Review of Dan Grossman's (Niger 1992-94) Rogue Elephants

rogue-ele-2-1401Rogue Elephants: a novel of the Peace Corps
by Dan Grossman (Niger 1992-94)
Lulu Publisher
$16.00 (paperback)
300 pages2013 (Reissued)

Reviewed by Richard M. Grimsrud (India 1965-67)

For the most part, Dan Grossman’s novel Rogue Elephants is a fast and informative read about Peace Corps operations during the early Nineties in southeast Niger, a little-known area in West Africa at the southern edge of the Sahara adjacent to where the terrorist group Boko Haram (which literally means “Western education is sinful and forbidden” in Hausa) recently kidnapped 276 schoolgirls. The book provides among its many interesting insights a look at how the Peace Corps experience can affect sexual diversity and assault and a good ethnographic sketch of Hausa culture, from which Boko Haram has drawn most of its adherents.

Hausa culture is a fusion of Arab and traditional black African systems, which grew up in the Sudan/Sahel zone with the spread of Islam across the continent in the 14th century, and Rogue Elephants provides a lot of anthropological detail about these Hausa people, who are the largest ethnic group in both Niger and neighboring Nigeria and among the poorest peoples anywhere in the world. The book’s point of entry into Hausa life is through the eyes and activities of American Peace Corps Volunteers stationed in southeast Niger in 1992-93, when the author Grossman (now a journalist) was an Agroforester Volunteer there.

The story of Rogue Elephants begins through the classic framing device which has been utilized in Arabic literature since the time of Scheherezad’s A Thousand and One Nights. Terry Lawson, an American journalist who had been dispatched in early 1993 to investigate the suicide of Adam Goldstein, a Jewish Agroforester PCV and adept artist who had been stationed in Gidan Hatsi village near the south central Nigerien city of Maradi.

Lawson concluded that Goldstein could not survive the stress he voluntarily undertook when he went “native” to better accomplish success in his PC project of using a tree garden to arrest the Saharan sand’s southward creep.  In the process of so digging in, Adam had become involved with a teenaged Hausa girl, which did not go over well with his strict Islamic hosts and coworkers in Gidan Hatsi, and the resultant conflict caused him to take his own life.

From this introductory frame, Grossman drops back and begins to tell Goldstein’s tale from his first day of in-country training the year before. When Adam is stationed in Gidan Hatsi, he quickly becomes associated with Nasiru, the Hausa owner of the compound in which he was placed “while the harmattan wind was still blowing.” He is then presented to the village chief, who tells him, “Adamou, you are here and you have a family of your own in the village. That is good   but you must also meet the [other] people of your village.”

Using his skill at sketching portraits (which he exchanges for help in learning to speak Hausa) and finding his favored goat liver in the local market, Adam follows this advice literally. But there are misadventures along the way too. When he is interrupted cutting on a Muslim prayer board picked up as a souvenir the kosher summer sausage his mother had sent him, he is chastised for “defaming Allah in such a manner” that the local ag-extension agent, who was peeking in the window of his small room or daki, is “outraged by your behavior.” Then when he squirreled away the treat in his pack again and a rat gets at it, he put “the chunks of prechewed sausage on…[his gas] burner, cooked them on high heat to sterilize them, and then ate them.” Later when he secretly tries to burn the defiled prayer board outside the village, he ends up setting fire to a good proportion of Gidan Hatsi’s precious millet fields, and Nasiru, who discovered the board’s charred remains when he helped put out the fire, tells him, “‘Babu dadi'” (“What you’re doing is wrong”).

Later Adam is introduced to marijuana by a hippy Volunteer and then develops a friendship with Sheryl Johnson, a neighboring Volunteer nurse who had earlier been raped during training and medevaced out for psychological treatment. But like an awkward young, rogue elephant, “separated from his herd…because there’s no mate for him or he’s not strong enough to claim”  one, he sketches her nude when she agrees to sit for a portrait, and she tells him to slow down. In the meantime, another Agroforester Volunteer Ed Espada, a gay Cuban-American stationed near Diffa in the extreme northeast corner of Niger, comes into the story when he is forced to hide his sexual preference from his father, who pays him a surprise visit after he takes a job with Shell Oil not far across the border in Nigeria.

So when Ed decides to throw an all-Niger PC bash at the nearby dunes in the Tal Desert, Adam decides to drown his sorrow and attend, gets stone on strong hash there, and then is briefly  seduced by Ed in the sands before he is filmed copulating with a mysterious Palestinian woman in the middle of the party. These developments soon push Sheryl into a liaison with a local Hausa government official and Ed to go on the run from renditionists of the Homosexuality Center in Nigeria, who have presumably been put on his case by his father there.

Most importantly, though, in this chaos that is the denouement, Adam in shame decides to actually accomplish something as a Volunteer other than smoking, drinking, and getting himself “fucked on television.” So he resolved to “go native” and “renounced his Judaism”, burned his sketchpad and began to study the Qu’ran and pray in the village mosque. Finally, to make matters worse, he proposed to Nasiru’s visiting niece Jamila, whom Adam’s helper Ibrahim had wanted to marry, and after she seduced him with her “rich scent”, bright savvy, and prayer that Adam “would rescue her from her life of grinding poverty” , they are interrupted when Nasiru entered Adam’s daki as they are making love.

If things were spinning out of control before, this incident resulted in Adam being cast out naked into the wilderness, and then his body was discovered near the local elephant pond. But 3 months later when he was sighted drawing murals on the U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville, Lawson’s paper dispatched him there to find out what really had happened to Adam Goldstein.

While Rogue Elephants as a whole is well-constructed and its Epilogue about Lawson’s return investigation has some nice passages on how modern art is representing the reality of contemporary Africa that draw the reader inexorably on to turn the last page, the book’s final scene is unsatisfying. But that ultimate in a number of Peace Corps parties, which occurs so near the site of the recent Boko Haram kidnapping and propels the novel’s plot into the chaos that leads to its contrived ending, left me pondering the acceptable relationship between Guest and Host in the Peace Corps experience. While I did things I’m not so proud of when I was a Volunteer, most of us never participated in anything that would have so offended our host country’s sensibility as the party in the Tal dunes that must have enraged the enveloping but genuine ethics of the Hausa.

The extreme party may well have been a fictional device. But if anything even remotely like it did actually occur, the arduous Niger environment of the Nineties must have knocked the Peace Corps off kilter there. For there is likely a direct causal effect between such deliberate flouting of Hausa morès (that must spread like wildfire through Hausa communities on both sides of the Niger-Nigerian border) and the increasingly extreme agenda of the Boko Haram, which no one can condone but all must accept as having its genesis largely in the continuing unemployment and grinding poverty of the Hausa people today.

Reviewer Richard Grimsrud was a fleet management adviser to the Bihar Health Transport Organization as well as a well-drilling coordinator for the Bihar Relief Organization in the Peace Corps.. Returning to the States he started at Harvard Law School, was derailed by the Viet Nam war, served as a VISTA Volunteer to the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Newark, NJ and graduated from law school in 1971.

After an apprenticeship as the Law Reform Director with the New Hampshire Legal Assistance Program and as a Trial Attorney for the Denver Litigation Center of the EEOC, he left law to teach Comparative Religion, Native American Law and Government, and Constitutional Litigation at Yavapai College and Northern Arizona University, then returned to practice law in Flagstaff, AZ, specializing in employment and Indian Law from 1980–2011. He also obtained a Masters in creative writing from Northern Arizona University. Having left his law practice, he is now writing full time.

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  • I fear the above review may give some people the wrong impression of Niger, a country where I have spent 10 years of my life (three different time periods). For sure, it does not portray a Niger I knew up close and in a very personal way.

  • To Mark Wentling,

    I’m wondering if you are taking exception more to my portrayal of Peace Corps than to my portrayal of Niger and the diverse peoples who inhabit the country. Not once in the review is there a disparaging word towards Hausa culture, or Niger, unless you take frank (and accurate) descriptions like “grinding poverty” as an insult. And Boko Haram has no doubt infiltrated into Niger, as the Niger/NIgeria border is very porous, so what the reviewer says about this organization has its basis in truth. Whether or not the Peace Corps presence led to any Hausa joining Boko Haram – the reviewer threw this possibility out there – is of course unknowable. Yet the Boko Haram mindset would take exception to any American presence, no matter how righteous and noble, so my personal opinion is that there is no real causal relationship.

    While some of the situations might be exaggerated or not have actually occured in the real world – this is, after all, a novel – I paid careful attention to Hausa folk customs, mores, and tales in this work, and I hope that my respect for Hausa culture comes through. And of course, my portrayal of Peace Corps will probably rub some people the wrong way, but my intent was not to disparage, but to follow where the genie led my characters, as it were.

    And this novel is only autobiographical in the sense that Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” about the eponymous novel.

    I could go on but I think I’ll stop here to say that you can access my novel as a PDF ebook on the link below to see if indeed I am giving people the “wrong impression”:

    Best wishes,


  • To Mark,

    I’m wondering if you’re concerned more about the impression people will get of Peace Corps Niger than that of Niger. After all, nothing that Richard Grimsrud related about the conditions of Niger, “grinding poverty,” etc… is untrue. (You could also add chronic hunger and sky high infant mortality to the particular part of Niger where I served.)

    When I served as a volunteer, I was acutely aware of the power I possessed as an American; the power to travel, to enlist the monies of U.S.A.I.D. in my projects, etc… and the thing about it was, the Nigeriens around me were acutely aware of it too. I love the Peace Corps, and I miss my fellow PCVS and the village and the people who lived there and I’m proud of what I accomplished there, but any honest look at the lives of volunteers will probably at some point address the enormous power differential. And then there’s the tension between wanting to do good and do well (unless we are dealing with the biographies of saintly volunteers). I didn’t purposely set out to do this: I was interested in my characters’ contradictions and rationalizations and desires… all the stuff that makes us human. But in the process of exploring these things – with a little assistance from a mischievous genie – this particular story emerged.

    Of course people will ask if this story is autobiographical, it is, but only in the sense that Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” about his eponymous novel. I could go on, but anyone who wants to see more can click or cut and paste the link below to get a free ebook of Rogue Elephants:

  • The reviewer criticizes the author for using a “contrived” ending but then goes on to give a glib rationale for the outrageous acts of Boko Haram, i.e. “flouting of Hausa mores” and “genesis largely in the continuing unemployment and grinding poverty of the Hausa people today.” Any Hausa would be upset by these conditions but not all Hausa are members of Boko Haram. Extremists are always quick to use convenient or fabricated excuses for their outrageous transgressions. It is offensive to claim these are “acceptable” reasons.”

  • I wouldn’t go so far as to think that there’s likely a direct causal relationship between the “deliberate flouting of Hausa mores” and “the increasingly extreme agenda of Boko Haram,” but I don’t think Richard Grimsrud was suggesting that Boko Haram has acceptable reasons for their violent activities. And I don’t think he was suggesting that all Hausa buy into Boko Haram either. I think it is true that Boko Haram feeds on grinding poverty (as well as land disputes between different Nigerian ethnic groups that happen to fall on opposite sides of the Muslim/Christian divide) to promote their agenda.

    There is a section in my novel, more mundane, but perhaps more significant in this regard than the “Sahara Discotheque” party to which Grimsrud refers in his review. It takes place in a bar in Maradi where some Peace Corps volunteers are eating and drinking during Ramadan. This causes offense to two Nigerien functionaries who comment unfavorably. One of the volunteers spouts out, “This isn’t an Islamic republic,” and one of the functionaries replies, “Not yet.” This particular episode happens to be based on an incident that I recall fairly clearly.

    I’m not suggesting any causality here at all, merely pointing out that volunteers’ mere presence, doing what volunteers do in their offtime- most volunteers in Niger didn’t adhere to the fast, those who I knew- was bound to offend some people. I certainly didn’t adhere to the fast and I sometimes regret that I wasn’t more culturally sensitive. Whether suchlike activities by volunteers in any small way led to resentments that led to extremist activities, this is, I think, unknowable. But I don’t think it’s offensive to point out such tensions, and to acknowledge that they are very real.

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