A Dry and Thirsty Land: The Misadventures of a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa
by Bryant Wieneke (Niger 1974–76)
Reviewed by Ben East (Malawi 1996–98)
Mr. Wieneke’s engaging 60,000-word memoir contains all the stuff of Peace Corps legend, from encounters with exotic insects and large snakes to bouts of diarrhea and Malarial fever. It also contains a large dose of the question: why did Peace Corps bring me here? As such it contributes to the body of Peace Corps literature a thoughtful voice that will be especially compelling for prospective Volunteers.
His adventure begins 13 years after the birth of the Peace Corps, and his narrative examines the organization as much as it examines his adaptation to Nigerien culture. He repeatedly notes frustration at being assigned to teach agriculture (his degree is in English literature) and at Peace Corps’ orientation program: “It did not make sense to me that they would bring Americans to Niger to teach marginally relevant agricultural techniques at Kolo. There were clearly needs here; why didn’t Peace Corps identify them and train us to help where it was most needed?” He says, “I wanted my job to have more meaning . . . Both for the sake of the Nigeriens and for myself.”
While some of the narrator’s grievances against Peace Corps may be attributed to the unrealistic expectations of a youthful optimist eager to effect great change in the world, other problems belong to the organization itself. Take the role of the Assistant Peace Corps Director for Niger, who nearly gets the narrator and three others lost forever in the Sahara by refusing to backtrack after missing a turnoff, and later bullies the narrator for choosing Sprite over bra-Nigerien (local beer) after a hard day’s journey through 110 degree heat. Did the assistant director’s poor navigation skills and incredible insensitivity reflect the personality of the broader Peace Corps of the time? If so, the organization has learned from its mistakes. Two decades later, for example, Peace Corps Malawi frustrated me at times, but on the whole it served its purpose by bringing me eye to eye with another culture and giving me the skills to succeed within it. And my subsequent encounters with Peace Corps programs — Ghana, Mexico, Nicaragua — have left me even more impressed, from the highly motivated Volunteers to the dedicated local- and U.S.-hire staff. If the organization thrives this far into its 6th decade, it does so on the strength of its ability to adapt and take on the fresh ideas of its main renewable resource: its people.
In one of the best chapters of A Dry and Thirsty Land, the narrator gets to the heart of what may be wrong with his Peace Corps experience. As he sets out to learn the primary skill he’s in Niger to teach, animal traction, it is clear how little of his training has involved the local population. He has learned the colonial language rather than the local language, and he has spent little time with people who would naturally be his mentors: other teachers at the school. He’s spent time on an American compound, speaking French to a hired cook and following around his predecessors entrenched in doing things their own way. So in the chapter No Heifers, the narrator jumps at the chance to engage with the local village by helping them castrate a bull. And in addition to learning the noble skill of crushing a bull’s testicular cord with le pince burdizo, he also learns the even more useful skills of discerning cultural ambiguity, practicing patience, and adapting expectations.
I was disappointed to arrive at the last page of A Dry and Thirsty Land just as the narrator ends his first year in Niger. By the time the narrator packs up to spend a mid-term vacation in the United States, the reader has grown to appreciate the easy-going narrative voice and understated humor. We would like to know how things work out for him in his second year. Is it then that he comes to fully realize that the Peace Corps had, in fact, trained him well and served both him and the people he served best with that particular assignment? But then, to leave the reader wondering is exactly the nature of the Peace Corps experience, isn’t it? It is never over. It carries on. It lives within us and keeps us wondering what happened to so many people who touched our lives, and whose lives we touched — hopefully for the better.
Ben East taught English in Malawi before taking up various teaching and diplomatic assignments with the State Department in West Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the Americas. A native of Connecticut, he recently returned to the States after nearly two decades overseas. He lives in Virginia with his wife (also a Malawi RPCV) and two sons. His fiction has appeared in The Foreign Service Journal, Atticus Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine.