Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel The Mule, will be released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt next year. His other novels, Whiteman and The Konkans, won many prizes including the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Maria Thomas Prize from Peace Corps Writers, and Florida gold and silver medals for fiction. Tony has contributed to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta, McSweeney’s, the O. Henry Prize Stories, Best American Fantasy, and has received an NEA, a Japan Friendship NEA, and a Guggenheim. He lives in Sarasota, FL, with his wife Jessyka and their two young children. Here he reviews Leita Kaldi’s memoir Roller Skating in the Desert.
Roller Skating in the Desert
Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993–96)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03)
WHAT’S MOST ENJOYABLE about Roller Skating in the Desert, Leita Kaldi’s unique memoir about her three years as a Volunteer in a Sérère village in Senegal is that which made Kaldi herself somewhat unique as a PCV; she went to Africa not in the first flush of mature youth as most do, but in middle age, and she had already accomplished quite a lot professionally before packing her bags. Reading her take on Africa opened my eyes to something I had long wondered about, what it was like for those few Volunteers in my own group who, unlike the majority of us, had a touch, or even more, of winter in their hair, and knew more about the world and how it operates than the rest of us did. What was it like for my good friend, Merle Rubine, for example, who had left a long and illustrious career as a Dateline producer in NYC and found herself in a Worodougou village as remote and primitive as mine was? Did we annoy her with our innocence and eagerness? What did she learn from Africa that we did not that the difference of her age allowed her?
“At fifty-five, my life was meaningless,” Kaldi tells us early on. “I had worked for many years in international development, notably for the United Nations, but, for lack of better options, had to resort to the hospitality industry when I moved to Miami Beach in the 1980’s. Fifteen years later, my two sons were grown, I was bored comatose and anguished by the absolute certainty that I could be doing something more meaningful.” An encounter with an RPCV in his late fifties sparks the idea of the Peace Corps in her, soon enough she finds herself riding on a bus in the middle of the night in Dakar. ‘They say that the way you react to the smells of Africa will determine whether you love or hate it,” she writes in a lovely little passage. “Among the odors that assailed me I detected peanuts, mucky earth, an elusive scent of the sea, the occasional waft of night-blooming jasmine, the not unpleasant body odor of the young apparanti sitting in front of me, and , from somewhere, cinnamon. I found it all delicious.”
One of the main things that Roller Skating in the Desert reveals is that older Volunteers both do and don’t have a vastly different Peace Corps experience, that Africa is just as difficult a place to immerse oneself at fifty-five as it is at twenty-five, that the small victories of development work when they in fact happen taste just as good, that the feeling of being “used” by HCNs on a petty and daily basis is just as bitter and disheartening. “WAWA,” Kaldi laments over and over in these pages — when a lazy neighbor spends the money she gives him not on his hungry family, but to go to a wrestling match, when a small loan processing fee is stolen by the government functionary, just as she knew it would be — WAWA, WAWA, WAWA: “West Africa Wins Again.” The villagers confer respect on her that a younger Volunteer wouldn’t get, she worries about her sons back home in ways childless Volunteers can’t relate to, villagers pluck strands of her gray hair to make gris-gris, she finds herself surprised that the younger Volunteers unfailingly include her when they head out to probe the nightlife in Dakar.
“The young volunteers had a talent for finding fun where they could . . . I was touched that they always invited me . . . [They] would be drunk and happy . . . the murky bar was also frequented by Senegalese men and tired prostitutes,” she begins in one of those passages that bluntly outline how she experienced familiar Peace Corps settings differently because of her stage in life. Then this happens:
The beer was cheap and the taped music was mostly American . . . [one night] a cassette tape blared out an old Beatles song “Don’t Let Me Down” . . . My older son, Marco, during his high school years, would play that song again and again. . .. Now I felt very far away . . . [I] continuously wrote letters to him about my adventures, which gradually turned into imprecations for a reply, to which he did not respond . . . listening to the song’s plea . . . [m]y son’s face filled my eyes . . . What had I done? Had I sacrificed my sons on the altar of my own fulfillment? . . . I mumbled something to the others, rushed out . . . as the jalopy pulled away from the bar, “Don’t Let me Down” echoed after us and down the dark road into the African night, and I felt myself drowning in a tidal wave of grief.
Roller Skating in the Desert is unflinching in its frankness; Kaldi is constantly willing to go where most Peace Corps memoirists won’t. While many RPCV books leave the reader with the feeling that the author would prefer to “let what happened in Africa stay in Africa,” Kaldi brings it all back home. By her own admission, she was single and unattached at the time, and what I’ve chosen to draw out at last from this wonderful book full of character sketches and poignant moments of success and failure in the field certainly says more about me than it does about her fine memoir, which is by no means focused on this topic: love and sexuality in the Peace Corps.
Kaldi went to Senegal with her heart open to the idea of not just getting to know Africans and perhaps improving their lives, but also with the idea that she could improve her own. What I mean to say is that Kaldi is one of those of us who went to Africa open to the idea that she could fall in love with a local. Because there were those of us who opened ourselves to that idea, and those who did not, and while it’s very true that in Africa we had to make that decision against the frightening backdrop of AIDS, I’ve still always felt that those of us who “did it,” to put it as crassly as it has occasionally been put to me, had the greater and more profound experience.
Kaldi often seems openly delighted that so many Senegalese men found her to be an object of sexual desire, something that surprised and confused her at first. Here, she recounts a day at the beach: “I found a deserted cove, where I splayed myself on a warm rock. A young man picked his way across the rocks toward me, nimble as a mountain goat . . . As he came closer, I saw his heart-shaped face and perfect white teeth . . . An electric charge shot through my solar plexus, a sexual jolt I thought I had forgotten . . . He asked me my name and I told him . . . His eyes penetrated mine as he announced, ‘Vous etes a moi.’ You are mine.”
That unrequited moment is just prelude to the casual offers, the night visitors, some welcome and some not, who arrive at Kaldi’s door in Africa as they arrived at all of our doors in Africa. And as it was for all of us, some of these visitors come to her in lust and some come holding their hearts in their hands. One poor guy, the village shopkeeper, I found myself rooting for throughout the book. Kaldi, after all, is the one who gives him an unsolicited haircut in his store, as though in Africa that wouldn’t be an invitation to romance! The hapless Coulibali is duped, he knocks on her door in the middle of the night and startles her:
“Coulibali! What are you doing here at this time of night? What’s wrong?”
“Adija Sagar,” he rasped, pushing his face close to mine, “I love you.” At the same time, he grabbed my hand and pushed it against his pants. He had an erection like the Eiffel Tower . . ..
Though my heart still thudded with fear and a flash of reckless desire, and though I felt embarrassed for Coulibali and myself, I was also touched by the tenderness that softened his face. I smiled at him and patted his shoulder. “You don’t want an old wife like me.”
He put his hand on his heart. “I’d love an old wife like you.”
Later Coulibali dies of a headache, as they do over there. The knee jerk suspicion for the reader is AIDS, as it always must be in West Africa. So maybe Kaldi was right in the end to turn the man away.
But then again maybe she wasn’t. Because what I always wanted to say to those PCVs in my group who ridiculed the idea of conjugality with a HCN as a “suicide mission” was the idea that if we allow AIDS to kill even the possibility of love, then AIDS has completed its miserable victory.
Fittingly, Kaldi goes on in the book to have her heart broken herself by a Senegalese man about as uninterested in her as she was in Coulibali.
I can’t praise Kaldi’s book enough. It certainly has its flaws; I often wished as I read that she would pace herself and fully develop the characters of folks she occasionally spends far too few pages on, but what she’s done here is more than successful.
Because what Kaldi knows in the end is that it’s not places, countries, even continents, that we left behind and long for, though the landscapes are vivid in us and always will be. What we think about in the nights when we think about it all these years later are people, people that we first met under those distant palm trees, in those dark and heated forests, people whom we had not known we were ever going to meet. And some of those people we loved and some of those people we did not. And some of those people loved us back and some of them hated us, too. And some of us even married some of them and brought them back here. And some very few of us stayed over there with them forever.
And if we are willing to think about it, then all of those things happened to us. And how some of us could go “over there” unwilling to let those things of the heart happen to us with “them” I will never understand. And neither will I ever respect it. Because the risk was never death. Because the risk was that we might get our hearts broken over there, that we might also break hearts. Because the risk was the idea that we could be fulfilled. What more important thing could ever happen to any of us?
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