Review: Buffaloes By My Bedroom: Tales of Tanganyika

Jack Allison served a 3-year tour with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Central Africa, where he was a public health Volunteer in the bush.  He is best known as a singer/songwriter there, having recorded arguably the most popular song with a message in Malawi — Ufa wa Mtedza (Peanut Flour in Your Child’s Corn Mush).  After Peace Corps, Jack went to medical school, and recently retired after a 30-year career in academic emergency medicine.  He has done three public health stints in Africa — a USAID mission in Tanzania in ’82, a Project Hope Mission in Malawi in ’94, and US State Department mission in Malawi in ’05 — the latter two involved helping to eradicate AIDS in that Central African country.  Since 1967 Allison has raised more than $150,00.00 with his music, and he and his wife, Sue Wilson, have donated these monies to various charitable causes.  (For more information, go to Jack’s web site.)

Here Jack reviews Dennis Herlocker’s memoir of his Peace Corps years in Tanganyika.

buffaloes-by-my-bedroom-140Buffaloes by My Bedroom: Tales of Tanganyika
by Dennis Herlocker (Tanganyika 1964–66)
206 pages
June 2009

Reviewed by Jack Allison (Malawi 1967–69)

Dennis Herlocker’s book is about his manifold adventures during a three-year tour with the US Peace Corps in and around Ngorongoro Crater game preserve in what today is known as the East African country of Tanzania. In a phrase, his book is delightfully engaging and decidedly well-written.

Herlocker was 27 when he entered Peace Corps training in August of 1964. He and 83 others comprised Tanganyika V which was made up of civil service professionals who were expected to aid in the transition from British colonial rule to a new Tanganyikan government headed up by local African leaders.

I definitely resonate with Buffaloes, for I was a member of Malawi XI which began training in August of 1966. Although we had different jobs in contiguous countries, and learned different Bantu languages — he, Kiswahili, and I, Chichewa — we had similar experiences in terms of culture, food, Bantu cognates, and pervasive “African time.” Interestingly, I also had the good fortune to have visited Ngorongoro Crater while vacationing during December of 1966.

Herlocker was in what was then Tanganyika for a year before it was merged with Zanzibar to become Tanzania. He purposefully chose to use Tanganyika in the title of the book both because his experiences and reflections were basically Tanganyikan, and because Tanganyika is Swahili for Sails in the Wind, the more interesting of the two monikers.

After stateside training at “an Eastern university,” followed by some brief incountry orientation, Herlocker was initially slated to be involved with a Village Resettlement Program; however, he was seconded to the Ngorongoro Conservation Unit as Assistant Conservator (Forests) because he had had three years of experience as a forester before joining the Peace Corps.

Herlocker is a gifted writer, for his descriptions of Ngorongoro Crater and the surrounding countryside are colorfully inviting. He also possesses an enviable judge of character of the montage of Africans and expatriates reflected throughout the book. The sentence, “The perpetual gap between expatriate and African obviously yawned wide and deep” speaks voluminously for Tanganyika, and for Malawi as well.

There are seven chapters and 21 subchapters in this 202-page book, plus a page of Scientific Names of Selected Plant Species; a page for Bibliography and Further Reading; plus a two-page Glossary of Kiswahili words translated into English. His use of Swahili words and phrases throughout the book is effectively additive.

Foreign visitors to East, Central, and South Africa usually are rather naive about water buffaloes: although they look like unusual cows, they are unpredictably dangerous. Herlocker’s many close calls with buffaloes, elephant, rhinos and hippos add welcomed splashes of suspense.

There are two decided issues with which I identified with Herlocker: we both stayed on for a third year of service with the Peace Corps in order to complete projects that were important to us; and we both ended up courting and marrying fellow PCVs. His relationship with nurse Cathy is a small yet significant denouement.

Please note that I elected to contact Dennis Herlocker personally because this marvelously detailed, descriptive book was published some 42 years after his completion of his Peace Corps service in Tanganyika to ask him how he dealt with that time lapse. His response made perfect sense: he relied heavily upon his diary, letters home, saved reports, and a review of cogent literature; and he asked questions of former colleagues.

What is not included in the book is that it took Herlocker 15 years to finish writing it. After completing his service with the Peace Corps, he and Cathy returned to the Serengeti Plain to work while he did research on his PhD, which he was awarded from Texas A&M in Range Science. He and Cathy spent 25 more years working in the African countries of Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia before he ended up his lustrous career as a consultant.

There is a prescient quote on the top of the front cover of Buffaloes by George Frame and Lory Herbison Frame that definitely rings true: “Dennis describes an Africa that is, in many ways, gone forever.” Fortunately, he also describes an enviably satisfying experience as a PCV in Tanganyika in a book that is truly worth reading.

[This book was self-published by iUniverse, Inc. Though the quality of the paper, type/font and pictures, including the cover, is fine, it is obvious that a wider readership would be reached through an agent and a larger publisher].


Leave a comment
  • Jack,

    I would love to chat with you. I was Malawi XIV (in what was called Fort Johnston then) and know your song Ufa wa Mtedza well. We all did. I’ve also used Malawi for a novel (Courage) and have written many novels since. I couldn’t go back because as long as Kamuzu lived I was persona non grata, but have been in Zimbabwe (alas) and South Africa, and have many friends from there, including the woman I lived with in England who was born in Malawi.

    Drop me a line when you can.

    Yours, John

  • I served for two years in Peace Corps at Monduli, Tanzania not far from ngorongoro crater. Loved the book,and the detail that was so true then and not as true now. I am returning this spring and will see among other things how changes have occurred over time.

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