Peace Corps Writers
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by Susana Herrera (Cameroon 1992–94)
Shambhala Publications, $22.50
267 pages

Reviewed by Paula Hirschoff (Kenya 1969–70)

Mango Elephants in the Sun is more than a memoir of Susana Herrera’s two years with the Peace Corps in the northern desertland of Cameroon. It is also the story of her spiritual journey from self doubt, fear and anger to acceptance and forgiveness. These two threads are beautifully interwoven and interspersed with verses spoken by the Lizard, a kind of shaman who enters the author's dreams and guides her spiritual development.
     Herrera joined the Peace Corps following a failed marriage and divorce. She was also fleeing the pain of a childhood marred by physical and sexual abuse, and her father's suicide attempts and his death by suicide when she was 16. To Herrera’s credit, these wounds are not worked over in flashbacks but revealed gradually and only briefly. “The constant loud static of the American lifestyle” that had drowned out those memories was gone. The childhood memories resurface after she tries to protect a student from a beating and the girl later dies from malaria. Over time, her experiences in Cameroon enable her to face the pain that she had worked all her life to keep buried.

Bridging the gap with the villagers
Upon arriving in Guidiguis, her assigned village, Herrera experiences a sharp sense of separateness. She feels she has never belonged anywhere, so her yearning to be part of the community is especially strong. Watching the local women laughing and washing clothes at the pump, she stifles her fear and goes to join them. Clotilde, another outsider in the village who becomes her best friend, calls to her with the Tapouri greeting, “Jam bah doo nah?” meaning, “Are you in your skin?” or “Is your soul in your body?” When Clotilde helps Herrera balance her bucket of water atop her head, she gallantly manages a few steps before falling and spraining an ankle. Through her humiliation, she notes she is still in her skin. As the ankle heals, she bridges the gap with the villagers with help from a handsome Cameroonian doctor who is stationed in Guidiguis. The story of their cross cultural love affair weaves through the narrative.
     The value of living fully in the moment, of being truly in your skin, as the book’s subtitle says, is Herrera's overarching message. During a classroom lesson on the present participle, Herrera is distracted by the chalkboard crumbling as she attempts to write on it, the herders calling to their cattle as they pass the school, and the unbearable desert heat compounded by overcrowding in the classroom: 112 students, five to a desk. She counts the minutes to lunch and wonders why she joined the Peace Corps. Responding to her request for examples of the present participle, a student offers, “I am being.”
     After correcting the girl, she suddenly realizes her own greater error. She herself was not being — she had not been fully present in the classroom with her students.
     Gradually, she gains a sense of her own powers. At first, she seriously doubts whether she can control her unruly students because she abhors the corporal punishment frequently practiced in African schools. Then she realizes that she can discipline in other ways — making students tote water in the noonday sun, for example. At first she thinks she must depend on unreliable bush taxis to drive her to see her Peace Corps friend 20 miles away. But she can get there under her own power, by bike and by foot, although she nearly gets jailed the first time she tries cycling in the blistering heat.
     And at first she feels trapped when her fellow teachers accuse her of betrayal because she will not join their strike against the government. They refuse to accept her explanation that the Peace Corps will send her home if she participates in politics. When she decides to join the strike, her students feel betrayed. Finally, she finds a solution: holding informal English sessions outside of class time. When 300 students show up for the first session, she realizes she wants to devote her life to teaching.

Strong enough to be myself
The development of her friendship with Lydie, a bright student with ambitions to become a teacher, parallels the author's growing awareness of her own strength.
     Lydie wants to ride a bike. Cameroonian girls are not supposed to ride bikes because it will make them sterile. Herrera muses about other reasons: A woman on a bicycle could be dangerous. If she begins steering and pedaling, she could go where she wanted. Then she might start doing whatever she pleased. She teaches Lydie to ride by asking her to recreate the sense of balance that enables her to carry a bucket of water on her head. But Lydie's brother/guardian finds out about the lesson and sends Lydie away. The brother tells Herrera she is wrong to put desires in Lydie's head for things she cannot have. Overcome by remorse, Herrera wonders whether she was teaching Lydie to ride merely to magnify her own sense of purpose. When Lydie returns to Guidiguis months later, Lydie rejects her teacher's apology: “Do you think he can take away what you put inside? You are here only once in my life. I want to learn a different way from you. I want to be strong enough to be myself.”

A choice anecdote
This book offers so many delightful anecdotes about life with the villagers, as well as adventures on the road, that I find it difficult to select a favorite. A likely choice, however, would be the day it is so hot that Herrera defies Muslim convention and goes for her daily run in shorts and a halter top instead of sweats. The villagers are shocked as she races past their homes. Students on their way home from school gossip and laugh about her. Then a brave boy named Abbo joins her and others follow. Soon she's running along the desert road with a crowd of students around her singing Tapouri songs. Abbo breaks into an English song in which he names objects they are seeing and the crowd sings, “Wonderful!” Perhaps it was partly due to a runner's high, but she realizes that she finally belongs — not to somebody else nor to the village but more importantly, to herself.

Folklore explains life
Mango Elephants
goes beyond the awakening of one Peace Corps Volunteer to draw on the lore and life styles of northern Cameroon. On a bus ride to the capital, a fellow traveler explains to Herrera why the villagers think the elephants are stealing their wine:

    In the old days the lions converted potholes of water in the riverbed into calabashes of millet wine which they drank during celebrations. At the end of the season the elephants came migrating through the region drinking up the leftover wine. Meanwhile, the lions had learned to transform themselves into humans. After experiencing the joy of being human, they could not return to lionhood. Thus, lions became extinct, and elephants could no longer find wine in the riverbed.

During periods of drought, alcohol becomes more important to the villagers who brew and store volumes of millet wine with its tantalizing aroma. At the time the author heard this story, elephants had started randomly tearing up entire villages in search of wine. In furious retaliation, the villagers were torching their fields to scare them away. Herrera recalls that she’s seen elephants only once since arriving in Guisdiguis. After consuming too much millet wine one evening, she was heading home at sunset, when she saw “elephants the color of sweet ripe mangoes dancing to jazz in the cornfields . . . lifting and lowering their trunks like golden saxophones.”

I have only a few criticisms of this charming book. First, I did not like the intermixing of letters to her mother and journal entries with the other chapters. The style varies too much among the different types of writing. The Lizard's verses provide sufficient interruption from the narrative. The letters and journal entries break the flow and make the narrative seem disjointed.
     Second, the author's naiveté occasionally becomes irritating, as in the chapter entitled “Fat” which is set in the mayor's house at dinnertime. The doctor tells the mayor's wife that she is fat. The author is horrified at his faux pas and realizes only slowly that in Africa, it is good to be fat and bad to be as thin as she is. Her astonishment seems contrived. Surely she had noticed that African men prefer plump women and that Western women's obsession with dieting has not been a worldwide phenomenon.
     Finally, the dialogue in English with the doctor or the Peace Corps friend seems less poignant and less realistic than the author’s communication with the local people. Herrera’s forte is her description of gentle nonverbal interaction with the Cameroonians, such as the unspoken tenderness she feels toward the mother and child seated beside her on a long bus ride who use her lap and shoulder as pillows. When the bus becomes stranded for hours and Herrera starts to pass out from heat, hunger, and thirst, the same woman peels an orange and feeds it to her until she recovers.

Today Susana Herrera teaches English at Santa Cruz High School in northern California. She works to open her students’ minds to other cultures and helps them to realize they can separate themselves from American pop culture, and grow and develop as individuals, by being alone with themselves.

Paula Hirschoff is a Washington, DC-based writer and anthropologist.

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