A Village Son Remembers
Mark R. Lewis (The Gambia 1970–72)
Reviewed by David H. Day (Kenya 1965–66; India 1967–68)
I HADN’T GIVEN IT MUCH THOUGHT AT FIRST, but the torn and singed pages of what appears to be a personal journal on the cover of this slim paperback provides a clue to just one of the traumatic incidents punctuating Mark Lewis’ Peace Corps assignment in The Gambia. This reviewer was soon led through a series of incidents that, on one hand, for their sheer shock value, astounded, and prompted me to recall one of our great Peace Corps mantras in coping with the vagaries of life in exotic places: flexibility.
And is Lewis ever flexible! His equanimity in the face of the unexpected is exemplary.
Even before the group departs the States, there was a snafu and Lewis was visited during training by two FBI agents. Initially, he worried that they had uncovered something damning with his student activism while visiting France. But . . .
No, they were here on a more serious matter — my religious views in a Muslim society. [Lewis is Jewish.] The FBI thought I would be in danger as the only Jew in Africa, which was ludicrous to me since I’m sure there were other Jewish Volunteers already there. I was the only one in the group, however, and the government was afraid for my safety and felt they would be helpless in protecting my religious convictions. They had a one-way ticket back home if that was my choice.
Lewis assures the agents that his faith would be no problem, and that he would “keep his Hebrew to a minimum” when conversing about religion! (In fact, the sole “problem” Lewis encounters with his faith happened when his Muslim village friends’ refused to permit him to attend portions of the burial service for one of his favorite students who died unexpectedly.)
With his fellow trainees, Lewis heads from the training site in a Boston suburb to the torrid capital city of Bathurst, Republic of The Gambia. (While Banjul has been the official name of the capital since independence from Britain in 1965, Lewis rather puzzlingly chooses to use the old British colonial name.) He is to teach science and agriculture to Fourth Form students in the village of Bansang on the upper reaches of the Gambia River that bisects the tiny West African country surrounded by Senegal. At its widest, Gambia is a mere 30 miles, and it is the smallest country on mainland Africa.
The incident with the FBI was certainly dismaying, yes, but only one of several emotional shocks he receives. I’ll forego a complete “spoiler alert” by recounting only two of these events here — a fire in the school where Lewis teaches, and his sudden evacuation back to the States.
By the time we read of the school fire, we have watched Lewis overcoming predictable culture shock; learning Mandinka, the national language; settling into his teaching routine; and providing his students with extra-mural experiences in the nearby bush relevant to their studies (something new to them). We learn how he adopts a dog that he rescues from being beaten (an unusual cultural practice) by a village girl; is bestowed a new name, “Kebba Lee,” (“Son of the Village” of the book’s title); builds an enclosed latrine with the help of villagers (how many of us have done this!); donates blood to save the life of a cousin of the village headman (how few of us have ever done that !); and, as a result, becomes somewhat of a local hero. He revels in the fleeting contact with a visiting National Geographic photographer, and even becomes a “supplier” in a marijuana deal with a casual friend met while on leave in the Canary Islands. This questionable peccadillo reminded me of the satisfying indulgence in a hot-weather ganja-laced drink offered to me by my own villagers while serving in northern India in the 1960s.
But one day the village school catches fire and students are reluctant, even when painstakingly interrogated by the headmaster, to confess responsibility. As a result, every student is mercilessly whipped by their own teachers! Standing true to his American values, Lewis refuses to participate, looking on helplessly with scowls of disapproval.
Perhaps the greatest contretemps during Lewis’ two-year stay, however, comes with news that his father in California, already seriously ill with colon cancer, has suffered a severe stroke; he immediately must make plans to fly back to Encino. After a month, his father, still hospitalized, urges son Lewis to return to his work in Africa and so he flies back to Bansang only to receive word that his father had succumbed. His Gambian village friends share deeply in his grief, a mark of how well Lewis had inserted himself into the warp and weft of village life. Many Volunteers will recall, in their own way, similarly gut-wrenching departures and the accompanying tough decisions that must be made, often very quickly.
A Village Son Remembers, as far as I can tell, is somewhat of a rarity in the field of at least twenty memoirs of Peace Corps Volunteer experience in West Africa, inasmuch as it’s a story from The Gambia, a country most Americans would be hard-pressed to locate on maps of Africa. But its style is reportorial rather than literary. Its passages, only slightly smoothed over from pages in the author’s personal journal, often read like terse reports — often devoid of what surely must have been colorful detail — as if filed by an AP journalist hustling to depart a country before the next coup. His longest chapter, “Crossing the Sahara,” — most chapters are 2–3 pages — describes Lewis’ fulfillment of a lifelong wish to experience the Sahara. Here, finally, but too briefly, he allows himself to lay out in a richer palette of color and detail, his extraordinary three-month overland journey first, from The Gambia to Dakar, Senegal, then north through the length of Mauretania to Morocco. A ride on an oil truck, for example . . .
took me to the border of Mauretania, the gateway to the Sahara desert and the outskirts of Sumbala, a town just inside the border. There I gazed out into this vast expanse of wasteland. It stretched for miles in all directions as if the rest of the world didn’t exist. An obvious outsider, I was told of the local thieves who prowl around these isolated desert towns preying on unsuspecting travelers. That night I found refuge from them and the biting cold winds and I fell asleep by the wall of the local police station.
In a work generally lacking soaring prose, the author, taking us with him through the western Sahara — where we do not expect color — becomes vividly evocative. I was struck, incidentally, to see that education Volunteers like Lewis were evidently afforded much longer vacation leaves than in my own service.
Although Lewis’ equanimity and flexibility triumph over most of the bumps in the road during his tour of duty, his passions can erupt. In a memorable episode, after his adopted dog,”Blue,” is bitten by a highly poisonous Green Mamba while on a jungle trek, Lewis rushes the pet to a local clinic in search of vaccine. When a doctor, whom the author describes as a friend,(my italics) points out that the vaccine is only for humans, Lewis . . .
grabbed him by the shoulders slamming him against the wall. It was going to be his life or Blue’s if he did not get me the anti-venom. I was calm but deadly serious. He returned with the vaccine to give Blue. We left the hospital and hitched a ride back to the village.
In the book I would have liked a map of The Gambia and adjacent countries, especially one showing his route to Morocco. It is surely an oversight not to have included these. The personalities of the Gambians Lewis befriends in the village — Fatu,Momodou, Adel, Kisma, Mareneh and Abdouleh — get short shrift. Numerous pages of the journal Lewis kept (the one nearly incinerated in another fire) are included, but do not add much. As with many self-published memoirs, the occasional typos might have been caught by a neutral proofreader. At least once, for example, “Peace Corps” becomes “Peace Corp.” From personal experience, I can attest to the importance of handing over one’s manuscript to a professional proofreader before publication.
While Lewis’s volume — a quick and easy read — can’t compare to more well-crafted, in-depth memoirs and story collections now being honored with shelf-space in the Library of Congress, it does afford a concise, handy introduction for those considering Peace Corps service. It’s a testimony to the resilience of one Volunteer in the face of traumatic events, and the rewards of “living poor.”
Back home now, Lewis has reason to be proud of his contributions to Bansang village life: his modest technological and pedagogical innovations; the large hut he labored to erect as a parting gift; his selflessness and his abiding love for those whose hospitality he so enjoyed. In these brief pages, the affection each had for the other seeps through between the lines. And perhaps soon, Lewis might offer us a lengthier, even more nuanced account of that Sahara sojourn.
Reviewer David Day’s latest book, Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers: Stories from Village India is based on his Peace Corps experience in Uttar Pradesh, north India (Xlibris, 2010) and is available by title from Amazon.com. His previous books, A Treasure Hard to Attain: Images of Archaeology in Popular Film and The Life and Death of A Family Farm: Archaeology, History and Landscape Change concern archaeology. Day has also published in Sierra Magazine and Ms.Magazine. He lives in Rochester, NY.