What Sahel Am I Doin’ Here? 30 Years of Misadventures in Africa
Steve Wisecarver (Senegal 1976–78; Staff-CD Madaagascar, Kenya 2008–2013)
Reviewed by James W. Skelton, Jr. (Ethiopia 1970–72)
If you’re interested in knowing more about the good, the bad and the ugly in Africa, then you’ll enjoy reading Steve Wisecarver’s book entitled What Sahel Am I Doin’ Here? 30 Years of Misadventures in Africa. The humorous title gives the reader an insight into the approach the author will take with the descriptions of his experiences in the great continent of Africa. In fact, it is stated on the back cover that the book “is a collection of light-hearted tales that captures the bizarre and the exotic as well as the comic, even magical, nature of life on the Continent.” Steve Wisecarver succeeds in revealing those elements, and more, about living and working in Africa through a collection of stories that occur in several different African countries.
Steve spent three decades in Africa with his wife, Barbara, first serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Senegal from 1976 to 1978, then working in, among other places, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Kenya, North Yemen, Cote d’Ivoire, and Washington, D.C. for the USDA and USAID. Finally, he served as a country director for the Peace Corps in both Madagascar and Kenya from 2008 to 2013.
The stories about some of the author’s PCV experiences in Senegal are set out in the first seven chapters of the book. Each chapter, however, is intended to, and does, stand on its own, and the author makes no attempt to arrange them sequentially. The next 21 chapters cover a totally diverse number of topics related to Steve’s work as a development worker from 1980 to 2006. The final chapter, titled “Full Circle,” reveals the rigorous process by which he was vetted by the Peace Corps agency to qualify to become a country director, as well as the high level of stress that accompanied his work in that position in two countries.
The tales about the early days of Steve’s adventures are so varied that the reader is treated to a host of intriguing insights into a PCV’s life. Such visions include the scary warnings provided at the Pre-Invitational Staging in Atlanta, the culture shock of training in Dakar, the bureaucratic incompetence that resulted in there being no prior notice of his arrival and no housing at his teaching site, the brief stay at the rat-infested Baobab Hotel, and Mbaye, the thieving cook and houseboy, all of which are delivered in both a kind and thoughtful style.
The remainder of the chapters present a wide-ranging view of a foreign service officer’s encounters with the never ending challenges of life in Africa. Beginning with what Steve describes as his “complete naiveté and incompetence” in connection with his handling of a cultural issue to his survival of the shocking terrorist attack of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi the reader is given much to imagine and process. The fact that Steve agreed to return to Nairobi years after the terrorist attack to become the Kenya country director for the Peace Corps is proof of his unwavering commitment to working with the people of Africa.
Although it’s difficult to assess this anthology as a whole, it’s fair to state that it is very well written and an entertaining read that provides the kind of inside information that makes one feel sympathetic about and even more fascinated by the spirit of the people of Africa.
Reviewer Jim Skelton served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1970 to 72, and worked in the Smallpox Eradication Program there. He is the lead editor and a coauthor of a book entitled Eradicating Smallpox in Ethiopia: Peace Corps Volunteers’ Accounts of Their Adventures, Challenges and Achievements, which will be published by Peace Corps Writers in 2019. He has also published a memoir about his life as a PCV in Ethiopia, Volunteering In Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey.
Jim has practiced law for more than 43 years, specializing in upstream international petroleum transactions in emerging markets. His work has taken him to over 35 countries in Europe, the Former Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America.He served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Houston Law Center from 2008 to 2016, teaching the course in “Energy Law: Doing Business in Emerging Markets,” and is a coauthor of the second edition of the textbook Doing Business in Emerging Markets: A Transactional Course. He has published 23 articles for legal periodicals and books, and has made 18 presentations at international conferences in Houston, Dallas, London and Moscow.