Review — IN SEARCH OF PINK FLAMINGOS In Search of Pink Flamingos by Susan E. Greisen (Liberia & Tonga)

 

In Search of Pink Flamingos
By Susan E. Greisen (Liberia 1971-73; Tonga 1973-74)
Penchant Press International, LLC
247 pages
2020 
$15.95 (paperback)

Reviewed by Cynthia Mosca (Ethiopia 1967-69)

When a friend finds out I was in the Peace Corps, I often hear, “Oh, I thought about that. I even filled out the application.” Susan Greisen’s book, In Search of Pink Flamingos, is filled with heart-stopping adventures in Africa. She writes candidly of her journey from a strict Catholic upbringing on a farm in Nebraska to her new home in the small village of Zorgowee, Liberia. Susan is the only Peace Corps Volunteer and the only white person in this town of about a thousand people. Here she found affection and respect both of which were denied her in her Nebraska family home. I’m recommending her well-written book to all my friends, especially those who never sent in those applications.

At nineteen as a certified practical nurse (nine-month course) she introduced antenatal (prenatal) and well-baby clinics to this village. Susan’s resolution and determination were astounding. She also formed a relationship with the head midwife in the area, Bendu. This led her to witness a live birth on a dirt floor, conditions that were less than clean much less sanitary. She then planned, with the approval of Bendu, to begin four weekly classes for the midwives. These classes would focus on basic sanitation. Her cardboard constructions for teaching were ingenious, providing perfect support in a class where four languages were spoken. At the final class, each midwife was given a small shoebox containing basic supplies plus a certificate of completion. Again, perfect.

The outhouse at her new home would be enough to send many Volunteers home. “Although the round hole in my latrine came with a cover, the critters (cockroaches the size of a small mouse) clung to the bottom of the lid each time I lifted it. When they crawled from the underside of the seat, I jumped when their antennae tickled my butt . . . constipation became my frequent unwelcomed companion.” Yikes!

During her two years in Liberia, she was able to travel to many African countries, including Ethiopia. Susan was in Addis Ababa for the celebration of Timkat (Feast of the Epiphany). Her account of this includes a wonderful description of the priest’s processional. In this 1972 visit, Haile Selassie was still in charge, but the impending famine was beginning to take a toll. In 1974 when Susan was in Tonga, Haile Selassie’s reign came to an end. He died in 1975.

Idi Amin was newly in power (1971) when Susan and her friends traveled in Uganda with warnings from the state department to be careful.  Her gumption is incredible. I think she got this confidence from growing up in a small town and assuming positions of leadership in her tiny school. Her insecurities came from the constant criticism of her parents who gave continually mixed messages — follow your passion but get married and become a farmer’s wife.

The saddest part of the book for me was Part X. Her “Some Enchanted Evening” moment came in Liberia with Michael. After their service, the two of them moved to Berkley, California. Her parents, ever critical and racist, parked outside of their apartment building around Christmas time but never came to the door. Susan went to them. I’d like to believe that I would have left them sitting there.

This is the astonishing story of a young woman determined to be of service, all the while defending her virginity. In the beginning, Susan was inspired by a painting of pink flamingos. She finds them. Finally, through her compassion and dedication to being of service is rewarded by a grateful patient with that same piece of art. Her story comes full circle.  I highly recommend this book. As soon as I finish this review, I am sending my book group a note to get on Amazon and get the book. My copy is already spoken for.

Cynthia Mosca (Ethiopia 1967–69) returned home from the Peace Corps to teach but eventually left teaching art and went into the field of ESL. She became the Director of the Bilingual Program in Cicero, Illinois.

  

39 Comments

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  • Cynthia, thank you for the wonderful review of my book. I was certainly privileged to be in Addis Ababa during Timkat. You must have enjoyed your service in Ethiopia. The people were so gracious. Yes there were many parallels between the farm in Nebraska and my village in Liberia. Without that farm-girl foundation, I never would have made it in Zorgowee. I went to “help save the people in Africa”, but in the end they helped save me. Susan E. Greisen

    • No, thank you for writing and John Coyne for letting me review the book. I immediately recommended it to my book group and bought a few copies to send off to those friends who never sent in their PC applications.

  • As a fellow Peace Corps volunteer living just down the road from Sue, I was intrigued by her version of working and living in that culture, especially as a very young and attractive woman. This book brought back so many wonderful memories of Liberia and its various ethnic groups. Her concluding chapters brought the story full circle, and me to a few tears. Thank you, Sue, for sharing your life with us.

  • I was in Liberia at the same time as Susan, although in an education group, not so far upcountry. Susan’s story brought back many memories, but also left me in awe about the experiences she had that I believe I was fortunate to miss. This is a very strong and touching story, written with grace and truth.

  • This amazing book is two good stories in one. The challenges of a 19-year-old woman in the early 70s going alone to start a health program in an African village that has never been exposed to basic modern hygienic health practices seem overwhelming, and she doesn’t hide the fact that they were a daily struggle for her. The experiences are beautifully and insightfully written, and she emerges a victor who has brought about changes in a two-year period.

    The other story though is the one that was gripping for me. Her Nebraska farm parents, though well meaning, emotionally abused her, as perhaps most poignantly described in her tale of bringing African gifts home to them. She didn’t let the pain of being disowned by them for most of her life cripple her as it might have, but instead eventually came to see their lives and perspectives in a way that brought understanding and resolution in the end. A beautiful story.

  • Those of us who served with Susan Greisen in Liberia in the early ‘70s know her as Gowee Sue. Whatever name you know her by, she has written a gem of a book.

    In Searching for Pink Flamingos, she has captured – often humorously, sometimes with sadness and frustration, but always with honesty and humility – our collective Peace corps experience in Liberia. And so much more.

    Like Mark who posted above, some passages brought tears to my eyes. And then chapters like the one on Mali made me laugh out loud, especially Gowee’s account of her adventures on the Niger River and the side-trip to Timbuktu.

    I read the book last month and am going to read it again this week, and I’ve bought a few more for Christmas presents this year. Whether you were in the Peace Corps and lived in Liberia or not, you will love this book.

  • I too was a Peace Corp Volunteer in “Kahnple ya”, a 30 minute ride beyond Zorgowee, at the time she was there. Her book triggered many fond memories of our “life changing experiences”in a country and culture that taught us so much❣️ She described clinic life very well. Her descriptions reminded me why I transferred to become a teacher after three months‼️🤗 I was sent to my very remote town to be a health educator…my role turned out to be a lot more than simply teaching good health practices in hopes of decreasing the death rate of babies. I had the respect of a doctor without any medical background ‼️🙄 Sue had a lot more medical training and experience on their Nebraska farm home. I transferred to teaching and discovered those first three months as a “health educator” gave me invaluable Insights Into their culture to draw from to illustrate concepts new to my students. I share her love of Liberia and I’m so pleased others can experience it now too through her writings….❣️😘 Thanks for making your dream come true, “Gowee Sue”‼️🤗

    • Hello Trish, I’m glad your brief time as a health educator helped you to understand the Liberian culture that later benefited your students. It is difficult to capture the culture of that incredible country in one single memoir, yet your comments have made me think I made a good effort. Thanks so much and glad we had that time together in Liberia!!! Gowee Sue

  • I finished Susan’s truly remarkable book a few days ago and enjoyed a 2-hour conversation with her the other night. Her vivid memories so amazingly told, pulled up so many memories of mine. Sue followed me in Zorgowee arriving in Liberia as I was leaving. While we both lived in the same house and had the same landlord we had surprisingly different experiences, not only in our work, hers in health and mine in education, but also in our friendships in town and our struggles to cope with personal challenges. This book has opened my eyes to a whole side of life that was happening right around me yet was not available to me. I deeply appreciate the depth her story has added to my understanding of the town and people I loved and lived with all these years ago. I am so glad to be reconnected to her and share our common and individual experiences. I will be sharing her book with others as well!

  • Susan Greisen’s book, In Search of Pink Flamingos is a captivating memoir of her life. Throughout the book, there are events that torment the heart. Pungent episodes of Sue’s growing up in a loveless rigorously run Catholic household on the family farm with a racist mother and father’s profound hatred of Blacks that troubled her for years.

    In spite of Sue’s rigid upbringing and the absence of parental love, her father seem to realize her toughness. He allowed her to do dangerous chores against her mother’s complaints that the work was not meant for women. Sue found solace in caring for and birthing the various types of animals raised on the farm that she so loved and described as “the best place on earth.”

    Although having parents who ignored her many accomplishments, the ‘tomboy’ who embraced toughness early during her youthful years, pressed on to prove her self worth. Against her parents wishes, Sue became a practical nurse and was subsequently accepted into the Peace Corps as a Health Education Volunteer in Liberia.

    This valedictorian from a small Nebraska school discovered during her Peace Corps training in St. Thomas Virgin Islands that to some trainees she lacked acceptable skills. Sue also realized how naively ignorant she was of both domestic and global current events, having lived an isolated existence in Nebraska.. Nonetheless, at the end of training, staff concurred in Sue’s chose to live in a remote Zorgowee.

    Sue’s recounts adapting to the strange new Zorgowee culture; saving babies, unexpected triumphs, sickness and dying, battling despair and her own brush with death after returning home from an overnight stay in another remote area.

    Ending the relationship with the hometown boyfriend, during her appalling home visit with parents before leaving for another assignment in Tonga, was more painful than Sue expected. Even so, as in many heartbreaking occurrences chronicled in her memoir, she found the strength to move on..

    Throughout the book the reader is transfixed by Sue’s journey, coping with disappointments and rejections while navigating through life’s troubled waters.

    What was devastating to me was reading how Sue’s parents adamantly rejected the African gifts she brought home for them and most of all disowning her for loving an African American Peace Corps Volunteer whom she met near the end of her assignment in Liberia.

    Sue experienced insurmountable pain so much.in her life. But for every obstacle she faced, determination gave her power to overcome and strength to persevere. Moreover, Sue’s amazing fortitude to unapologetically accept final acknowledgement of her parent’s love and unconditionally forgive them in the Winter of their years is a poignant testimony of Sue’s own Truth to Power..

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer Teacher arriving in 1971 in Sanniquellie, two months after Sue’s arrival in Zorgowee. She would come to Sanniquellie from time to time. It was always a pleasure to be around her. Sue’s book brought back joy, tears and loving memories of my approximately three years living in Liberia.

    Her memoir is a riveting must read!

  • In Search of Pink Flamingos is a fantastic book that encompasses travel, foreign cultures, and growing up in a unique environment.
    This memoir will delight readers who are looking for more.

  • I was on the Peace Corps staff in Liberia from 1971-73 at the same time Susan was serving so admirably upcountry. In fact, i heard more than once about this particularly effective PCV in the north called Gowee Sue. When I heard that some 45 years later Sue had written a memoire mostly about her time in Liberia, I had to read it. And what a compelling sometimes painful, sometimes joyous but always honest book it is. Sue grew up on a farm in a remote part of Nebraska. She loved the animals she tended, and her parents. Her parents loved her too, but never showed it. When she announced after her graduation from a nine-month practical nursing course that, at 19, she was going to join the Peace Corps and go to Africa, their worst side revealed itself. Though probably never having even talked to a black person, they damed the race and Africa too. They just couldn’t believe that instead of becoming like other young woman in the area, a farmer’s wife, she wanted to tend to the health needs of people half way around the world. But Sue was indomitable, and off she went, spending two years in Liberia and another year in Tonga skillfully and creatively tending to the health needs of her villages. And it was there, in those two distant countries, that she received the love and acceptance that her parent couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide. I bought Sue’s book for my present wife, my ex-wife, my two daughters and my step-daughter. THAt’s how much I loved a book that brought back so many memories of the country, the people of Liberia and particularly the Peace Corps Volunteers I interacted with daily. Each volunteer had — has — his and her story. Sue put her’s in writing, and it is fascinating.

  • In Search of Pink Flamingos is a “MUST READ” for all Liberia RPCV’s. It is a well written story of one persons motivation to join the Peace Corps, the trials and tribulations of being a volunteer in Liberia 1969-1973, and the daunting challenges of returning to the USA after compleeting service; how that story is common to so many of us RPCV’s.

    Well done “Gowee Sue”!!

  • My husband was in Liberia with the Peace Corps I believe in 1962-64. He and his first wife taught school there. He also has many stories, and notes especially that the experience changed his life. I will seek a copy as a gift for him, right away; thanks for publishing.

  • I so enjoyed reading Susan’s story as she describes how she chose to become a nurse and join the Peace Corps. Many heartwarming and heartbreaking stories as she described her journey. Felt like I walked with her as she moved through the many adventures and how she shared her life with the people in Africa. Barbara

  • What an absolutely amazing person you are, Susan. the memoir captures your heart, your experiences and the people of Gowee! Your detailed descriptions help the reader be so very present. I could relate to so much of your experience even though my own PCV experience was decades later and miles away. You were 19 and I was 60, yet so much is similar. You however kept fabulous diaries and photos. I was so busy and had internet intermittently, my journal is empty and my photos seem to be mostly Facebook Memories! Thank you for your service then and your continued service in sharing your memoir. Certainly prospective PCVs as well as RPCVs can learn, enjoy, cry, and smile with you!

  • Thanks for the Memories!! Gowee Sue’s book is reminding all of us RPCVs how young and naive we were in 1969.

    Sue”s dream to leave the farm and join the Peace Corps because she was determined to help change the world, is also our story!! Sue has put into words the feelings and emotions we also had for our job and the Liberian People.

    Her curiosity of the culture in Zorgowee, allowed the Liberian people to embrace her and trust her. Because of that relationship, Gowee Sue was a fantastic Health Volunteer. I look forward to my grown children reading “In Search of Flamingos”…through her story, I am sure they will realize why Liberia and the Liberian people have a special place in our hearts!

    • Patti (and Gene)
      I am so thrilled we were able to reconnect again. Patti, you were my trainer and because of your guidance I was able to succeed in Gowee. A place and a people always in my heart.

  • Susan Greisen writes a fascinating narrative about her Peace Corps experience in the early ‘70s. I expect that many Americans have only a vague idea of what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer. This book provides the reader with background leading up to her becoming a volunteer, her challenges and successes as a volunteer in Liberia, and the influence that experience had on her life to the present day. If you don’t know that much about Peace Corps daily life, this will be an educational adventure for you.

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer myself. It is a credit to Ms. Greisen’s writing skill that though the specifics of our volunteer work was different, her recounting of her experiences triggered memories from my years as a volunteer that I had not thought about in many, many years.

    I highly recommend In Search of Pink Flamingos. I admire Ms. Greisen’s willingness to share with readers many private aspects of her personal life, the struggles that she faced, and how she overcame them.

  • A wonderful book and well told story of life in Liberia as a PCV. I too was there, Liberia ’77-’79, and saw my own experiences mirrored in Susan Greisen’s story. I returned to Liberia in 2001 and found the conditions worse than when I left, over 20 years earlier, because of the wars. I cannot imagine the effects that the AIDS and Ebola epidemics may have caused. However,I have to believe that the strong spirit of Liberians will carry on and I will always hope for their continued progress. Once you have been there you will always care deeply for Liberia. My time in that country was a life changing experience and made me a wiser and better person.

  • Greisen’s book is a deeply personal account of her experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia. But it’s more than just a personal story, it’s told in a profoundly personal voice, so much so that at times it almost seemed uncomfortable. But it was a good kind of discomfort, the kind that art should push us toward. The narrative shares her formative experiences growing up on a farm in Nebraska, all of the growing pains and uncertainty of a typical youth and adolescence, and we really feel the eagerness of the child yearning for a connection with and approval from her parents, who continually withhold it because they don’t know how to express it. The almost exquisite discomfort comes from the purity and vulnerability of this incredibly earnest child, and the bewildering inability of her parents to accept who she is.

    She continually pursues the life she wants to lead, going to nursing school and then joining the Peace Corps, event though the life she is pursuing is not the one her parents envisioned for her, and those decisions, made despite her desire to connect with her family, were difficult ones to make.

    She leaves a boyfriend behind, and he then comes to visit her in Liberia, and again there is an incredible earnestness and innocence in her description of what she expects of his visit, and the way it turns out.

    One of the things that most fascinated me about the writing was that the tone of her descriptions of Liberia weren’t that different from the tone of her descriptions of Nebraska. Physically, we can see that there was a huge difference between the two places, but she affords them both, and the people in them, the same level of consideration and respect. That’s not an easy thing to do when going from the American heartland to the heart of Africa, but she establishes such a tone of honesty and purity in her writing style that we can easily accept it, and truly see these places through her eyes.

    Her experience as a volunteer is filled with the challenges and frustrations that are common to Peace Corps Volunteers the world over, but she maintains her sense of pure dedication, and we see where it comes from, and we believe it. She never becomes jaded or cynical, and we don’t want her to.

    I will avoid spoilers in discussing how things came to a head with her parents, or how those difficulties were finally resolved, other than to say that in some ways (even aside from the author’s foreshadowing), we can see them coming, and we can tell that she does not see them coming, and we worry for her about how she will react when that time finally and inevitably comes. I won’t divulge anything else, but I will say the voice in which she tells this part of the story is completely and remarkably consistent with the voice she uses throughout the rest of the narrative. And that is truly impressive.

  • Memoirs in general are a way for writers to examine their lives, to explore the forces, good and bad, that have made them what they have become today. Greisen’s work, initially set in rural Nebraska farm country, is a compelling read because it is broad-based, the author’s voice is consistent and it resonates with self-knowledge, and her capturing African landscapes while she was there as a Peace Corps volunteer, is truly captivating. You are beside her on the sub-Saharan plains immersed in an area where animals of every type call home. The balance of the writing comes in with Greisen’s reflections on her parents, who were devout, conservative Catholics who were not at all supportive of her decision to go to Africa. In simple terms, they simply don’t like black people. They REALLY do not black people. This makes it hard when Greisen falls in love with a black man. It also begs the question how she emerges without the same powerful bias held by her parents. In the end, the book has a discernible plot and arc, the writing is smooth and well crafted. Greisen should take pride in this work. Her search for truth and her lack of fear in exposing it for all to see and ponder, is admirable.

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