—was that, in the end, we are not all that different. The village nurse said, soon after I arrived, “Americans think we all live in trees and wear animal skins.“ At the time, I couldn’t argue otherwise. In writing the book, I sought to smash American stereotypes of Africans, help my readers develop an understanding of West Africans as nuanced, multi-dimensional people that share many of the same fundamental worries and joys as Americans do.

3. Is there one book about crossing cultures that you really like/would like to recommend to SIETAR members?

In Americanah, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the main character comes to the U.S. from Nigeria and has to adapt not only to American culture but also to Black culture in America, and both present challenges. Her perspectives on race and culture in America remind the reader that sometimes it takes an outsider to reveal real truths about a place. As the daughter of a Foreign Service family who spent half my childhood overseas, I appreciated that when the main character returned to Nigeria, she saw her own country differently and had trouble fitting in there too.

4. What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?

During the years that my family was posted abroad, my parents made an effort to explore our host country and the region as much as possible. When I was 12, we drove to Morocco from our home in Portugal. Outside of Marrakech, we drove up into the Atlas Mountains and stopped for a picnic on a hillside where a Berber girl was tending her sheep. My father, also a former Peace Corps Volunteer, called out to the girl in French, “What’s your name…Aicha?” She looked at him with huge eyes and nodded.

Then she ran down to a stone hut to get her mother, who invited us to have tea. She was dressed traditionally and staying with her kids in this tiny stone structure in the middle of nowhere for weeks so that the sheep could graze. She told us all about her life and her family and we told her about ours. We stayed drinking tea in that dark hut for more than an hour. We ended up exchanging letters with her for several years afterward. This was a moment of awakening for me: that you could encounter someone in the most improbable circumstances, establish a real connection and touch each other’s lives.

5. If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?

Remember to laugh at yourself. Being able to not take yourself too seriously, to laugh at your mistakes, can quickly defuse a situation and put others at ease. It conveys humility, and humility is indispensible when you’re trying to communicate across cultures.

6. This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. If you’d like to say something else to these folks, something we have not asked about in this questionnaire, feel free to add your brief comments here.

Join the Peace Corps (when it starts up again)! I’ve spent half my life out of my native country and still the experience that most changed my perspective on the world was the two and a half years I spent in the Peace Corps. Joining remains the best life choice I ever made.

The Ponds of Kalambayi by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 1985-87)

When he finished digging his first pond, he insisted on understocking it because, he claimed, rainstorms would deliver additional fish from the sky.

“The sky?” I asked.

“Yes,” he told me. “That’s how fish get into rivers and lakes. They come down as tiny babies inside raindrops.”

The Ponds of Kalambayi The Ponds of Kalambayi has enjoyed a certain elite status as one of the best PC memoirs since it was first published in 1990, often compared to the best of the best, a book called Living Poor by Moritz Thomsen (PCV Ecuador); the book even has a blurb from Thomsen. The comparison is not facile; Tidwell tells a moving narrative of his struggle to convince dirt-poor, rural Zairean farmers to dig fish ponds and raise tilapia to feed their malnourished families and to sell in the local market. The subtext, as it is in both of these books, is Tidwell’s struggle to understand why poor Africans have so many children, knowing that when these children get sick, as many inevitably will, being malnourished precisely because they are so numerous—when they get sick, there won’t be any money to cure them; they will die. Why can’t they see that fewer mouths to feed means even a poor family has a fighting chance to keep everyone healthy?

Tidwell’s struggle with local logic almost derails his project, while his growing acceptance of it makes for a powerful story line. The incident Tidwell tells about chief Ilumba, who must sell his fish to get his wife back, is riveting; the story seems to be heading in a direction that is poignant enough when it suddenly turns into a stunning clash between the chief’s personal need and family/community obligations, leaving Tidwell—as it will you—amazed and speechless. The Ponds richly deserves its status as one of the great Peace Corps memoirs.

Author Interview: Mike Tidwell

1. Why did you write this book?

I’m 58 years old and my two years in the Peace Corps —right out of college —are still the most formative two years of my life. I packed 20 years’ worth of peak life experiences into two years, good and bad experiences. I made friendships with village people the depths of which I’ve never known since. I saw love and hate, life and death, beauty and sorrow—all way beyond the boundaries I’d known growing up in suburban America. I went to 200 funerals for children under the age of five—in two years! I saw wild hippos at sunset from river canoes. So when I returned home to Atlanta afterwards, the stories poured out of me like water. But after a week, I noticed the eyes of friends and family glazing over from my endless tales of village life – and I was just getting started. So I had to write it all down. I had to meditate on what it really meant to me, paragraph by paragraph. I wrote the book so I wouldn’t go insane.

2. What is the most important thing you want readers to take away from this book?

I want people to love the villages of Kalambayi as much as I did. Life without electricity and running water is both wonderful and terrible. The sound of women singing together as they plant corn in a gentle rain is better than any podcast through your ear buds. But there’s a trade off. I wanted readers to appreciate the drama of poverty, the drama of drought erasing next month’s meals, and the dark immediacy of sickness and death in the underdeveloped world.

3. Is there one book about crossing cultures that you really like/would like to recommend to SIETAR members?

Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman

4. What is one of the most significant, most memorable cross-cultural experiences you have had?

I tell this story in the book. I had been in Kalambayi for a year and was finally fluent in the local language Tshiluba. One morning I met a blind man alone along a river bank. We were both waiting for a ferryman to return from the far shore to carry us across in a canoe. The blind man and I began chatting and I quickly realized he didn’t know I was a white foreigner. He thought I was from a nearby Congolese region that spoke a dialect of Tshiluba, hence my accent. We talked for 20 minutes about the weather and his grandchildren and our mutual love of the local food favorite: porcupine stew. It was every traveller’s dream: complete cultural immersion. Only when the ferryman returned and yelled, “Hey White Mike,” did the blind man and I surrender to the distracting facts of race and nation. But the lesson lingered on for me: Given half a chance, our differences melt compared to our common humanity.

5. If you could pass on only one insight/one lesson learned to others about crossing cultures, what would you say?

I once wrote a travel piece for the Washington Post about haircuts I’d gotten all over the world. In Vietnam they clean your ears with a long, tiny spoon after your hair cut. An outdoor barber under a Hanoi mimosa tree told me afterwards, “Now you can hear me. We can be friends.” My advice to readers: Keep traveling. Keep crossing cultures. It’s great to be heard and to hear. We need it more than ever.

6. This newsletter goes to nearly 1,000 readers, folks who are either in or interested in the field of intercultural communications. If you’d like to say something else to these folks, something we have not asked about in this questionnaire, feel free to add your brief comments here.

I would refer you to the answer just above. Hang in there. The world will come back. We need you.

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  • Mike Tidwell’s The Ponds of Kalambayi is my favorite Peace Corps memoir, ever! And also simply one of my favorite books in whatever category. My husband feels the same way even though he is only married to an RPCV. I recently reread it and was happy to find that it completely holds up to its classic status.

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