Africa’s Heart: The Journey Ends in Kansas
by Mark Wentling (PCV Honduras, 1967–69, Togo 1970–73; PC Staff/Togo, Gabon, Niger, 1973–77)
A Peace Corps Writers Book,
$ 16.07 (paperback); $8.99 (Kindle)
Review by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
Mark Wentley’s stories revolve around David Peterson, a Peace Corps Volunteer in the imaginary country of Kotoku. The villagers call him Bobovovi and, when they see him ride a moonbeam one magical night, they believe he can commune with their ancestors, but when Bobo disappears into a giant baobab tree they view him as a great spirit. To honor him, they work hard to fulfill Bobo’s many schemes for economic development, and they begin to prosper. Bobo had fallen in love with Atibona, who becomes a recluse, taking on the role of “mistress of the talking trees and plants.” She gives birth to Bobo’s son, an extraordinary boy who becomes Chief Letivi, the “white chief.” Like his father, Letivi is devoted to the development of his country. Village life improves steadily until the global price of cacao falls, and Letivi calls upon a USAID technical assistant to help build a cacao processing plant, so that they might manufacture a finished product. He also wins the support of he country’s devious President, who sees an opportunity to use Letivi for his own gain. Here, Wentling explains in depth development challenges and potential solutions through his characters’ actions.
In the meantime, back in the States, Robin Fletcher, a young journalist, discovers an obscure story about none other than David Peterson, “Hero of Gemini,” who piques his curiosity. He meets a voluptuous beauty named Molly, who agrees to help him find clues in Gemini, Kansas. When they learn that David had gone to Kotoku as a Peace Corps Volunteer, they decide that they, too, must go there to learn the ultimate fate of David.
Chapters alternate between the voices of the young Americans, and that of Chief Letivi. I particularly enjoyed Wenting’s descriptions of African traditions, e.g., Letivi’s marriage preparations when he and his bride are scrubbed, depilated, perfumed and adorned for their wedding night.
The paths of Robin and Molly slowly lead to Letivi when they meet in his village, Ataku. Having found David’s son, they persuade him to return to Kansas with them to visit his father’s homeland.
Letivi’s observations from the moment he leaves his village give the reader a detailed perspective on the differences of African and American civilizations. From his terror in the airplane and confusion about the seat belt to his amazement at a washing machine, a dishwasher, fleets of cars, and the opulence of an American home, Letivi compares each experience with life in his homeland where none of these conveniences exist. There, every chore is done by hand, only a prosperous man might have a mule, a sturdy hut and an obedient wife. Letivi despairs over the possibility of development in his country. He longs to return, but receives a phone call from his grandfather, Chief Gyasi, who mutters only that he must not come home; he is too popular, indicating that the corrupt President feels threatened by Letivi. As a result of the dramatic things he has witnessed, and at the notion that he might not be able to go home, Letivi falls into a psychotic depression and he is hospitalized. The story ends with Letivi gazing from a window near his bed at the full moon. He is a moon child, and this sight comforts him. He believes that he has a ” . . . sacred duty and his love for his people oblige him to return one glorious day to his beloved village of Ataku deep in the heart of Africa.”
As I read Wentling’s books, I am as enchanted as a child is with fairy tales. His writing slides from page to page, with phrases that pop like strings of tiny firecrackers. His “. . . underlying intent . . . is to communicate Africa’s development challenges via a captivating fictional story . . .” and he does that superbly. I cannot dispel the notion that Wentling himself slid down a moonbeam into Africa and the white Chief Letivi is his imaginary reincarnation.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002, and wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and of Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon (You can contact here at firstname.lastname@example.org).