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.

  

22 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!

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