Review by Dan Campbell (El Salvador 1974-77)
YOVO, WHICH MEANS “white person” in Togo, is the story of Rick “Oly” Olymeyer’s Peace Corps experiences in Togo and his difficulties in adjusting to American life and culture once he returns to America.
I knew this was going to be an interesting book because Stephen writes that he started writing on a napkin in the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge in the summer of 1998 and that edits of the final draft were completed in Malaysia on April 13, 2016.
Reading this book brought back so many memories of my own Peace Corps experiences, the isolation, the homesickness and the illnesses. Oly served as a construction volunteer in Togo and built bridges and schools and I laughed out loud when he says that he lied about his construction experience which was limited to trips to the lumber yard. I did the same on my application when I exaggerated my agricultural expertise which was mostly limited to baling hay and feeding grandma’s chickens.
“The toughest job you’ll ever love” is repeated many times throughout the book and reveals Oly’s sense of humor which is an essential trait for any Volunteer. Oly gives fascinating descriptions of Peace Corps staff and the Togolese officials and villagers he meets.
Two special Volunteers are his friend Jeff who leads Oly into one near disaster involving cashews in Togo and another with the Secret Service in Washington D.C. Samantha is a dedicated and sharp Volunteer who captures Oly’s heart and the book ends with Oly planning a trip to be with her.
One of Oly’s many learning experiences came from a truckload of cement that was ruined by a sudden storm. As Oly watched the storm, a worker mentioned that Allah was teaching them a lesson. When Oly asked “What lesson?” the man replied, “next time wait until the dry season.”
The first half of the book is about Oly’s Peace Corps experience and the other half is the story of Oly’s return to America. Oly’s difficulties in adjusting to American culture remind me of my own difficulties in returning to a materialistic and rather spoiled culture.
Oly worked as an Internet café manager, house painter, and other temp jobs upon his return and went with his friend Jeff to Washington D.C. to look for an international job. All this trip accomplished was Oly spending his $4,000 of return money to get Jeff out of jail.
After the trip to Washington D.C., Oly is contacted by a lawyer he met in Togo. Oly is hired by the lawyer to investigate a dispute between land developers and the descendants of freed slaves in Georgia. Without giving away the ending, I will just say that Oly’s investigation leads to his rescue by the Coast Guard and appearances in court and on CNN.
Finally, I highly recommend this book, there is not a dull page in the entire book.
Reviewer Dan Campbell (El Salvador 1974 –77) like Oly, tried a series of dead-end jobs upon his return to a small town in North Carolina before attending graduate school at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Library and Information Science. Since graduation, he has worked in more than 20 countries for USAID on knowledge management related projects. He would like to join the Peace Corps again upon retirement to try and make up for the mistakes on his first tour.