The Warm Heart of Africa: An Outrageous Adventure of Love, Music, and Mishaps in Malawi
Jack Allison (1966 – 69)
Peace Corps Writers
$14.95 (paperback), $6.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by: Charles F. “Chic” Dambach (Colombia 1967-69)
Jack Allison is legendary in Peace Corps circles, and The Warm Heart of Africa is the engaging story of one of the most remarkable Peace Corps Volunteers ever. The narrative is a marvelous combination of frustration, success, humor, humanity, music, medicine, and culture.
Allison served in Malawi from 1967 to 1969. Along the way he wrote and performed the number-one hit song in Malawi and Newsweek magazine reported that he was more popular in the country than the president. Unfortunately, that publicity angered the president who tried to deport him and shut down the entire Peace Corps program!
Prior to Peace Corps service, Allison overcame an impoverished and dysfunctional home life, but he made his way to Warren Wilson College and eventually to the University of North Carolina where he earned money in a rock band and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show and toured Europe as part of the Glee Club. The early music training and experience proved to be the basis for his phenomenal contribution to music and public health in Malawi.
Coming out of college, he was torn between a career as a pastor or physician, but, like many of his generation, he was “enraptured” by President Kennedy’s challenge to, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” He met with the UNC Peace Corps recruiter and he describes the revelation of the potential value of volunteering as an “epiphany.” On the last page of his application, he wrote, “Please send me where I am needed most.”
The Peace Corps initially assigned him to serve in Ghana, but the start of training conflicted with his Glee Club tour of Europe, so the agency reassigned him to train for Nigeria, but the Biafra violence made service in Nigeria impossible, so he was reassigned yet again. This time it was to be a public health volunteer in Malawi in southeastern Africa. At the time Malawi was the poorest country in the world, but was also known as “The Warm Heart of Africa.” The reassignment proved to be fortuitous as Malawi was exactly the right place for Allison’s interest in public health and his passion for music.
The rest of the story weaves through village life, a dog, motorcycles, a robbery, snakes, and love, but mostly it is a remarkable merging of music and medicine that captured the attention of the entire country. While teaching public health, Allison composed a song, “Brush the Flies Outta Your Babies Eyes” to teach a vital disease prevention lesson, and he teamed up with a popular local band, The Jazz Giants, to record it. He first heard his own song on the radio while getting his hair cut at a barbershop in the small town of Balaka. The barber commented, “I heard that song at least six times yesterday” and he wondered who the European singer might be. Someone else in the barbershop said, “I think his name is Jack [something], isn’t he in the Peace Corps?” The song became number one throughout the country, and Allison wrote and recorded other hit songs, all with a public health message. He also became famous… too famous for the president of Malawi, who became jealous, tried to deport Allison and nearly closed the entire Peace Corps program. Fortunately, reason prevailed, the Peace Corps remained, and Allison returned to the US to become a nationally prominent emergency room and public health physician. It is the stuff of legends, and the book is a delightful read from start to finish.
Charles F. “Chic” Dambach served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Colombia from 1967 to 1969. From 1992 through 1999, he was President and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association, and he has the title President Emeritus today. He is on the adjunct faculty at Johns Hopkins and American Universities, and previously he served as President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding and Chief of Staff for Congressman John Garamendi. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; he delivered a TEDx Talk titled “Why Not Peace?” and the second edition of his memoir, Exhaust the Limits, The Life and Times of a Global Peacebuilder, has been published by Apprentice House Press of Loyola University Maryland.