Review — THE TIN CAN CRUCIBLE by Christopher Davenport (Papua New Guinea)
The Tin Can Crucible: A Firsthand Account of Modern-day Sorcery Violence
by Christopher Davenport (Papua New Guinea 1994-96)
Reviewed by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64)
The Tin Can Crucible is a fascinating description by a Peace Corps Volunteer of how he is inculcated into the customs, morals, values, and way of life by the inhabitants of a village where he trains for his teaching assignment in Papua New Guinea. The process is so complete he comes to ultimately accept what would be in his previous life a totally reprehensible act, the murder by the villagers of a woman accused of witchcraft. The writer uses his impressive command of the language to carefully build the step by step process that leads him to comply with his new “family” and their customs. In essence, the Peace Corps experience changes him, not the people he is sent to help.
The story is perhaps a paradigm for the Peace Corps experience. Here is a recent college graduate sent off to a truly primitive culture that is totally different from the one he leaves. It is the classic Peace Corps situation where he winds up living in a grass hut, sleeping on a hard floor, bathing in a natural spring, reading by a kerosene lamp, eating simple food in a family gathering around a fire. The story takes place in his first few weeks when he is assigned to live with a family in a village from where he takes a bus to his classes in a nearby town each day. The family is charged with helping him learn the local language, their customs, their family and community relations, and their way of life.
The writer’s descriptions of his environment are beautiful and evocative. One can visualize the dense forests in the New Guinea highlands where the story unfolds. One captures a good image of these reclusive people who have been the study for many anthropologists. However, as different as these folk may be, the writer draws out the inherent common human traits they share with him and other people.
I found myself drawn back to one of my all-time favorite books, W. H. Hudson’s Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest in which a Venezuelan revolutionary takes refuge in the dense forests between eastern Venezuela and Guyana where he comes upon a village of primitive people and a young woman living with an old man who has raised her in the forests where she has become so much a part of nature, instead of talking, she sings like a bird. A pure romantic novel, but stunning in its descriptions. As with this book, Hudson’s revolves around a horrendous act that demonstrates the gulf between one culture and another.
I do not usually read books such as this since I lean to an economy of language in my own writing. I have a hard time reading long passages describing the setting and characters in a story. However, I found myself engrossed by this tale and realized that the author purposely chose to erect a careful and complete story to parallel the process he went through himself to merge into a new culture.
As a US Dept of State Career Foreign Service Officer, Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962-64) served in four continents, he was also an international businessman working in public relations, fish processing, development assistance, finance, clothing manufacture, commercial and residential real estate, wine importing, tourism, and import/export companies.
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I was honored to be asked to read Christopher’s book before publication. How he found me through Peace Corps Worldwide was a story in itself that compelled me to write this blog – http://susangreisen.com/2020/11/28/opposite-ends-of-the-globe/.
Christopher is a kind gentle man who entered a remote village in Papua New Guinea as a young Peace Corps volunteer and was figuratively adopted by the people. His account of the day by day events that occurred within a very short period of time was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Christopher came from a city in Wisconsin and had a four-year college degree. He knew himself well enough at age 23 to question his value as a Peace Corps volunteer. Once in his village, as the only white person, he became a novelty and lived in a fishbowl environment surrounded by a male dominated culture. Injustices of the local women, especially those unmarriesd, and living with the challenges of sorcery practices were just a few of Chrisopher’s experiences. After the Peace Corps learned of a murder in his village, they offered to remove him. He refused.
Christopher lived on the edge of total acceptance by the villagers. He discovered a deep love for them and the memory of an unjust death compelled him to write this memoir. A compelling book that I encourage you to read.
Once the pandemic is in check, I hope to meet Christopher with his family whereever they may be.
Here is my endorsement for his book,
Davenport’s masterful and lyrical memoir delves into the complexities of his remote village where he strips life and death down to their purest and truest form. His conclusion leaves us with our own values and culture to examine for a long, long time.
– Susan E. Greisen, author of In Search of Pink Flamingos
The Tin Can Crucible by Christian Davenport is extraordinary. Not only is it a worthy book of the year, it could be the Peace Corps memoir of the decade. Christian was a PCV in the Eastern region of Papua New Guinea, a place I never realized had volunteers. It was life at its most elemental, the area where Michael Rockefeller went missing and was never to be found.
But Davenport’s memoir is a surprise not only because of his excellent writing, but also because of his honest soul-searching. His subject is one that is part and parcel of what most PCVs have experienced: accepting the warm embrace of a family and the culture that informs them, while repelled by acts that culture endorses, perhaps requires. In his case it is the knowledge that his “Popa” had murdered a woman of the village because she was sorcerer who used her power to bring on the death of a man in the community.
It is something many PCVs may have encountered … and perhaps never even stopped to reflect upon. Maybe it can be attributed to the Peace Corps mantra to stay out of politics and do not judge others based upon our own ethical and moral dictates. The PCV is a guest. One response is to look away. But this carries a price, one that does not end when a two-year tour does.
In Malawi it was living by the police station and listening to the sounds of flagellation and the cries of those being tortured for information or minor crimes. Two things were absolute. To say anything to the police would be a fool’s errand and if the Peace Corps judged you as having become politically involved, you could expect one of their white Toyota pick up trucks to be at your front door by morning’s first light. (This actually occurred in the case of my PCV housemate. There was no explanation to be had. He left in the Toyota. He was never to be seen again.)
I think also how it would play out if a PCV was living is a village where an albino was murdered because of the cultural belief that melanin deprived had special powers to do evil. What if a PCV was assigned to a village where trafficking in child slavery was cultural norm? Davenport requires one to go back and look at their own experiences and, in doing so, reflect upon the number of times you had been in the same kind of situation … and, importantly, look at one’s own response.
The Tin Can Crucible is a rare case of a very personal memoir that fosters a universal reflection upon the imperfect world we inhabit and the gravity of what it means to be different.
Davenport has given us book that should be required reading for anyone who has ever had a passing thought of joining the Peace Corps. In deed, it should be on the reading list of every student in Anthropology 101 and anyone curious about the nature of evil.