In the Valley of Atibon
By Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96)
A Peace Corps Writers Book, $20
Reviewed by Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03)
In 2010, Leita Kaldi’s memoir of her Peace Corps service in Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, came out. Now she is back again, writing about her subsequent years, 1997-2002, as administrator of Hospital Albert Schweitzer located in Haiti’s Eden-like Artibonite Valley. It was founded by Larimer Mellon and his wife Gwen who chose to devote their portion of the Mellon family fortune to building a hospital there honoring Dr. Schweitzer’s work in Africa.
Author Kaldi , who had served as a business development volunteer in Senegal, returned to the States only briefly before, at age 58, undertaking her new duties in Haiti. As with many former Peace Corps volunteers, overseas service had gotten into her blood. She exemplifies how Peace Corps can open doors and enrich the subsequent careers not only of young college graduates, but also of their more seasoned colleagues. She shows that people in their sixties and beyond still can make social contributions and are not necessarily ready to retire from life.
In choosing to work in Haiti, Kaldi had hoped to recapture the peaceful spirit of Senegal, but soon found that except for their “dark faces and sinewy figures,” Haitians and Senegalese were not very much alike. First, there was language, in Haiti, French for the upper classes, which Kaldi was familiar with, but the vernacular Creole, which she also sometimes refers to as Kreyol, was a struggle for her to master. Haiti proved far more lawless and chaotic than Senegal, with local gangs stealing, terrorizing, and creating constant havoc, requiring the hospital to employ armed guards, something that the founder’s widow, who remained living nearby, at first resisted. “I had found a serenity in Senegal that I did not experience in Haiti,” Kaldi ruefully observes. Her own life was threatened and she required a body guard after budget shortfalls led to staff layoffs. Haitians are so dependent on outsiders for employment that when that source fails, they often have nowhere else to turn. And though many foreign NGO workers do heroic work, Kaldi hints that others indulge in self-interest and self-righteousness masquerading as compassion, using Haitian misery to validate their own existence and enhance their fundraising appeals.
The book is a series of vignettes, many only one page long, all woven together to create a vivid picture of a distinct people and their unique way of life. These brief tales with their colorful dialogue directly tap into emotions and curiosity, the best measure of successful story-telling. The author kept a diary, allowing her to faithfully recreate scenes and conversations from more than a decade ago, including her unforgettable stint readying bodies for burial in the hospital morgue after the attendant had quit to protest his reduced hours, only to return later, having no other job options.
Hurricane George during the author’s tenure was a harbinger of the devastation and disorder to come with Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera epidemic. Living back in Miami then, she learned that the earthquake itself had largely spared the hospital, impelling her to organize humanitarian relief for other parts of the country. Although the book paints memorable word pictures of Haitian people and places, some photos would have been welcome as well.
Kaldi describes a phenomenon familiar to former volunteers, the reverse culture shock experienced in returning to “life back in the States, … air-conditioned rooms and sleeping in a bed without a mosquito net.”She comments that at first, “Electronics and technology overwhelmed me.” She felt constantly bombarded by “Hallucinogenic super markets, media cacophony, racing traffic,” making her homesick for Haiti.
This lively and engaging narrative brought back memories of my own visits to Haiti before, during, and after Jean Bertrand Aristide’s 1990 presidential victory, where I’d served as an election observer, staying, like, Kaldi, at the historic Hotel Oloffson memorialized by Graham Greene. I learned from her why Haiti’s whimsically painted vehicles are called “tap-taps”-because passengers tap on the side to signal their stop. In Haiti, although my rational mind demurred, I often found myself avoiding street corners marked with Vodou symbols. Now, as Amnesty International USA’s volunteer coordinator for the Caribbean, I often work with Haitian asylum seekers and refugees, brave, tenacious, and highly expressive individuals like many of those described by Kaldi.
Among those gratefully and deservedly cited in the book’s acknowledgments are Peace Corps Writers’ own Marian Haley Beil who designed this attractive book.
Barbara E. Joe (Honduras 2000-03) works as a freelance writer and Spanish interpreter and translator in Washington, DC. Her memoir Triumph & Hope: Golden Years with the Peace Corps in Honduras was declared “Best Peace Corps Memoir of 2009” by Peace Corps Writers. In February, she is making her 9th return trip to Honduras since leaving Peace Corps to continue with humanitarian projects begun during her service.