Tubob: Two Years in West Africa with the Peace Corps
by Mary E. Trimble (Gambia 1979-81)
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
Just what does “Tubob” in this book’s title mean? Author Mary Trimble and her husband Bruce, Volunteers sent to The Gambia in 1979, discovered it means stranger or white person. But they didn’t remain strangers for long, though pregnant women shielded their eyes from them to prevent the birth of albino babies. The two were soon given Gambian names; Mary’s was Mariama. They quickly became valued members of their community, she working in health, he in digging wells. By planting a garden and raising chickens themselves, they showed local people how to augment their diet, also debunking a belief that eating eggs causes stupidity.
Reportedly newlyweds, I first envisioned them as a young couple, only later learning they were already in their forties, while Mary had raised four children, putting her at ease with pregnant and nursing mothers. AIDS was not yet a health concern, although the routine reuse of injection needles in local health facilities probably contributed to its spread. Recent volunteers will notice other differences, such as Bruce’s cultivation of a flowing beard, in contrast to today’s clean-shaven men, and his preference for wearing shorts. Their training sessions included British and Canadian trainees and volunteers freely drove official Land Rovers, something I wasn’t allowed until my third year. Motorcycles, now largely forbidden, were actually assigned to volunteers. Some fellow volunteers hired servants, but not the author and her husband. Bruce suffered through a lengthy bout of giardia while a stool sample was being mailed back to the States. Surprisingly, the author attended college only after her service.
The book is rich with vivid details of the ups and downs of daily life, including specifics about food, clothing, furnishings, visitors, and community members, with all their virtues and warts on full display, making for a satisfying and intriguing narrative. Bruce’s informative photos open every chapter. If the couple had serious disagreements during service, these are not shared. I noticed only two misspelled words, fewer than in some other Peace Corps memoirs.
Mary must have kept a journal of day-to-day happenings enabling her to reconstruct sights, sounds, and smells more than 30 years later. She doesn’t gloss over hardships, frustrations, and challenges, mentioning unsupportive staff and young fellow volunteers hanging out aimlessly at headquarters, something not allowed in Honduras where I served. As happens everywhere, several left early.
I couldn’t help comparing further my own experiences three decades later. Quite familiar were the Aralen dreams that plagued Mary, although her fellow volunteer’s death from an apparent Aralen overdose begs for more explanation. Unreliable mail delivery-that hasn’t changed. She and I were both subjected to sexual gropings. I recognized pit latrines with reed privacy fencing from a humanitarian trip to South Sudan in 2006. Sudanese women are still subjected to clitorectomy, something Gambian women also routinely endured. Gambian men usually had at least two wives. In Honduras, decades later, many men supported two households. A highlight for Mary was attendance at a seminar given by Dr. David Werner, author of Where There Is No Doctor, whose book, in Spanish, was my bible in Honduras. She and I both used pictures and demonstrations to convey basic health concepts.
The couple lived on only one $120 monthly allowance, converting the second into dollars, burying a total of $2,500 for safekeeping in their chicken coup. Still, they managed to fashion an abundant and wholesome life, so comfortable that other volunteers and staff visited frequently, sometimes to excess. The gentle rhythm of their days was interrupted by a short-lived military coup, from which they sought refuge from the bombs and bullets in a house along with 116 others. Bruce operated a short-wave radio during the uprising, later earning a Peace Corps commendation.
A map of this little known country, displaying its location and main cities, would have been helpful. Wikipedia shows The Gambia as a slender finger of land penetrating into Senegal with a population of only 1.7 million today.
No one has enough lifetimes to experience all the adventures open to Peace Corps volunteers, so it’s a delight to participate vicariously in another time and place with such a reliable and engaging writer as Mary Trimble, author also of three ranch-themed fiction books.
Check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FO2qFXiPyTQ&feature=youtu.be
Barbara E. Joe, a native of Boston and an alumna of the University of California, Berkeley, is a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. From her century-old house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, she works as a freelance writer, Spanish interpreter, and translator. She joined the Peace Corps at age 62,serving as a health volunteer in Honduras from 2000 to 2003 and wrote Triumph & Hope: Golden Years in the Peace Corps in Honduras (amazon.com, Kindle & Nook), declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers. She is now working on a memoir of her Cuba and other Latin America experiences. In April 2011 she was featured in Woman’s Day and in August 2011 appeared in a video distributed worldwide on Voice of America News. On her blog, http://honduraspeacecorps.blogspot.com, she reports on her humanitarian return trips to Honduras (eight so far) and other topics.