Mark Wentling (Honduras, 1967-69; Togo, 1970-73; PC Staff, Togo, Gabon, & Niger, 1973-77)
A Peace Corps Writers Book, $16.78 (paperback); $14.34 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Jack Allison, Malawi, 1967-69)
What an engaging gem of a novel! The jacket cover sums up the book nicely: “Although Africa’s Embrace is literary fiction, the novel is, in actuality, a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of the author’s three years of working in an African village back in the 1970s.”
Apparently the author, Mark Wentling, took an oath not to reveal parts of the story for 40 years, and he honored that promise. The novel is a three-year adventure story of how a young chap from Kansas adapted to life in remote West Africa.
The protagonist, David, is renamed “Bobovovi” by the village elders; after he is “transported” magically down a mountain “on a moonbeam,” he is thereafter viewed and treated differently by all, in and around his village.
Magical beliefs, including ancestral worship and homage, are a foundational fabric of the book. So are local feuds and grudges between neighboring villages. David is thwarted many times in his efforts to promote developmental change. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers will most likely resonate with his puzzlement and anger by repeated acts of destructive revenge over petty jealousies between villages, “…as it made no sense to me.
I found it most disturbing and frustrating that there were so many inconceivable and unpredictable events one could not possibly anticipate when planning to improve life in the village, I was discouraged from doing anything more for the village. I had certainly learned how excruciatingly hard it was to help people help themselves enjoy better lives.”
Yet David presses on, and becomes more attuned with and accepting of the multifaceted
relationship between his basic religious norms and customs, and adherence to traditional African customs, beliefs, and magical occurrences. There are poignant contrasts between a traditional chief from one village, with a modern, educated, Westernized chief of another village, who are called upon by David to collaborate and cooperate on a project to provide water and possibly electricity for their villages: The traditional chief stated firmly that “…it will not work because our particular circumstances require each village to have its own separate water system to manage.
Bobovovi needs to redesign the project so separate water systems are constructed for each village at the same time.” That chief was also opposed to the provision of electricity: “There are enough hours of daylight. We do not need more light at night. The night is for other things and must stay night. Introducing light in the night would be too disturbing and create commotion among the spirits.”
After a secondary project to provide a maize grinding mill for another village also failed, David was fed up and ready to leave Africa: “I had found that helping people was just too hard, especially if they were not ready to help themselves.”
However, in the final chapter, David spends a night inside an ancient, holy baobab tree where he is “transformed” — that Africa’s final embrace meant that there was no escape from Africa for him.
The prologue of the book raises many questions: “…the line between the real and the
imaginary has grown very thin, and it is harder than ever for me to distinguish between the two.”
The essence of this book is that, after reading it, that line remains invitingly fuzzy…
This book will most assuredly become a standard reference for discussing cross-cultural
machinations for those interested in pursuing development ventures, especially in Africa, yet in other countries as well. It is well written, insightful, relevant, meaningful — and a host of other positive descriptors. I recommend Africa’s Embrace most highly.
Dr. Jack Allison retired from clinical medicine four years ago after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine. He responded to the victims of the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, where he treated hundreds of quake victims. Prior to retirement, he served as Chief of Staff of the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina. Before that, Dr. Allison was Chief of Staff at the VAMC in Syracuse, New York, a position he had held since 1999.
Dr. Allison received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1966, and earned a Master of Public Health degree from the UNC School of Public Health in 1971. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer for three years in Malawi, Central Africa.