Ain’t No Elephants in Timbucktu: Prose and Poetry of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali
by John H. Sime (Mail 1976-78)
Reviewed by Kitty Thuermer (PCV/Mali 1977-79)
IN 1975, WHEN MY SISTER finished her Peace Corps/Zaire service — she left her journal behind. On purpose. Two years later, when she stepped outside her New York City walk up — there it was, peeking out of a shredded package — haunting her.
How many of us would share our Peace Corps journal with friends — much less publish it?
John Sime would. He has opened up his heart — and excerpts of his journal — for all the world to see. If you wonder why Volunteers keep journals (aside from the obvious therapeutic value), John has an answer: “One thing about this journal writing business — it makes me a character in a continuing book. It gives me an identity.”
John Sime’s identity when I met him in Mali in 1977 was unique: Mortician from Wisconsin who ran off to Peace Corps for two years and then planned to return home to take over his family’s funeral parlor. The Malian Peace Corps staff nicknamed him Goatskin Bag Man for the signature bag that clung to his side for two years.
I didn’t know him well since I arrived in the group after him. Our arrival merited a brief mention:
“I am now an ‘old Volunteer.’ There are new Volunteers here now and they seem to regard my group of 24 as freaks/old Africa hands/saints.”
After reading his memoir, I would have to say John Sime was a combination of all three.
Ain’t No Elephants in Timbucktu is an eclectic mix of poetry and journal excerpts covering two periods: Peace Corps service (1976–1978) and a return trip to Mali in 2003.
The core of John’s Mali experience revolves around the job that was infinitely challenging, and that he took seriously: teaching smart post-secondary Malian students at the teachers’ college, Ecole Normale Superieure, in the capital city of Bamako.
He summarized that experience in a letter to a friend that was never sent:
“The upcoming trip to Europe will be just what the doctor ordered for me. I no longer feel young. Part of it is having taught school under extremely difficult circumstances for two straight years. The responsibility bruises you after a while. At the beginning, I basically sympathized with the students. Now I basically sympathize with the teachers.”
Nevertheless, throughout his intensive two years — punctuated by political unrest — John scribbles a lot about his interactions with, and affection for, his students, and how he filled many off hours helping them prepare for exams, papers and orals.
And he agonizes when some of his brave students go on strike and put themselves in harm’s way.
Here is an excerpt from: “Upon Watching my Students Getting Beaten and Clubbed by the Forces of FrancAfrican Law and Order”
a lovely, young girl kicked in the back by a Russian-made boot, her arms
Reach up to the sky, then she crumples, and soldiers drag her to a truck
And toss her in.
The word on the street was that seven died that day, was she one of them?
I’ll never know, or do I even want to know?
Now you can brood on it for the rest of your life too.
The characters that wander in and out of Sime’s dispatches are both Malian and expat. He is close to a Malian friend, Alpha, with whom he takes a hike one day high in the hills above Bamako. He observes that they are both from little river towns — his in the hills of Wisconsin, and Alpha’s town, Djenne, on the plains along the Niger. At the end of the outing:
We climb back down the hill.
For a while, only the beauty of this poor place is apparent.
We sip cokes and eat watermelon
While we watch the dusty vache passenger trucks.
The sun and wind quickly dry out sweat.
We are rested now.
We have been in the wild long enough.
The right vache comes along, we board it, and
Return again to the night of the City of Man.
Through poetry and prose, we get fleeting glimpses of John’s internal life — the crinkly hair of a lover reminding him of his own thread-like haircut in Southern barbershops with “Straight Hair Only” signs, the self-loathing while hanging out at the Toubab Paradise Hotel Bar, rife with “development technicians and tycoons and spies with their bulging briefcases and bulging, leaky scrotums,” the Bar that he finally leaves not because his conscience screams “You don’t belong here!” but because it is mostly his wallet that talks him into leaving.
And then there are the really down times, with which every Volunteer can relate.
On March 2, 1977: “No mail. No money. No mobylette.” And later that year, on December 31, 1977:
“Home on New Year’s Eve. Oumou said something about coming by, but evidently she couldn’t make it. Maybe I’m coming down with some tropical something or other. I’ve sneezed a couple of times, and just now I felt a chill. Better make sure my malaria medicine is handy. I’ve put on my old, reliable, blue K-Mart bathrobe. It’s been with me through dormitories, rooming houses, and now Africa. Chills always give me such a lonely feeling. The robe is a comfort. Drums and dancing going on down the street from my house. Sometimes I go down and watch and listen. I don’t think I will tonight.”
One might ask, where is the joy, the laughter, the l’ecstasy that balances the angoise in John’s two-year journey? The answer perhaps is that it was there all along — buried by the frantic daily journal writing that served as a therapeutic place to vent, as when he finally exploded after being taunted one too many times by the little kids on his street, honoring them with a poem that begins: “I hate your guts you lousy little turds.”
But it’s clear that when John Sime left Mali, he was not done — not done with the Bozo Boats and African Night Song and the red rock neighborhood of Bankoni that headline his poems.
But most telling of all — John Sime came back. He came back to Mali in 2003 to experience some of the joys that he had missed the first time around — visiting Djenne and Timbucktu — a tearful reunion with Malian Peace Corps staff and the satisfaction of learning that some of his students were scattered around the country serving in responsible positions.
John Sime’s raw collection is timeless, but also timely. Almost 40 years ago, the Mortician from Wisconsin pulled his journal out of his Goatskin Bag and wrote about the latest outrage that was bothering him:
Why all this visa junk?
People should be free to roam.
Instead, they have to get stamps
And stickers and initials
Put into their passports
(Which they don’t need either).
All this stuff is a big
The U.N. or the League of Nations
If anybody reading this has friends
Please talk to them about the Problem.
Kitty Thuermer (1977-79) was in-country a year after John Sime and is grateful to him for re-kindling the emotional roller-coaster ride that was Peace Corps/Mali, and for filling the reader in on the turbulent political trajectory that has sadly dominated the country.