Review — ON THE WIDE AFRICAN PLAIN by Richard Fordyce (Ghana)
Reviewed by Geraldine Kennedy (Liberia 1962–64)
IN THIS SOMETIMES MOVING, sometimes amusing collection of short stories by Rick Fordyce, snapshots of Ghana in the late 1970s play out for the fly-on-the-wall reader. You can look, but only so far. No touching, no asking questions.
Fordyce doesn’t often give much context. No wide-angle shots from him. No detailed backstories. We are dropped into the close-ups, bystanders rafting down the blood stream of the body Africa with our faces in the capillaries and platelets.
In the opening, “Away,“ (unfortunately launched with a paragraph that is a long, meandering sentence — 7 “ands,” 5 commas, 2 semi-colons), the white teacher suffers the same deprivations as the villagers. Food is randomly available and there is never enough. He looks at the one egg on his table. Without bread, he cannot eat it. He settles for a handful of peanuts for breakfast. Living alone, he has far too much time to ponder how hard it would be to return home. He sets goals — one book a week, kill mosquitoes before they kill him more, find food, fight the demons of nightmares. After class on Friday, he catches a ride to the town with the bus to the coast. He will meet other Peace Corps Volunteers he has heard will be there. The host has a big house with electricity most of the time. The friends talk and eat and drink cold beer. They feast on ordinary gossip — who has terminated, changed assignments, is sick. Where to find food. They trade books and magazines. He asks the one who is going to Accra to get him tins of milk and margarine. Before boarding the bus to return to his village, he buys tins of corned beef and a bag of coffee.
In “With the Fish and the Flies,” Mitchell and Liz and their backpacks, need to cross the border to return to their teaching posts. They try to not draw attention to their white selves. Through multiple checkpoints, there is no common language between them and the inspectors. Passport stamped, move on. Their whiteness and foreignness sends them to the front of a long line of patient Africans. The two of them are now a thing. He wants to kiss her. Inside the customs house, the last stop, they pass as people with nothing worth stealing. And once in a crowded taxi, they exhale, two separate people again, on their separate ways.
Three one-page vignettes speak of ordinary life in Africa:
- In “Death in the Morning,” the Chief, the Elders and the Headmaster are concerned about an inexplicable rash of illness among the students. The thing to do, they agree, is to kill a goat. As children watch from the classroom windows, the goat, not accustomed to being tied so tightly around its neck, bleats.
- “The Old Man Who Forget His Shoes,” is about an old man who got off the bus and walked away, only to run back, board, and return to his seat to retrieve the shoes he had forgotten. The rest of the passengers roar in laughter.
- “We” are setting up a tent in a small grassy area beside a dirt road in “Motion.” Suddenly, a group of impala leap out of the dense bush, alight on the road and soar into the bush on the other side. More groups of three or four follow. “We” wait for the lion who never comes.
Any Peace Corps Volunteer who has taught African adolescents will recognize the unbearable curiosity they have for the secrets of their teachers. The teenagers in the charming, “Miss Preston’s Physics Class,” have been raised to believe that sex and smarts go together — everybody knows it’s a fact, a law of nature. And yet, here she is, their volunteer white teacher, the smartest person they know, with no known sex partner. They organize surveillance teams to follow her movements and monitor her visitors. No man in sight. The mystery deepens as they prepare for their final exams. Only the brightest will prevail. Miss Preston calls time and collects the last of the exam papers. The students are determined, they must know. The entire class and a few staff and other teachers parade to her house. As she steps out to greet them, the leader clears his throat and in the most admiring and respectful manner speaks to the woman with “the mind of the highest capacity of the mental reasonings, . . . capable of accessing with . . . analytical accuracy the tallest blocks of the physics and maths chambers . . .. Yet we do not know how this can be.” Finally, he confronts her, “Miss Preston . . we must know, we demand to know, . . .who is it you are doing this thing: having with the sexual relations with the body?”
The cumulative impact of Rick Fordyce’s fragments is an intense immersion into tropical Africa — its heat, its scarcity, and the isolation experienced by white foreigners who know they are always being observed.
Reviewer Geraldine Kennedy is a proud member of Liberia One (1962-64), the author of the award-winning Harmattan: A Journey Across the Sahara, editor of From the Center of the Earth: Stories out of the Peace Corps, and publisher of Clover Park Press.
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