Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1966-69)
Gary Cornelius has written an inviting Peace Corps memoir in minute detail, interspersed with cogent quotes and anecdotes, including entries from his blog posts.
This is a fresh and refreshing saga, for Cornelius served from 2012 to 2013, and the book was published in 2014. Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which resulted in his early departure from South Africa with one year remaining on his term of service. Because this issue was introduced early on in the book, it created tension about what he would accomplish in one year after in-country training.
Cornelius had wanted to join the Peace Corps for 40 years prior, even after two rejections due to pre-existing medical issues. He was also an older Volunteer — he was 55 when he reported to training. He was one of 36 Volunteers in his training group that had a higher rate of early self-terminations by women Trainees and Volunteers than that of the men because of sexual harassment.
The first 130 pages of Dancing with Gogos deal meticulously with training. Cornelius particularly had difficulty with learning Zulu, his least favorite aspect of training, yet the book is full of key Zulu words and phrases — as well as instructive commentary about South African customs and cultural differences. He also introduces the term “internalized oppression” as “the opposite of empowerment,” and gives brief relevant examples of that periodically.
The major component of Cornelius’ service with the Peace Corps was spent training local home-based volunteers about HIV and AIDS. The project was called CHOP — Peace Corps/South Africa’s Community HIV-AIDS Outreach Program. As a physician myself I was enlightened: According to the CDC, medical male circumcision (MMC) reduces transmission of the virus from females to males by 60%.
One of his noble projects, interrupted by his early exit from South Africa was “to try to bring healthier, more efficient wood stoves to my villages, perhaps those promoted by Stove Team International . . . ” because . . .
[t]he smoky wood-burning stoves mean that women spend many hours each week walking long distances to gather wood for cooking and for heat. And those stoves are incredibly unhealthy. More children under the age of five die of respiratory illness in Africa than of malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS combined.
Cornelius’ observations about the roles of women in South African culture resulted in his quoting from Living Poor written by RPCV elder Moritz Thomsen, who served in a remote village in western Ecuador in the 1960s. Thomsen’s descriptions would surely resonate with most RPCVs:
. . . women are the glue which keeps together the family and society at large, bolstered by their de facto matriarchal society; they do all the housework, including cooking, childcare, fetching water and firewood, washing, feeding chickens, hoeing, planting, harvesting, making and patching clothes.
Yet purportedly South Africa has among the highest rates of violence against women, physically and sexually. Cornelius relates that his “[f]ailure to start a project in my village that helped address domestic violence was one of my biggest disappointments when I headed home.”
The penultimate chapter of the book is entitled “A Tribute to Nelson Mandela, a Hero for the Ages.”
Cournelius’s final reflection is a profound “reality check” revelation for the reader, especially RPCVs:
While I was in Africa I read that Peace Corps’ entire budget for its first fifty years was an amount equal to what the U.S. government spends on its military/defense every five days. I read recently that we’ve spent about $5 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine what could have been accomplished if we had spent half that much on pursuing peace.
Although reviewer Dr. Jack Allison had retired from clinical medical practice after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine, he responded the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, where he treated hundreds of quake victims, and hundreds more who were without medical care. Prior to retirement, he served as Chief of Staff at the Charles George VA Medical Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
He is presently a member of the Affiliate Faculty of the Department of Emergency Care, College of Health & Human Sciences, Western Carolina University, where he teaches, performs research, and spearheads faculty development.
In 2012 he volunteered during the month of February with Medical Teams International in Kenya and Somalia where he provided both emergency medical care and public health education to Somali refugees; and in October he volunteered with Marion Medical Mission on a public health project in Malawi and Zambia where he helped to install 112 shallow water wells.
Allison’s avocation is singing and songwriting. He has written over 100 songs and jingles, and recorded over 80 of those. Since 1967 he has raised more than $150,000.00 with his music, and he and his wife, Sue Wilson, have given away all of those monies to various charitable organizations, including $30,000.00 to help feed Malawian children who have been orphaned because their parents have died of AIDS.
Jack is married and is the father of three daughters and one son, and has five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.