The Toughest Job I Ever Loved: A Peace Corps Memoir
Jonathon Shacat (Gabon 1998–2000)
$9.99 (paperback), $4.99 (Kindle
Reviewed by D.W. Jefferson (El Salvador 1974–76; Costa Rica 1976–77)
Jonathon Shacat, who is now a journalist, has self-published a well written memoir of his Peace Corps experience in Gabon, central Africa. He was a fish culture extension agent, helping villagers build clay-lined ponds and raise tilapia, from 1998 to 2000.
I’ll get my gripes out of the way first. The book does not contain any maps of Gabon, any photos, or even page numbers! But it is an entertaining account that maintains its upbeat tone through incidents involving eating grubs and insects, mixing antelope blood with rice, a machete wound, a bout with Dengue fever and ridding himself of round worms.
Though the author’s Peace Corps experience was almost a quarter century after my own, like me he had no cell phone, indeed no phone service at his site or in nearby villages. The mail was his primary link to family and friends in the U.S., a level of isolation recent PCVs hardly ever experience.
The campesinos I worked with in rural El Salvador were very poor, but the folks Shacat lived and worked with were decidedly poorer both in access to resources and in opportunities to improve themselves. I greatly admire his ability to hang in there and find ways to be a positive influence in a tough situation. The relationships he formed with host country folks and the essential goodness of the local people, willing to help out a stranger in their midst, is the same experience found in the other Peace Corps memoirs I’ve read, as well as reflecting my own experience.
It saddens me that Shacat’s attempt to introduce papaya trees to his village was unsuccessful. As a Central America RPCV, I have trouble imagining a tropical venue without papayas! But I do know how difficult it is to introduce people to a food they are not familiar with. In rural El Salvador folks did not eat rice, calling it Chinese food, even though it was available and not expensive, neighboring Costa Rica being a net exporter of rice. Perhaps papaya could be introduced by health care PCVs given the usefulness of its seeds in the treatment of intestinal parasites.
I encourage you to read Mr. Shacat’s memoir and hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
D.W. Jefferson was a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer in El Salvador (1974-76) and Costa Rica (1976-77). A blog about his Peace Corps years is at dwjefferson.blogspot.com . He is currently retired from a career in computer software engineering.