An East African Peace Corps Life
Tales from A Muzungu
by Nicholas Duncan (Uganda 2006–08)
A Peace Corps Writers Book
Reviewed by Richard M. Grimsrud (India 1965–67)
Nicholas Duncan’s entertaining memoir of his experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda after 9/11 presents a fascinating picture of his host country during his service. One slight problem with the book at the outset, however, is that it is not exactly clear when during the five five-year terms of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (1986-96 and 2001-present) Duncan actually served. When I searched for a specific date in the book, I had to assume from the reference to Super Bowl XLV on pp. 75–76 that the author’s service dates were 2006-08, but it would have made the story more interesting to me (for reasons that should be evident at the end of this review) if the exact date the author went to Uganda was made clear at the beginning.
Other than that minor problem, though, I found Tales of A Muzungu (a muzungu is a “traveler” or “someone with white skin” in East Africa, p. 33) an enjoyable and informative read. Mr. Duncan’s fine sense of humor, an indispensable ally of any PCV, is exhibited throughout the memoir and continuously lightened the chronological rendition of his in-service tenure in Uganda. Suffice it to point out here that the first tale began with effective irony about how his site was probably chosen for him (p. 1), and the last one ended with him couching his affirmation that he would choose his service again, in the odd but characteristic host-country English sentence construction, “In a, what, heartbeat” (p. 151).
I also found Duncan’s focus on his specific site projects and the blow-by-blow struggles he experienced to implement them especially compelling, because though he does not avoid describing the typical social and psychological problems he encountered in adjusting to life in rural Uganda, he touches upon these in the context of the project goals he was trying to accomplish, which, of course, is the reason he was there in the first place. And Mr. Duncan sounds like he was a pretty effective Volunteer, but his pervasive humor never allows him to get too proud about it.
I also feel that the book gave me a good insight into Uganda’s unique social mores, which is a major reason one would want to pick it up to read. Especially well done was the evolving saga of Duncan’s relationship with his counterpart Bosco and the charming anecdotes about the young students he obviously loved to teach.
So many things were similar to my experience in the cycle of this Volunteer’s two years, but many things were different too. In the end, the book contains a surprising amount of specific information about the science of being a PCV about four decades after I was, and it showed how the Peace Corps has become more adept in doing its job over that time period. Particularly fascinating to me were Nick’s disquisition of his training graduation ceremony, the logical lists he assembled to analyze and solve problems (e.g., pp. 40, 51, and 96), his knowledge gained in meeting and beating malaria, and his service exit interviews.
All in all Tales from a Muzungu is a well-paced and well-written account of a PCV’s service in eastern Uganda in the early 21st century. I unqualifiedly recommend reading it.
Reviewer Richard M. Grimsrud was stationed in Bihar, India as a health-transport and later a drought-relief Volunteer from 1965 to 1967. After serving a year as a VISTA Volunteer for the Neighborhood Legal Services Program in Newark, New Jersey, he secured a JD degree from Harvard in 1971 and then principally practiced employment law and taught Native American Law and Government at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. In 2005, he was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Fiction) there, and has since written the “Norzona Quartet” of novels about that region as well as a novel about Bihar entitled Mata Naveena.