Nothing Works But Everything Works Out: My Peace Corps Experience in the West Region of Cameroon
Leigh Marie Dannhauser (Cameroon 2017–19)
Independently published, 2019
$14.99 (paperback), $5.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Eric Madeen (Gabon 1981-83)
During Leigh Marie Dannhauser’s Peace Corps experience in Cameroon as an agriculture volunteer she dutifully kept a journal, and the contents of that journal fill this memoir. It starts with her acceptance of assignment which was initially for Peru, but then gets switched to Cameroon along with the job. The memoir is on point in giving the highlights and challenges (boo-coo!) of daily life and could very well serve as a primer of sorts for future volunteers to Cameroon at staging or better yet required reading prior to being accepted for assignment, to give them an accurate assessment of what they’d be up against. And there’s much!
Having served in Gabon (1981–83) I have somewhat of a feel for Gabon’s northern neighbor (did Yaonde), and had many Cameroonian friends in Gabon where thousands of West Africans, a diaspora of sorts, have relocated to find a better life and living, since Gabon is blessed with an abundance of mineral wealth including deep oil reserves as well as timber from its well-preserved rainforests.
Throughout her successful service Leigh was beset by a constant string of hardships common to most volunteers, especially those having served in Africa, and they include the likes of interminable amoeba dysentery and the hell it can wrack on travel schedules, the nightmare of crammed bush taxis and her being vomited on by an infant in one such, the thunderous rain on a tin roof (“It made drizzles seem like downpours and downpours keep me from hearing myself think”), the long walk to market (three miles in her case), being spotlighted for being a blanc, and one who greeted everyone which resulted in her being invited to a fried-rat dinner, sharing her abode with insects, lizards and mice which she traps and also drowns by setting out buckets half filled with water. Buckets. They make for interesting and resonating experiences; in her case there’s the bucket-flush toilet, dirty dishes washed in buckets, and her assessment: “Overall, living out of buckets was a humbling experience.” So on . . ..
Although talky and/or workmanlike at times, the writing overall is solid and reflective of her education at such heady institutions as Washington & Lee University where she majored in journalism and religion, and then earned her Masters in commerce from the University of Virginia. Leigh’s sharpness and survival skills show in such minutiae as leaving on her floor swaths of duct tape to mark where rain dripped in so as to know where to place buckets to reduce future puddling.
What I’d have liked to have seen more of in Nothing Works is introspection lending itself to the revelatory aside from just the facts in the meticulously delineated sequence of events, i.e., more standing back and assessing just how different folks are there and what makes them tick, and her by comparison, and what rocks their socks in the village of Baleveng, a village of 15,000 where her project was a success in improving food security.
Moreover, I yearned for some quotable exchanges, given the fact that conversations there tend to the lively what with the oral tradition, or orality, being high-octane and charged as it is with the choice turn of phrase, rich proverbs and les bon mots.
More meaning and comparisons and contrasts would make for more interesting reading to hold the reader — this reader — who, however, did without juice (electricity), running water (hers was unreliable in dry seasons . . . mine was caught in barrels under eaves and home to tadpolelike insects, etc.), phone service (mine spotty from the P.O. an hour’s drive away), and again bucket-flushed shitters (I went out back, needless to say, in a hole fronted for privacy’s sake with woven brush much like a duck blind).
Kernels of such are there and they’re feel good and shared as they should be as in this touching ending: “My two years in Cameroon were the hardest years of my life, but joining the Peace Corps was the best decision I ever made . . . as the bus was pulling away I knew that I had had the best experience I possibly could and that everything had indeed worked out.”
Eric Madeen served in the Rural School Construction Program in Gabon (1981-83), and got a book out of the experience: “Water Drumming in the Soul: A Novel of Racy Love in the Heart of Africa.” As a shaper he writes and teaches out of Japan where he is an associate professor of English at Tokyo City University and a lecturer at Keio University. He welcomes you to jam with him at his website which also hosts his other books/interviews/sundry at ericmadeen.com.