Peace Corps Writers
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The Impenetrable Forest
by Thor Hanson (Uganda 1993–95)
Writer’s Showcase/iUniverse
264 pages

Read about Thor Hanson's experience with self-publishing The Impenetrable Forest

Halcyon Daze
  Reviewed by Martha Martin (Costa Rica 1979–81)
WHEN I RECEIVED A COPY of The Impenetrable Forest to read, I was delighted. Imagine, a Peace CorpsPrinter friendly version Volunteer with an assignment that, well, basically allowed him to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall. I may be wrong in saying this, but it is my firm belief that every woman who joins the Peace Corps has a secret desire to follow in her footsteps; in any case, it was always my desire.
     I started reading, and must admit that I got a bit bogged down in Ugandan history in Chapter 2; fortunately, by the end of the chapter, Hanson came up with a great line, “it’s no wonder people stare at me in this country. I’m running around with a plastic glove full of urine.” and things were back in full swing.
     Hanson articulates the Peace Corps experience well:
  • His assignment — “I . . . sometimes wondered what determination the Peace Corps had used in my placement: ‘Well, he’s a primate . . . he’ll do.’”
  • Peace Corps/Uganda's expectation of Volunteers — “In a very real sense, you will be a grass-roots representative of the American people while living and working in Uganda.”
  • The reality of working in a developing country — “They needed far more than songs and soccer, but the best community development is subtle work. John and I accomplished two thirds of the Peace Corps mission by simply being there, sharing something of our own culture and learning something from theirs. To do more is often to presume too much, I reminded myself, like catcher’s mitts and batting helmets for a town that has no textbooks.”

     Hanson’s assignment was to habituate the endangered mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to ecotourism. His description of his first encounter with an aggressive gorilla is priceless: “The ape careened past in a flash of bared teeth and wild eyes, less than an arm’s reach from my face . . . . The gorilla spun away, still screaming, and continued down the slope. The noise alone was heart-stopping: an indescribable roar . . .” Thus begins the story of the habituation of the Katendegyere group of mountain gorillas to tourists; the goal was to have them calm enough for visitors within a year.
     From his description of an invasion of his home by army ants in the middle of the night to the isolation of his house at the edge of the Bwindi National Park, one is struck by the rigor of Hanson’s Peace Corps assignment. In fact, he mentions early on that a Volunteer assigned previously to his site was so overwhelmed by the solitude that she returned to the United States early, leaving him the opportunity to take her place.
     I was charmed with the description of the relationship between Hanson and the trackers and the Katendegyere group after months of habituation.

Suddenly, Kacupira appeared, sprinting up the slope to place himself between us and the advancing apes. With his maimed hand, he couldn’t hope to challenge two healthy males, and immediately assumed a submissive posture, holding his hindquarters high in the air. Makale and Mutesi screamed indignantly, but Kacupira had diverted their attention long enough for us to back slowly out of the vicinity… ‘The gorillas have finally accepted me as one of their own!’ I joked in a letter home…As the gorillas became more comfortable with us, we went through our own set of subtle changes, leading inevitably to the puzzling question: who was habituating whom?

     Of course, the underlying question woven throughout the book has to do with the future of Uganda and of Africa in general. As Hanson writes, “Legendary wilderness and a rich cultural heritage draw more visitors to the Dark Continent every year, but the modern African experience is tainted by a vague sense of desperation.” As Hanson describes the impact of AIDS, of civil wars, of hunger and poverty, one is left to wonder what the future of Africa holds, not only for the endangered mountain gorilla, but for all of the human inhabitants as well.
     Hanson leaves Africa at the end of his assignment, without extending it. In making his decision, he writes,

. . . there were certainly days where I longed for anonymity.
     I had also begun reaching the limits that culture placed on my relationships with friends. While I’d formed close bonds . . . the sheer disparity between our backgrounds often prevented a deeper connection. We worked and laughed together every day, but found our conversations at an impasse where cultures diverged . . . . I’d met several volunteers and expatriates who tainted their whole experience by staying abroad too long, by letting life in the fishbowl turn cultural stress to bitterness. I wanted to leave Uganda on a positive note, when it would still be hard to go.

     Ultimately, the strength of this book lies in the wonderful descriptions of the forest and its inhabitants. In the next to last chapter, Hanson describes troops of monkeys: “The flashy russet fur of the redtails contrasted sharply with the blues, who gleamed in shades of dull silver, like woodland spirits woven from mist.” And finally —

A blue mother-of-pearl butterfly drifted above the path before me, furling and unfurling its iridescent wings like the folds of a magician’s cloak. I recognized every bend in the trail as I moved towards Buhoma: a familiar tunnel through drooping Brilliantasia shrubs; the nesting tree for bar-tailed trogons; a day-roost snag for eagle owls. I passed the waterfall trail . . . . Every branch in the path led to hills or tiny clearings where I’d camped, watched gorillas, or shared lunch with the trackers – obscure, but beautiful places with names like woodwind music . . . .”

     Hanson left Bwindi Park on a very sad note, just after the deaths of a close friend’s much beloved wife and daughter. This, of course, is the tragedy of every Peace Corps Volunteer’s service; we will leave the troubles and pains of our friends behind when we return to the United States, but our friends will live with them forever, and we can only hope that we have in some way improved or enhanced their lives, if only in the smallest measure.

Martha Martin is an Admissions Counselor for the School of Management at George Mason University. She is completing a fictional account of her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in School and Community Gardens Promotion in Costa Rica.
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