Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1966-69)
Perhaps an ambitious title for such a short book which documents the author’s adventures as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi which began in late 1990, then on to Liberia in early 1994 with the United Nations. Since I was posted as a PCV just seven miles north of Balaka (1967-68-69), I resonated with many of his experiences, including our both having suffered through two bouts of malaria.
The first 102 pages of this 120 page book reveal Caruso’s reflections on Malawian culture, including his introduction to Chichewa, the national language; locally available foods, such as nsima, the national staple made from maize flour; his newly found joy of walking (“Malawi provided me with an appreciation of walking during the time I lived there. The slow and casual pace of walking allowed me to absorb the tranquility that can be experienced while walking. As I began to live and evolve in my so-called ‘third-world’ sphere, Malawi developed my appreciation for walking.”) And later he added, “Malawi is one of the most tranquil places you can visit. The stillness is most noticeable when walking.”); and his fostering of friendships with Malawians themselves.
Caruso also became adept at bargaining for everything from curios to foodstuffs at the market. Each chapter begins with a Malawian proverb or other popular saying. There are numerous photographs which add nicely to his commentary.
Village life in Malawi is difficult: “In the village there is no electricity, thus, no refrigeration, no air conditioning, no heat, no light bulbs, no stereos, and no television. A simple, hard life seems to be a formula for the joy and happiness found in most Malawians. Although during the years I stayed in Malawi I saw some prosperity, most Malawians in the village live a very basic existence.”
I identified with this quotation, for I lived in Nsiyaludzu Village in a tiny mud hut for three years, located just over the line into Ntcheu District in the Central Region of Malawi. Having a battery-powered basic radio was truly a Godsend… Lucius Banda of the Alleluya Band from Balaka, a singer who became famous after my tour of duty near Balaka, recorded “Son of a Poorman:” “Life on earth goes with suffering, Long ago when man disobeyed the Lord, you are going to eat your sweat, and you can’t run away from problems, problems are here for us, Life on earth goes with suffering.” Caruso goes on to add, “This song could be a true testament to the life of people living in the villages, which I experienced firsthand while living in Malawi.”
Another experience that Caruso and I had in common was climbing Mt. Mulanje, the tallest peak in Malawi at nearly 10,000 feet. “The [Lichnya] Plateau [at ~7,000 ft. elevation] was a mystical experience. The natural sounds and watching the wind blow through the grass fields helped me appreciate the beauty of this heavenly place. I thought how fortunate I was to have discovered such an isolated magical creation. We hiked to various areas of the plateau which were highlights of our stay: no people, no bothers, just the clouds floating along and the world below.” He added, “The faint sounds of rushing water from the streams, or the wind gently whispering, are soothing reminders of the serenity on Mt. Mulanje.”
The second part — the final 17 pages — of the book covers Caruso’s experience in working with the United Nations, a position with the United Nations Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL), billed as a peacekeeping operation during the Liberian Civil War. He actually reported to Liberia unaware of the civil war that raging in that country… “Liberian friends told me of their experiences during the war: Hearing their stories, I wondered how human beings could possibility act in such a way. For example, entire families would be gathered together and the mother and daughter would be raped in front of the husband and son. The son was forced to shoot and kill his father and then turn to his mother and sister and kill them. This was a common form of indoctrination for the creation of a new boy soldier. Ruthless, cold blooded killers were created by the warlords, who used children to achieve success and power in Liberia. I was told of pregnant women being questioned at rebel checkpoints set up by warloards. If the pregnant woman was from an opposing faction, she would be slit open and her baby killed on the spot along with her.”
Caruso relates two instances where he and his colleagues were seriously threatened by boy soldiers: Once when their helicopter landed in the wrong place; the other when their minibus was surrounded — “…we faced the most unpredictable and ruthless people in the Liberian civil war, the small boy soldiers.” Both times Caruso et al. were most fortunate to have survived…
Caruso had two disparate experiences in Africa: as a Peace Corps Volunteer he relished Malawi, “a haven for peace and calm,” a country imbued with “safety and security.” However, in Liberia he witnessed firsthand “a state of destruction and ruin. Nothing we did seemed to make much of a difference.” Several months after he returned to the USA, “the mission in Liberia was closed and all U.N. personnel were evacuated.”
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.