Reviewed by Brooks Marmon (Niger 2008–10)
IN THE BELLY OF THE ELEPHANT is Susan Corbett’s memoir of her life as an aid worker with Save the Children in Burkina Faso (then called Upper Volta) in the early 1980s, following her Peace Corps service in Liberia.
Amidst descriptions of a hard scrabble life in Dori, a small town near the border with Niger, Corbett weaves in occasional reminiscences of her service in Liberia and the harsh attitudes of many of her family members in the US to her decision to work in west Africa.
Much of the work can be quite jarring — a reflection of both Corbett’s experiences in the harsh climate of the Sahel as well as an extremely candid writing style. While the book was not the optimistic coming of age story that the rising sun and sprouting tree on the cover art suggested, Corbett effectively illustrates the struggles of an expatriate worker outside of the comfortable posting of a capital city. She also seems to have had a knack for getting ensconced in drama — both romantic and political.
Corbett left Liberia shortly before a coup in 1980, was in Burkina Faso amidst a coup there the same year, and was caught up in an attempted coup in Kenya while vacationing there in 1982 (I found the description of the latter one of the book’s highlights). The rightward drift of American politics following the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and a running discourse on the nefarious role of the CIA in Latin America and the Middle East also constitutes a significant backdrop to Corbett’s experience.
Corbett’s tales of both expat social gatherings and professional life will likely resonate with many Peace Corps Volunteers and Western aid workers. Again, Corbett’s recollections are quite frank. Her Peace Corps boyfriend, Rob, with whom she initially maintains a long-distance relationship dumps her by letter, including a high-end Swiss Army knife in the package. Briefly reflecting on the intent of this perplexing break-up gift, she quickly cuts that exercise off and simply concludes that he’s a “son of a bitch.”
Although grounded in Burkina Faso, the book ventures to a number of African locales — the Gambia, Senegal, Kenya, and Somalia as the author goes on holiday and considers a new job opportunity. Unlike many writers, Corbett doesn’t choose to focus on the immediate surroundings of these journeys. Instead, they form a backdrop to the various challenges that Corbett is facing in charting the trajectory of her social and professional life.
The composite picture that emerges is a harsh one that can be a bit difficult to digest — “the bloodbaths of Liberia, the poverty of Upper Volta, the sorrow of Somalia.” At times the book borders on an embrace of the more unfortunate tropes of Western writing on Africa — a voyage on the Niger river is described as a venture “into the heart of Africa” and Dori, is described as existing “on the edge of the world.”
However, Corbett’s blunt assessment of her experiences and the struggles they provoke provide an unvarnished insight on an aid worker’s psyche. She has bravely told a story that many others would be reticent to share, which makes for a fascinating read.
Reviewer Brooks Marmon (Niger 2008 – 10) embarked on a journey that was broadly the inverse of Corbett’s. After Peace Corps service in the Sahel (he regrets that he never visited Burkina Faso), he subsequently worked in Washington DC and Monrovia, Liberia. He is now pursuing a PhD in African Studies at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on Zimbabwean history.