Reviewed by Rebecca M. Zornow (eSwatini 2011–13)
I visited the landlocked country of Zambia from the landlocked country of eSwatini, practically neighbors. As a Peace Corps Volunteer on leave, I wished for more than the cursory understanding of Zambian culture, even more than the quick mist of the thunderous Victoria Falls. But as a Volunteer from another country with much to see, I wouldn’t get that chance until reading Christine Herbert’s memoir, The Color of the Elephant.
Christine arrives in Zambia in 2004 and quickly learns to eat nshima (cornmeal porridge) and wear citenge (sarong) but wonders throughout training if she’ll be enough to live up to the experience of two years making a difference in the remote countryside. On a trainee outing with an established Volunteer, Christine wonders, “…if this is what I will be like a year from now: someone so transformed as to be unrecognizable to myself.”
Finally at her permanent site, the training director Ba Lubasi comes to visit. In the face of the enormity of two years, her mind goes fuzzy. She wonders if she’ll be sent home for not being enough. She memorizes those last few moments in her village. A bamboo print citenge flutters on a clothesline in the breeze and just as tenderly, Christine realizes no one is asking her to leave. Zambia is her home.
Quickly Christine gets to work supporting the local clinic. She holds a newborn while a doctor attends to a mother. Acquaints development workers from the capitol with the Zambia she knows. Hears a heartbeat on a stethoscope, falling deeper into Zambian rhythm.
It’s when Christine paints the cow that she knows she’s in deep.
After weeks of ruined gardens across the village, Christine wakes to the sound of a feast in her own garden of sweet potato leaves, string beans, and tender, young banana trees. Christine dons her headlamp to investigate and finds the culprits are two cows, well known for their midnight antics. They have tormented the village for weeks. Christine takes a can of lavender house paint and flings it across the cows’ hides and herds them away.
In the morning, the owner of the cows comes, as well as the headwoman of the village. “My cows have been painted, madam. Painted!” he roars.
Christine questions whether they were indeed painted at her homestead. The man insists they were. The Volunteer walks the small crowd to her ruined garden and turns a steel eye on the owner of the cows. She feels she has him, but it’s not until the headwoman gives a crooked smile that the battle has ended, in her favor.
The painting of the cows is but one story in Christine’s thoughtful and humorous memoir. It’s one that will entertain and amuse, but will also prompt you to reflect on the impact of two years. Most gratifyingly of all, The Color of the Elephant will open another country, another village, another dirt road unto you.
Reviewer Rebecca M. Zornow served in eSwatini (2011-13) as a Youth Development Specialist. She started an art club and many school libraries. It was to no one’s surprise that she became a writer when she returned to Wisconsin. She is the author of It’s Over or It’s Eden and Dangerous to Heal (preorder).