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Peace Corps Writers — September 2003

Writers — we have quite a bit of news for you!

Miami wants Peace Corps writers
Thanks to Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993–96) and Helene Dudley (Colombia 1968–70, Albania 1997, Slovakia 1997–99) and the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of South Florida (RPCVSF), Peace Corps writers have a wonderful opportunity to sell their books at the upcoming great Miami Book Fair International being held November 2–9, 2003. Peace Corps writers (so far) who will have books at the Fair and/or are planning to be in Miami are: Craig Carrozzi (Colombia 1978–80), Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963–65), Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 1971–73, Paraguay 1999–2000), Mary Kilgour (Philippines 1962–64), Carolyn Welsh (Honduras 1962–64), and Patricia S. Taylor Edmisten (Peru 1962–64).
     The Miami Book Fair International (MBFI) is one of the world’s largest literary events, bringing together hundreds of authors and half a million book lovers. This year the MBFI will be held the week of November 2nd with a focus on week-end events November 7–9 at the Miami Dade Community College downtown campus. Two hundred and fifty authors are scheduled this year, plus hundreds of exhibitor booths, non-stop music and theater in the streets, and food galore.
     MBFI Vice Chairman Mitch Kaplan owns the legendary Books & Books stores in Miami Beach and Coconut Grove, venues for liberal, progressive writers and readers.
     For twenty years, Books and Books has invited authors to its stores for readings and book signings. Mr. Kaplan was amazed to discover the Peace Corps Writers website, and he is enthusiastic about planning a panel of Peace Corps writers for next year’s fair. Planning toward that goal will begin in January 2004 and we will keep you informed.
     In the meantime, RPCVSF has taken an exhibit booth at the Fair — as the group does every year — to promote the Peace Corps. They are inviting Peace Corps authors to attend, sign books at their booth and consign books to them for sale. RPCVSF would add a few dollars to the book price, in order to raise money for their book project, i.e., to cover shipping costs of large amounts of books they send to schools around the world. Donations of books would be greatly appreciated for this cause.
     Peace Corps writers interested in participating this year should contact — ASAP — Leita Kaldi ( or Helene Dudley ( to inquire about (1) possibilities of selling books, and (2) help finding lodging in Miami.

Barbara Scot at Fishtrap
The wonderful Peace Corps writer Barbara J. Scot (Nepal 1990–92), author of three works of literary nonfiction: The Violet Shyness of their Eyes: Notes from Nepal (Calyx Books, PNBA book award 1994); Prairie Reunion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York Times Notable Book for 1995); The Stations of Still Creek (Sierra Club Books) will be the featured writer at Wallowa River Camp, Joseph, Oregon, from October 8–12. This program, part of the offerings of the Fishtrap writing community of Enterprise, Oregan run by Rick Wandschneider (Turkey1965–67), is for all writers who have a story — if only their own — to tell. Rich writes, “call it memoir writing; call it writing therapy; call it writing from what we know best — the complicated embroidery of our own intensely personal tapestry. Such writing is more than self-validation. Through it we discover our commonality with the varieties and richness of the human experience and if we have written well the reader participates in that discovery. Come to this workshop prepared to extract the diamonds, however rough, from your own life, family background, travel encounters; in short, to utilize the beauty and pain of your own uniqueness in what you put on paper to share with others.”
     For more information, email Rich at

Writers take note
The Writer’s Book of Hope: Getting from Frustration to Publication by Ralph Keyes, author of The Courage to Write has just come out. While not an RPCV, Keyes has written a book that is extremely useful to writers and would-be writers. Look for the trade paperback, published this fall from Henry Holt & Company.

NPCA conference in Chicago
The very well organized and involved Chicago Area Peace Corps Association (CAPCA) will host the NPCA Conference in Chicago from August 5–8, 2004. We are submitting proposals for writing workshops for the conference. The tentative writing workshop topics are:

    • Publishing Your Peace Corps Story (Fiction or Non-Fiction)
    • Careers in Publishing
    • Peace Corps Prose: Literature from the Peace Corps
    • Self-publishing

If you plan to attend and wish to be on one of these panels, please email me at:

Now to what’s in the September issue —
I talked with Sarah Erdman (Cote d’Ivoire 1998–00), author of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Year in the Heart of an African Village, about the writing of her wonderful Peace Corps book published this month by Henry Holt & Company. Sarah’s book is also reviewed in this issue, along with several other recently published books by Peace Corps writers.
     In “A Writer Writes” Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia 1974–75) recalls meeting Idi Amin on an ill fated plane ride to Zaire in 1973. From Romania, our PCV correspondent Andy Trincia has a story that involves the Romanian idiom, “Sa moara si capra vecinului!” — the meaning of which translates to, “If my goat dies, I hope my neighbor’s goat dies, too.”
     The Journals of Peace archive continues to grow with the publication of readings that were presented from 6–7 pm on Monday, November 21, 1988, and we have “A Letter from Debre Berhan, Ethiopia” written in 1968. And as always, the latest news and information about Peace Corps writers and related topics are all posted in “Literary Type.”
     Now, to the reading —

— John Coyne

Recent books by Peace Corps writers 9/03

Chasing the Sea
Lost Among the Ghosts of Empire in Central Asia

(alternate subtitle: Being a Narrative Journey through Uzbekistan, Including Descriptions of Life therein, Culminating with an Arrival at the Aral Sea, The World’s Worst Man-Mad Ecological Catastrophe)
by Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 1996)
Pantheon Books
September 2003
416 pages

Strange Encounters
Adventures of a Renegade Naturalist

by Daniel B. Botkin (Philippines 1962–64)
J. P. Tarcher
September, 2003
304 pages

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha
Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

by Sarah Erdman (Cote D'Ivoire 1998–2000)
Henry Holt & Co.
September, 2003
336 pages

Help! My Underwear Is Shrinking
One Woman’s Story of How to Eat Right, Lose Weight, and Win the Battle Against Diabetes
by E. Michael (Mike) Goodkind (Nigeria 1965–67) with Jo Ann Hattner, and Ann Coulston
Alexandria, Va.: American Diabetes Association, McGraw-Hill/Contemporary Books
May 2003
137 pages

A Peace Corps Profile
(Peace Corps experience)
by Kirk A. Hackenberg (Nicaragua, Chile 1977–80)
156 pages
August 2003

Your Career Planner
(8th edition)
by Susan Musich (Philippines 1989–90, Costa Rica 1992–93; PC/W staff: 90–92, 94–99), David Borchard and Cheryl Bonner
Kendall Hunt
308 pages

Career Counseling and Services
A Cognitive Information Processing Approach

by Gary W. Peterson (Nigeria 1963–65) and James P.Sampson, Jr, Robert C Reardon and Jan Lenz,
Wadsworth Publishing
July 2003

Shadow over Fiji
A Memoir

(Peace Corps experience)
by Barbara Restle (Fiji 1979–80)
Vantage Press
225 pages

Babu's Song
(Children's book)
by Stephanie A. Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 1989–90)
Lee & Low Book,
32 pages
March 2003

The Serpent's Kiss
by Mark T. Sullivan (Niger 1980–82)
Atria Books
384 pages
July 2003

24 New Moons
(Peace Corps experience)
by Tom Vandegrift (Lesotho 1999–01)
Infinity Books
429 pages
July 2003

Transforming the Multicultural Education of Teachers
Theory, Research, and Practice
by Michael Vavrus (Ethiopia 1972–74)
Teachers College Press
240 pages
August, 2002

Maya Hair Sashes Backstrap Woven in Jacaltenango, Guatemala
(second edition, in English and Spanish)
by Carol Ventura (Guatemala 1976–80)
176 pages

More Tapestry Crochet
by Carol Ventura (Guatemala 1976–80)
172 pages

A Thousand Journeys
Biography of Lama Anagarika Govinda

by Ken Winkler (India 1964–66; Czech Republic 1995–96)
Element Books, Vega imprint
196 pages

Literary Type 9/03

  • Sarah Erdman (Cote d’Ivoire 1998–00), who is interviewed in this issue, was the featured reader at the NPCA Conference held in Portland, Oregon in early August. Her book, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village had been selected by Borders Books for the Borders Original Voices program highlighting “innovative and ambitious books from new and emerging talents.” Nine Hills was also selected by Barnes & Noble for the Discover Great New Writers program that introduces “dynamic new literary authors.” The book was published by Henry Holt earlier this month and it is reviewed in this issue.
  • Mike Tidwell’s (Congo/Zaire 1985–87) newest book, about his odyssey hitchhiking on Cajun fishing boats along the Louisiana coast, continues to attract great reviews and noteworthy readers. Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast was featured on C-SPAN Book TV in June and Tidwell was interviewed on NPR’s “Marketplace” radio program in July. The book has now gone into a second printing and has caught the attention of Louisiana’s governor, Mike Foster. The governor held a state dinner in Tidwell’s honor at the governor’s mansion in March and personally bought 1,500 copies to give to politicians in Louisiana and Washington, D.C. The book draws portraits of Cajun fishing people along the vast wetland coast of Louisiana and details the catastrophe of disappearing marshes caused by the levying of the Mississippi River.
  • David Quammen’s “splendid book,” writes Norman Rush (Botswana CD 1978–83) in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday, August 31, is “an artful, focused account of contemporary efforts to secure preservation, in the wild,” of the large-bodied carnivores that Quammen designates “alpha predators.”
         “The stories he presents contain rich detail and vivid anecdotes of adventure, and they provide skillful capsulizations of the politics, economics, cultural history and ecological dynamics bearing on the fate of each of these cornered populations,” says Rush, the author of the recently published novel, Mortals, which is set in Botswana. “In talking about Crocodylus niloticus, Quammen refers to the death of William H. Olson, a Peace Corps Volunteer taken by a croc in the Baro River in Ethiopia in 1966. He repeats a commonly retolded version of this tragic event, to the effect that the Volunteers for some reason ignored warnings by local people that a crocodile lurked in the river in which they were planning to swim. There is strong counter testimony on this point by Kathleen Coskran, a member of Olson’s party, whose letter to her mother about the incident, written shortly afterward, has been available for several years on the Internet at In fairness to Olson’s family, conclusions on what happened should acknowledge the testimony of this witness and some others to Olson’s death that no warning was given to the group.”
  • Peter Hessler (China 1996–98) journeys back to the Chinese river town of Fuling, the setting of his first book River Town, and finds his characters are writing a whole new story of there own.. It is in TIME Asia Edition, August 18–25, 2003, Vol. 162, No. 6
  • An essay by Terez Rose (Gabon 1985–87) will appear in Women Who Eat, an upcoming anthology published by Seal Press due out in November 2003. The essay, entitled, “Lessons From Gabon,” interweaves the themes of family, food and foreign culture, commenting on the change of perspective that two years abroad can bring.
  • Tom Mullen (Malawi 1989–92) is the author of Rivers of Change: Trailing the Waterways of Lewis and Clark that will will be published in May 2004.
         On the morning of this coming October 24th, Tom will be on a discussion panel presented in Louisville, Kentucky, that will be part of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. The specific venue for this particular panel has not yet been decided, but will be announced in October on the website The panel will be discussing how the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled on have changed in the past 200 years and what we can do to protect them during the next 200 years.
  • The September/October 2003 issue of T&L Golf Magazine has an article by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979–80) about playing golf in New England autumns.
         Merullo is the author — most recently — of In Revere, in Those Days, which will be out in paperback this October. This novel won the 2003 Maria Thomas Fiction Award given by Peace Corps Writers.
  • Nnorom Azuonye talks with Stephen Vincent (Nigeria 1965–67) about his poetry and the influences of Nigeria on his poetry in a two-part interview at Part One was published this past July along with several of his poems; Part Two was published in September.
         Vincent is a poet and publisher who has lived in San Francisco since his Peace Corps tour, when he taught creative writing, English and American Literature at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. Author of six books of poetry including Walking that includes several Nigerian based poems.
         Pacifica Radio Station KPFA is planning to produce readings from his new work, On the Way to Iraq, from a series of articles he wrote for The Gothics News Service, Spring, 2003. He was the publisher of Momo’s Press (1973 – 1983) and Bedford Arts, Publishers (1986 – 1991). Currently he directs Book Studio, a book packaging company.
  • RPCV writer and textile artist Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996–98) became addicted to patchwork quilting while serving in the Peace Corps. Living alone on the top of a hill in the middle of the rainforest, without a vehicle, TV, telephone, or even a sewing machine, she spent her free time hand-piecing scraps of wildly colorful African fabric until she was hooked on the craft. After her tour, she moved to Mali where she created an economic development effort called “The Patchwork Project,” in which she taught talented Malian seamstresses how to make patchwork quilts with locally made fabric, to be sold, ultimately, over the Internet. The project continues to this day. Living now in Dixon, New Mexico, she is involved with the art collective, Dixon Studio Tour. Lear more about her creative work at on her artist page.
  • Paul Conklin (Staff: PC/W 1964–67), the first official photographer for the Peace Corps, died of cancer on Wednesday, September 17, 2003 in Port Townsend, Washington at the age of 74.
         Having worked as a free-lance writer in Nigeria in the early 1960s, Conklin approached Sargent Shriver in Washington for a job and was hired by Sarg in 1964. Many of the early dramatic photographs of PCVs working overseas were taken by Conklin and appeared in early recruitment material, as well as in the pages of The Volunteer, the Peace Corps agency’s publication for PCVs. Conklin later worked with writer Brent Ashabranner, Peace Corps Deputy Director; India, Country Director 1964–69) on books about the Peace Corps and many children's books.
         One of Conklin’s most striking images, which appeared in Time Magazine, was that of a young protester placing a daisy in the barrel of a National Guardsman’s rifle during a demonstration at the Pentagon against the Vietnam War.

Talking with

Sarah Erdman
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

SARAH ERDMAN’S GIFT for language came to my attention when she emailed me a short essay “The Guissongui Show” that we published in our September 2002 issue. Sarah wrote at the time that she had recently returned from Cote d’Ivoire, where she had been a health Volunteer from 1998–2000, and was finishing up a collection of stories about her experience. Like all good writers, she disappeared into her work, but I began to hear about her from other writers, including Peter Hessler, and then her agent called to tell me he had sold this “collection of stories” by Sarah to Henry Holt & Company, a major New York publishing house. A few months later, her editor sent me the galleys of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. Sarah’s editor continued to send me good news about Nine Hills, mentioning that the book had been selected by Borders Books in their program highlighting “innovative and ambitious books from new and emerging talents.” Next, Barnes & Noble selected Nine Hills for their “Discover Great New Writers” program that introduces “dynamic new literary authors.” In this issue, we are publishing a review of Sarah’s book and have this interview about the author herself.

Im told that your father was a PCV.
Yes, my father was an English teacher in Turkey from 1967–69. It certainly changed his life, and put him on track for a career overseas as a foreign service officer. Growing up with his stories, it seemed pretty much inevitable that I’d end up a Volunteer too. Incidentally my brother is currently applying. I think it’s in the blood.

Where have you lived overseas?
My bio on the book jacket says eight countries, but I can only count seven, and I’m not quite sure who’s responsible for the inflation! I’ve lived in Cyprus, former Yugoslavia, Portugal, France, Israel, Cote d’Ivoire, and of course, the States in between.

Did you go to college in the States?
I went to Middlebury College in Vermont and majored in history with an art history minor.

What led you to the Peace Corps?
Well, as I said, it was sort of in my blood, and then having spent a lot of my childhood abroad, it just seemed like the most natural thing for me to do. What appealed to me about Peace Corps was the idea that I would be living at the level of the community. I felt it was very important in understanding myself to see how well I could do living at a basic level, starting my life there from scratch. Also, I appreciated the fact that once at a site it was up to me and the community — and not a distant development agency — to figure out what kinds of projects to start.

. . . and your assignment?
I was a rural health extension Volunteer in the village of Nambonkaha. That’s in northern Cote d’Ivoire.

Did you join the Peace Corps thinking you might write a book about the experience?
People ask me now if I knew I would write a book before I got there. To be honest, I had an idea that I might, but it dissipated as soon as I got there, because the realities of my life there forced me to focus on the present much more than the future. I brought an old Olivetti typewriter, but never used it. Instead, I wrote religiously in my journals. I found that I needed to write because it was the only way to share the amazing or difficult or heartbreaking experience I was having. So instead of coming home after a particularly interesting conversation and calling a friend about it, I wrote a letter home or wrote in my journal. I think it was during my trip after Peace Corps, when I was still in Africa, but not my Africa, that I realized that I had to write the book. It was never really a choice — it was sort of a given. I had to do it.

Tell us a little bit about how you went about writing the book.
When I got back to the States, I moved immediately to an isolated house in Montana and transcribed much of my journal and letters, and then worked on memories to flesh out and organize the stories.

Go into the details about the writing of the first draft. How long did it take? How many drafts? How long did you write each day?
Okay. After my Close of Service trip to East Africa, I moved to a family friend’s house in Montana. I knew I needed to be completely isolated to write the first draft. I transcribed my journals and my letters home, and based on them, churned out 550 pages in three months. It was an idyllic life, except for the fact there was no heat upstairs — I wrote 5 to 9 hours a day and went hiking in the Rockies in my back yard every afternoon. I saw other people once or twice a week, which did make me a little loopy towards the end, but it was exactly what I needed to get the manuscript out of my head. Then I returned to Washington, D.C., started working part time, and over nine months rewrote every chapter. I was adamant about finishing it within a year, and in fact, that’s what I did. I finished it a year to the day after I started writing. I left it alone for a few months to gain perspective, and then went through it two more times.

Once the book was ready, how did you go about getting an agent, getting it published?
I bought a lot of books about how to publish and asked for advice from every
published writer I could find. What really helped me was finding Peter Hessler. He recommended the agents he had queried, which gave me the
direction I needed to start the process. I tried his agent first. When I heard nothing, I sent out about twenty letters to different agents. I got a few positive responses, a slew of rejections, and never heard from the rest. But Peter’s agent, William Clark, contacted me a few months later, and offered to represent me. Once he was in control, things moved quickly. We were negotiating with Holt within five weeks.

What “Peace Corps books” have you read?
The whole time I was writing my book, I refused to read Peace Corps books, or any books about Africa for that matter. I didn’t want any outside
influence at all. When I was first invited to Peace Corps, however, I dashed out to the nearest book store to look for books on West Africa. The only relevant one at the Border’s in Chicago was The Ponds of Kalambayi, by Mike Tidwell, so that was my introduction to Peace Corps literature. Later on I found George Packer’s Village of Waiting by chance in a used book store. Those two books were my first taste of Africa, and I found myself referencing them quite a bit during my first few months as a Volunteer. Since I finished my manuscript, I’ve of course read Peter Hessler’s River Town, and I’ve been instructed to pick up Living Poor as soon as I can get my hands on it. The difference is that now I read them to see how the authors presented the similar themes that run through the Peace Corps experience.

Do you see yourself as another Peter Hessler or Mike Tidwell?
I really love to write, and I think to a certain extent it comes naturally. Henry Miller called it “exquisite torture,” and I can’t think of a better description. It’s a pretty incredible process — full of passion and frustration and elation all within minutes of each other sometimes. Exhausting at times, really, but it feels meaningful and true to myself. Am I another Peter Hessler or Mike Tidwell? I’d be flattered if people saw parallels, but I think I’m mostly just me.

What advice would you give PCVs now who hopes to write a book about their experience?
Write now. Don’t put it off because you’re tired or the kerosene is low. Write as soon as things happen to you, and write a lot, even when not much is happening. I think it’s also important not to think of your writing as a manuscript. Most of my stories come straight from journals and letters home — so they were less self-conscious, more honest, more natural, and I think that’s what made them work. In terms of turning writings into a manuscript, the process is different for everyone.
     Two things I could not have done without are isolation and a defined time period. It’s hard to be disciplined without any structure, as I’m sure many RPCVs will agree. What helps is having a space that you associate with writing and a set amount of time to get the writing done. It also helps if the stories are still fresh.

What are you doing now?
I am working in the Placement Office at Peace Corps/Washington, sending people off to be Volunteers in Africa. I am also figuring out how to visit my parents who just moved to Algeria, and sketching out the first steps for my next book.

Do you have another book planned?
Yes — a few actually. I’d like to somehow marry writing and third world development work so I’m looking for opportunities to go overseas again. For now, though, I have something entirely different up my sleeve.


Glory in a Camel's Eye
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90;
PC staff: Poland, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Houghton Mifflin Co.
245 pages

Reviewed by Vic Cox (Brazil 1964–66)

WE ALL HAVE DREAMS, but few of us pursue them with the passionate persistence of Jeffrey Tayler, travel book author and Moscow-based correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly. He needs that quality because going on long, arduous and often dangerous journeys apparently is central to Tayler’s dreams.
     In his first travel saga book, Siberian Dawn, Tayler hitchhiked and rode the rails more than 8,000 miles from Magadan, Siberia, to Warsaw. For his next book, Facing the Congo, he and a guide paddled a dugout canoe 1,000 miles down the Congo River, fending off corrupt government functionaries and traversing malaria-infested regions.
     For the recently published Camel’s Eye he and his indigenous guides trekked and rode camels several hundred miles through southern Morocco’s Draa River Valley and over Saharan sands to the Atlantic Ocean. When his Moroccan agent advised him that the journey was risky but it could be done, Tayler wrote, “Suddenly, all my time in Morocco and trips to the Draa seemed like a prelude to the chance to realize a dream I had nurtured for fifteen years.”
      Unfortunately, this dream seldom comes into focus for the reader. His unconventional route takes us through a welter of towns, villages, and wide-spots-in-the-dunes, few of them distinctive in this account. (A map of the route traveled would have helped.) His tone is mostly dispassionate, recording events and occasionally sharing a moment of enthusiasm for his guides or the people he meets in the crumbling casbahs or dust-encrusted tents along the journey.
     Even the desert, with its variety of terrain and winds, recedes into background, never fully becoming a character in the story. It’s as if the increasing hardships on Tayler, his two Ruhhal guides, and three camels narrow the narrator’s focus to conflicts among the men and the struggles to survive to the next oasis or well. And after four years of drought, some of those Saharan wells are dry.
     The drought is blamed for driving the independent, clannish Ruhhal people from their traditional herding life into the country’s drab towns and flyblown villages. Some cling to the old ways and still tend their goats and camels on the diminishing vegetation, but Tayler reports little luck in finding the bold and valorous desert people he imagined.
     Inspired to master Arabic in college by reading Philip K. Hitti’s History of the Arabs (1943) and Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1954), Tayler claims to have become “enamored of the Arab world.” Yet his first venture in 1987 into the region ended badly in Meknes, Morocco, when he “ate a bad kebab and it nearly killed me.”
     Despite misgivings, he pragmatically returned to Morocco a year later as a Peace Corps Volunteer posted to Marrakesh. “My money had run out and I had no other prospects for employment,” he wrote, and he wanted to resume exploring the Arab world. It was during his two-year tour that Tayler first heard of the stark beauty of the upper Draa River Valley. He also learned about the seductive attractiveness of Moroccan women.
     In this book, Tayler seems to be in search of another shimmering seduction: Thesiger described an inner peace born out of desert solitude and the “comradeship in a hostile world” from noble-spirited nomads. The Ruhhal Tayler travels with and meets on his trek are of much more common metal, concerned with caring for their camels, eating regularly, and stretching out their employment by adding time to the trek.
      They also are curious, in varying degrees, about this Christian (they assume) who speaks fluent Moroccan Arabic and is walking across some of the most challenging territory in the country. A few of these devout Muslims even seek to convert him, which he finds initially amusing, then annoying.
     The protagonist in a story like this, which offers none of the standard travel lore or information, always has stage center, but Tayler reveals only snapshots of his emotions, fragments of his values. We get little self-reflection so it is difficult to see how he is “enamored” by the land or its people. At times, he does not seem to like them very much, but that is most evident when he feels ill.
     Wherever he travels in this harsh land, for example, he finds hospitality extended to the stranger, be it a cup of mint tea or a full meal. While he notes the customary kindnesses, as he does the ritual greetings and praise of God, he seems more likely to comment on the people’s lack of hygiene.
     Tayler is gracious enough to ask forgiveness from one of the Ruddal guides with whom he has been in conflict, but he cannot resist telling us that he tipped both guides with “a wad of bills.”
      In the end, Tayler’s narrative feels shaped more by disappointment than the elation to be expected from completing a grueling journey. If his dream was to discover for himself Thesiger’s inner peace and the friendship of noble nomads, time and change may have thwarted him this time. But he will try again.

Vic Cox is a writer/editor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of the young adult nonfiction reference books Guns, Violence, and Teens and The Challenge of Immigration.


Nine Hills to Nambonkaha
Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

by Sarah Erdman (Cote D'Ivoire 1998–2000)
Henry Holt & Co.
September 2003
336 pages

Reviewed by Mike Tidwell (Zaire/Congo 1985–87)

AS A FISHERIES VOLUNTEER in Zaire/Congo in the mid 1980s, I attended more than 200 funerals in two years, three quarters of them for children under the age of two. I was a tough and determined Volunteer, sufficiently innocent and inexperienced in life to be able to adapt quickly to most of the village hardships around me. But I never got over all those funerals for all those little kids: angelic eyes closed on malnourished faces, some of them named after me just months before by proud, all-giving parents.
     Nearly 20 years later, I have my own child — a six-year-old boy who is my north, south, east, and west — and I’ve come to realize something: I could never do it again. I could never be a PCV in a poor African village again. In that way that only parents can understand, it would be like watching my own son die 200 times in two years.
     Thus, it was with trepidation that I picked up Sarah Erdman’s new Peace Corps memoir Nine Hills to Nambonkaha. From 1998 to 2000, Erdman served in a small town in Cote D’Ivoire’s impoverished, hot, and dusty Muslim north. As a health worker and midwife, she took me — kicking and screaming — back to the reality of malnourished bodies and worm-swollen bellies, to miscarriages and stillbirths and funerals for two-year-olds with 80-year-old skin falling off their bones.
     But it is a tribute to Erdman’s great skill as a writer — and we can now add a new voice to the hallowed school of Thomsen, Packer, and Hessler — that she somehow turns all the death and sorrow into an eloquent, dignified, and at times strangely beautiful story.
     Halfway through this universal Peace Corps story — one of a village taking halting steps toward modernity while hanging onto “watertight” traditions of superstition, corruption and fatalism — Erdman describes a village woman lying prostrate on a cot in a dim infirmary as rains drizzles across the tin roof. The legs of a dead baby protrude from the woman’s body and it’s Erdman’s job to complete the complicated, harrowing breech birth. She rotates the body and pulls just a bit and the head inches out.
     Then, “helping out the placenta, my gloved hand — just for a second — smothers (the boy’s) squeezed-shut face. It makes me feel terrible, as if I just suffocated him myself. How must it feel to give birth to death? In my own culture, we grow so attached to the creature in the womb, painting bedrooms in pastels, toying with names, stocking the house with all the infant must-haves. A miscarriage or stillbirth will seep into dreams and haunt us for years.”
     There’s plenty of haunting of African parents, too, but the strength must come — hard, steely strength — to move on quickly. Erdman’s assistant wraps the baby in a pagne and places him headfirst in a bucket — the only thing to carry him in — and quickly helps the hobbling mother out the infirmary door.
     “There will be no bed rest,” Erdman writes, “no time to heal. She’ll just get up again. His feet protrude grimly from the cloth. She balances the bucket on her head, turns out the infirmary gate, and walks a ways behind the brick wall that rings the property. Atop her head, where there has been firewood and water and corn — signs of everything alive — there are tiny gray feet, death in a bucket bobbling along above the wall as she walks.”
     To reduce suffering like this, it is Erdman’s job to provide pre- and post-natal education and vaccines. But the roadblocks seem innumerable. She’s the first PCV in Nambonkaha, a place where people have “never considered health trouble something they could tackle.” The locals firmly believe that children who eat eggs will grow up to be thieves, and the children of uncircumcised women will always die. And in a country where 2,000 people die each week of AIDS, Erdman’s closest health assistant — a man named Bakary — won’t use condoms. “You can’t eat a banana with the peel on it,” the local saying goes.
     So the battle begins — to organize education meetings, weigh babies, build a new midwife clinic, and stage an AIDS awareness day. And like most Peace Corps experiences, it’s one gigantic mixed bag: grim defeat interspersed with deep joys and unshakable friendships and the satisfaction of small triumphs hard-earned along the way.
     Humor restores sanity at critical moments. When a vulgar, pushy gendarme insists on visiting Erdman’s small house, eager for romance, she writes: “I bring my most uncomfortable chair outside and shut the door firmly. Nick (Erdman’s mongrel dog) greets the gendarme with his typical crazed hyperactivity, which I usually try to quell with sharp words. Tonight, I smile apologetically and say, ‘he really likes strangers’ as the dog mounts the gendarme’s leg relentlessly.”
     But Erdman’s greatest strength — and it’s a big one — is her descriptive power. Page after page, her uncommonly sharp eye lasers in on the small, revealing details that make Africa, in my mind, the most fascinating continent on the planet.
     Erdman on the bad teeth of poor villagers: “A few mouths look like old graveyards — some teeth bent forward, some backward, some crumbled and chipped.”
     Erdman on fat government officials at a fete: “. . . the grandes types are lined up in chairs in the courtyard, stuffed and stretched out, shifting occasionally like a row of sunbathing walruses.”
     Erdman on the dry-season landscape of grass on fire at sunset: “Bracelets of fire flicker and dwindle and spout. The noise is like a tank coming through the bush, or the sky falling on the trees, brittle snapping against a roar. The sun sets as I stand there — white, flat, the unblooded, unloving harmattan sun, behind a curtain of dirty smoke. It trembles as it falls.”
     This book takes me back!
     As for her work, in the end Erdman can only do so much in a country where local nurses haven’t had a raise in 18 years and health clinics routinely run out of medicine three quarters through each month and pre-natal education competes with magical, curative strings sold by nomads from Niger. Construction of the new midwife facility is completed just days before Erdman leaves and a modest group of dedicated village mothers makes great strides in improving their families’ health. Erdman organizes a party to honor the women. To the thump of drums, “I dance for them (past midnight); circling the mothers, whose winning babies bob sleepily on their backs. They dance for me, hold up my arms to honor me, crouch at my knees when I sit . . . . The women keep on till morning, elbows pumping, shoulders switching, feet hammering the ground. Their babies dance in their sleep.”
     This is not the best Peace Corps memoir ever written. That distinction is held — and probably will always be held — by Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor. But this is an outstanding effort, told by a star Volunteer who has now succeeded in all of Peace Corps’ goals. On the final pages she writes, “I can feel myself retreating from the heart of village life to a more neutral spot. Something clicks — I’m one of a few who can tell (these villagers) about America in words they’ll understand; I’m one of a few who can explain them to America.”
     Hear, hear.

Mike Tidwell’s own Peace Corps memoir, The Ponds of Kalambayi (Lyons Press, 1990), is widely considered a classic of the genre. His most recent book, Bayou Farewell (Pantheon, 2003) details his odyssey hitchhiking on Cajun fishing boats through the bayou country of Louisiana.


by Jerry D. Mohrlang (Malaysia 1965–67)
July, 2002
352 pages

Reviewed by Tucker Clark (Nepal 1967–70)

I WAS VERY EXCITED when the editor of forwarded a copy of Jerry Mohrlang’s novel, simply called Sarawak, for me to review. I had told the editor that I was very interested in books that were based on elaborations of the cultures or experiences we had in our Peace Corps assignments. I am convinced ALL of us have stories to tell gleaned from our experiences.
     That said, I say run — don’t walk — to read Jerry’s incredibly well-researched, gripping, tale of high adventure and intrigue set in the 1830s that is based on the life of a young English aristocrat, James Brooke, who left an assured life of comfort, and a certain, endowed, gentry marriage to pursue his dreams of fortunes to be made in the Far East. Brooke became — by incredible circumstances — the first white Rajah of Sarawak, ruling the head-hunting, primitive, always warring indigenous tribes of Malay, Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak.
     But much to Jerry’s credit, he uses his knowledge of these tribes, their languages, culture, foods, et al, to have this clash of civilizations equally told and understood on all sides. It starts on the tribal side and we fast learn a whole new lexicon that he integrates into the clash. He tells a tale worthy of James Clavell’s Shogun and Noble House and Clavell’s allegiance to Japanese culture and historical consideration. And it has all the excitement and naval expertise of the twenty Patrick O’Brian Aubrey/Maturin series of 19th century sea-faring historical colorful narratives.
     For selfish reasons I had to talk to Jerry after I finished this page-turner, because I had to know how he came up with the story and how it evolved, why it is fiction — not even “faction” — (although he did tell me many of the characters were real and some were amalgams, and there were actually three White rajahs in the James Brooke lineage who ruled Sarawak until the twentieth century!), and . . . how he got it published!

A publisher endorsement
     For you aspiring writers, it sounds like PublishAmerica Publishers — if you can secure a contract, as Jerry did after sending them the book in January ’02 and getting an “OK-Go Ahead” ten days later at no cost but to a percentage of the sales — is incredible. Arranging ISBN numbers, digital publishing capacity, contracts, website-access, and links to warehouses like Ingram, Baker and Amazon, they seem to be a step above publish-on-demand folks, e-book and vanity press venders.
     And Jerry himself has worked to get the word out about this book through his personal site.

A new book
He is ushering up these resources and more to launch another contracted (with PublishAmerica), historical, adventure novel called Mujahidin which deals with a former Israeli Moussad agent fighting in Afghanistan — again based on historic precedence and Jerry’s research into this incredibly pertinent world stage.

The riddle as to how he got to be such a good writer
Jerry got to exercise his writing talents while serving as a Peace Corps project coordinator in Sarawak, right after that country joined 14 other states to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. He witnessed the fighting, tribal conflicts, and utter brutality of the geography much as his character James Brooke did a hundred years before. He became a chronicler and his personal experiences, tales from his tribal countrymen, and subsequent links to Brooke descendants and Sarawak natives (who loved the book when it was published) made for a rich interplay for the book.
     I could wax poetic further, as to how one gets totally immersed in both the British naval lore and tribal cultures of Sarawak, the rich characters and intrigues that build up throughout this book, the wrenching descriptions of the travails, and brutal customs, but I will leave it to you to go out and judge for yourself about Sarawak — and the upcoming Mujahidin. I can only highly recommend that you do so!

Tucker Clark is a consultant /writer with masters degrees in psychology and social work, and too many “formers” in his vitae. For two decades he has been involved in clinic management and psychiatric training, substance abuse counseling, drug education publishing, corporate trainings and outplacement seminars, famine relief training in Ethiopia in 1985; e-commerce and internet marketing, bookselling, and writing fiction. To help maintain his Westport, Connecticut lifestyle, he network markets the PrePaid Legal Services product at the big money Director level.


Toward an Ethic of Citizenship
Creating a Culture of Democracy for the 21st Century
by William K. Dustin (Philippines 1966–68)
Excel Press/, 1999
236 pages

Reviewed by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965–67)

DURING THE SUMMER OF 1969, I directed the Encampment for Citizenship in Great Falls, Montana. This leadership-training program brought together teenagers from around the country to learn the tools of democratic citizenship. The campers analyzed social problems and studied political theory in a culturally and racial diverse setting. In addition, the campers spent four days a week doing an internship in the city, learning about democracy by doing the work of responsible citizens.
     The teenagers participated in workshops and helped to design, then govern, their own community, not an easy task when Navajo and Puerto Ricans, housing project kids and wealthy suburbanites, farmers and intellects — strangers but all Americans — had to live together in close quarters for six weeks, not setting aside their differences but finding common ground.
     While we saw this as training in democratic living, many Great Falls residents resented the Encampment. We were charged with promoting a liberal/socialist/communist agenda, and not only by the local John Birch Society. It wasn’t citizenship we were teaching, they said, but anti-Americanism. This became explicit when we conducted a forum on the pros and cons of placing anti-ballistic missiles at a nearby Air Force base. In their eyes, good citizens were uncritical supporters — of the president, the war in Vietnam, and American foreign policy in all its forms and permutations. Citizenship, in their minds, wasn’t active, critical involvement but unblinking patriotism.
     Ironically, some on the board of the Encampment for Citizenship in New York shared this view. They willingly conceded the point that citizenship meant promoting the political status quo. Board members wanted a new name, one that more accurately reflected the true nature of the program. (Nothing ever came of the name change. The program evolved into an anti-poverty program, and ended in the 1980s.)
     I am reminded of the Montana experiment in living democracy as I read William W. Dustin’s extended essay Toward an Ethic of Citizenship: Creating a Culture of Democracy for the 21st Century in which he laments the withering away of the democratic ethos and, with it, real involvement in the political process. One of Dustin’s major points is that Americans no longer function as political persons but primarily as market citizens. So pre-occupied with the role of consumer, employer and employee, we have all but relinquished our role as active participants in the political community. “The abdication of the citizenship role on the part of the individual has created a vacuum in which the corporation and various interest groups have rushed in a coopted citizenship for particularistic ends, primarily private economic gain,” Dustin writes. No longer responsible citizens in a democratic republic who contend with others in a public forum and are forced to justify decision-making with publicly justifiable reasons, we have become prey to market forces where decisions are made for private gain and no reasons need be offered.
     Commercial interests have triumphed over political concerns and, as a result, money inordinately determines the political process. Huge war chests are essential for waging a successful campaigns and politicians become indebted to contributors as they undergo endless funding exercises. This results in elected officials representing small but influential constituencies rather concerning themselves with the public good. As every election shows, individuals are less and less interested in voting as their alienation from the political process has increased. The gap between citizens and representatives has become too wide to bridge. Real decisions are made behind closed doors and made on behalf of vested interests. Alienation and cynicism are the shift in philosophical sensibilities from political to marketplace concerns.
     So how to you get people from shopping malls to voting booths? This is the wrong question. Dustin’s analysis is more far-reaching and his solution ultimately simple. Democratic citizenship doesn’t require more voting participation but doing away with elections all together and replacing them with random selections. While elections are superior to authoritarian governments, they fail the test of democratic government in that they don’t meet the three fundamental values of a democracy, namely, rotation of office, distrust of political professionalism and equality. Elected representatives, dependent upon vast sums of money either to attain or stay in office, are susceptible to the corruption. It isn’t surprising that the gap between the few rich and the rest of the country grows wider as the interlocking forces of private interests groups monopolize government.
     No amount of electoral finance reform can fix the problem since elections themselves, by their very nature, are fatally part of fatally flawed system. Even the most extensive electoral reform is patching around the edges. The problem is that we elect our representatives rather than representing ourselves. By turning over the task of governing to others via elections, we set into motion the outcome that becomes more painfully clear with each election.
     Elections need to go, Dustin says, along with the professional political class. We need a lottery system instead. Only the random selection for office can replace the passivity of elections as sales pitches and advertising campaigns and restore a sense of active civic responsibility where people make significant decisions that have public consequences. Dustin rehearses the arguments against elections and argues at length for the virtues of the lot. It is a provocative argument and I have found myself referring to it in recent conversations. It is a case worth making and considering. I only wish that Dustin had written something more felicitous and less heavy-handed. The book reads like a re-worked graduate thesis, as though he needed the weight of authority to make his case credible. As each day democracy seems more like a figment than a reality, as openness is replaced by secrecy, liberty by security, honesty with lies, reason by power, equality by stark inequality, it is perhaps time to consider radical solutions to a dire situation. Dustin has provided an interesting and unique critique. It shifts the current dialogue about political malaise by making us think afresh what we mean by democracy and citizenship. It’s worth the thought.

Arthur Dobrin is the author of 20 books, including two novels, a book of poetry and collection of short stories, all set in Kenya. Several of his book have been translated into Chinese and Korean.

A letter from Ethiopia

August 8, 1968

Dear Mom and Dad,

I’m pretty well settled in my new home Debre Berhan for the next five weeks to teach summer school. It took us about three hours by bus driving northeast and up from Addis Ababa. We are about at the 9000’ level here! Our first assignment was to explore and begin using all that Amharic language training.
     I went with five other gals out into the countryside. It was the most unusual bus ride I’ve ever taken. Most bus rides you may talk to the person next to you — but here everyone talks to everyone! People get on the bus with everything imaginable from goats to eggs (the goats are strapped on top). People also get on the bus without money and beg their fellow passengers for the fare. They also refuse to pay the rate and try to bargain the rate down — in doing this, loud arguments result between the ticket man and the passengers — and everyone joins into the discussion. It’s really a circus on wheels.
     The town we went to was the end of the line on this particular route (that’s about three hours or 65 kilometers from Debre Berhan). We were quite a novelty to the town — few foreigners ever visit there. You might say we freaked it out! We were on an assignment to learn what there was to learn about this town — a cross-cultural experience.
     The town is a farming community of 1,200 people — no electricity or running water. A student gave us a two-bit tour and everyone in town followed us as we looked at their school, market area, church, police station, etc. We stayed overnight in the small hotel ($1 Ethiopian per night.) This town is like many Peace Corps towns. I’m sure I could survive, but I’m requesting a larger town with running water and electricity.


NOTE: Nancy Polich’s (Ethiopia 1968–70) request for a large town with many other Volunteers, electricity and running water, did not happen. Her assignment was to Adi Teclesan, one of the smallest Peace Corps towns in northern Ethiopia, now Eritrea.

A Volunteer's Life in Romania

The Neighbor's Goat
Andy Trincia (Romania 2002–  )

Sa moara si capra vecinului!”

That’s a Romanian idiom, the meaning of which translates to: “If my goat dies, I hope my neighbor’s goat dies, too.”
     I have heard this many times and occasionally ask Romanians about it. When I brought it up recently with a small group of my university students, they laughed and noted with pleasure that I’d picked up on this cultural nugget. Then one added, “Well, they really need to update that. These days, it should be, “If my goat dies, then I am going to steal my neighbor’s goat!” Then more laughter.
     These five words strung together speak volumes about the Romanian mentality. This obviously stems from rural areas, where many people actually do own goats — as well as chickens, sheep and pigs — though millions of other, more urban Romanians now live side-by-side in communist-era bloc apartment buildings with no yard in which to keep any animals. Yet the phrase sticks around.
     As does this one, which I hear Romanians mumble even more frequently:

“Romania este o tara frumoasa, pacat ca este locuit.”

This, sadly enough, translates to: “Romania is a beautiful country, what a pity it’s inhabited.” Many Romanians have told me that the majority — or at least half — of her citizens are not “good” people, but are souls willing to cheat their own neighbor, to bribe, or to do just about anything to get ahead. Because of low salaries and poverty, many Romanians, understandably, have short-term horizons (as in “tomorrow” or “next week”) when it comes to money. But dig deeper and you realize that this mentality is also about the preference to make a quick, easy buck, often through corruption, rather than by establishing a long-term business relationship.
     “Loyalty” and “trust” are simply not in the vocabulary. The reputation of Romanians abroad, especially in Western Europe, is poor, often based on stories of stolen cars, petty thieves and sneaky immigrant workers. One foreign national in Bucharest who works for an international tourism firm, told me about scores of Romanians working on cruise ships around the world. On ships where this person has worked, if there was a theft on board, the captain would have the Romanian crew members’ cabins searched first and 90 percent of the time they were guilty.
     After more than a year in Romania, I know many things about this country, but I continue to learn every day and, at times, struggle to understand it. The mentality of the people, their attitudes and rampant negativism, particularly when compared to their more upbeat and faster-advancing — but also formerly communist — neighbors such as Hungary and Bulgaria, is something hard to grasp. Some Romanians jokingly blame it on their ancient roots from the sly and barbaric Dacian tribes who were conquered by the Romans.
     On numerous occasions, Romanians, mostly young and educated and part of a slowly emerging middle-class, have told me how they want to leave, or how their countrymen make them sick or embarrass them, or how the poor national attitude drives them positively insane. Some of these people are my friends, among a small number of whom I really trust and like very much, and some are strangers I’ve just met. For instance, a 20-something woman recently asked me several questions about the United States and its work hours, salaries and opportunities for advancement. Unlike most Romanians, she not only asked about our “big” salaries but also costs of living, thus evaluating the whole equation.
     “In Romania, we don’t like to work hard,” she said flatly. “We are lazy people. We like to complain about low salaries and not having money, but we would never want to work like you Americans. The boys are the worst, so lazy, and not very ambitious. They just like to drink and have fun. And girls, well, we like to look pretty, and I guess we are better workers, but we don’t like to work a lot and always want to take holidays.”
     I was stunned but appreciated her candor. Of course, there are many exceptions to these wide generalizations. I’ve met numerous Romanians, particularly in Bucharest and a few other places, who work American-hours for much smaller salaries (though good for here) and who try their best to succeed, despite the odds and a difficult system. But I have to say that the young woman’s comments, while simplistic, are not far-fetched. There is also a factor of ignorance and the huge fact that Romania was liberated only in 1989 from a vicious communist regime. But so were other countries. There must be more to it.
     One day last summer, while living with a Romanian host family during my Peace Corps training, I was waiting for a bus with my host mom and her young daughter. A few drunk guys walked by — this at 8 a.m. Then a driver pulled a crazy move but still honked and yelled obscenities at a passing motorist, displaying anger that is so common. I mentioned that sometimes when people cross a street, even in a marked crosswalk or at a stoplight, drivers don’t stop or sometimes even speed up.
     “This is Romania,” Silviana said, using another common phrase. I said that maybe it will change with time, perhaps by the time her daughter becomes a mother.
     “No way,” she said. “But maybe when she is a grandmother, or a great-grandmother.”
     I certainly hope it isn’t that long. As a volunteer working and living here, and trying in my small way to help, this legacy is very discouraging. I’ve mentioned a number of positive developments and traits of Romania and its people in previous columns and in my regular journals home to family and friends, but there’s no denying the scarred psyche and shifty ways here, which apparently breed cheating and laziness. Fortunately, not all Romanians are like this and many in the younger generation, I believe, are changing the country for the better, slowly but surely.
     I look forward to the day when “Sa moara si capra vecinului!” falls out of the Romanian vernacular. Maybe when all the bad goats are gone.

Before joining the Peace Corps, Andy Trincia was a corporate communications executive in the financial services industry. Sworn in on August 16, 2002, he is working at the West University of Timisoara, as a business
consultant for the Center for Career Development, and is also teaching courses. We have asked Andy to file reports for his two years of service of what his life is like working and living in Romania. In recent weeks, Andy visited the American University in Bulgaria, which is now collaborating with his career center, and he won a grant to attend an NGO Youth Forum in Serbia & Montenegro. He will finish his Peace Corps tour at the end of July next year.

A Writer Writes

Falling in Love with Africa
by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 1973–74; Ethiopia 1974–75)

WE WERE KEEN TO GO TO AFRICA, and we fell in love with the continent. We had everything to learn. In 1973 we were assigned to Zaire, previously the Belgian Congo. We did not know the Congo had changed its name. We had no idea how to pronounce the name of the country where my husband, Andrew, a physician, and I, a teacher, were assigned to work. We did not know the history of the Congo, didn’t know that King Leopold had taken the Congo as his own hunting grounds. We didn’t know that he forced Africans into hard labor and severed their hands if they didn’t work hard. Who did we think we were, going to this ancient culture knowing so little? We quickly learned that we knew nothing, but that we could learn something.
     Along with one hundred other Peace Corps Volunteers, we boarded a plane bound first for London, then for Zaire. We flew all night, practicing our French, which sounded great after a little wine. In London we spent the day sight-seeing, impressed by the big, black taxis and double-decker buses. Many of us had never been to Europe before, let alone Africa. And nothing prepared us for Idi Amin.
     That very evening we boarded East African Airlines bound for Zaire. Andrew and I were tired and excited and nervous about our new lives. Would we make a success of it? The flight was delayed many hours and some of our names were omitted from the passenger list. We had no Peace Corps staff member to handle any kind of crisis. We were a bunch of raw Volunteers, most of us barely out of college.
     We had seen pictures of Tanzania where our friends had spent four years teaching at rural mission schools. In the photos, they looked at ease with their students, the students eager and smiling. My only worry was that I had read in the Atlantic just before we left the U.S. that Idi Amin was forcing Indian and Pakistani families out of Uganda in an abrupt and brutal way. Of course, we were heading for the Congo, where Volunteers were welcome, even if the president was a dictator.

A refueling stop
Although we wanted to collapse after a long night of flying, we were astonished at our first aerial glimpses of Africa. Vast expanses of brown, then deep green floated up like a vision of Eden. In mid-day, July 7th, we made an unscheduled stop in Entebbe, Uganda for refueling. Tall grasses lined the run-way and green peninsulas reached into huge Lake Victoria. When we arrived, a lively ceremony was taking place, Africans rolling out red carpets, loud rhythmic dancing and drumming — immediately someone said the welcome must be for us; Americans surely would get the red carpet! In fact, the ceremony was in honor of the President of Gabon. Someone leapt to a window to take pictures, forgetting that picture-taking at airports is forbidden in much of Africa. We were disappointed not to get out and see the dancing men and women celebrating. Old and young seemed to be having a grand time welcoming the president, and we wished we could join the festivities. It was the kind of performance we’d expected in Africa.
     Our plane refueled promptly, and we were in the air again, feeling a bit left out of the fun. We were almost to Bujumbura, Burundi when the pilot’s voice came on the speaker. “We’ll be returning to Entebbe,” was all he said. Later we learned that Amin had threatened to send his new fighter planes after us if we did not return. We were surprised, but not worried about this turn of events. Nothing in our experience made us expect adversity.
Unexpected adversity
We landed, and ten or fifteen armed soldiers boarded the plane and briskly examined our passports. They questioned us exhaustively about their newness. The soldiers claimed we were “Israeli agitators, mercenaries, or C.I.A. agents.” Amin was relishing his role as protector of the continent — or bully.
     I still see before me the circle of soldiers pointing machine guns at us as we descended from the plane. Finally, we realized that this was serious business. The armed guards herded us into the terminal, then rummaged through everyone’s suitcase: two years’ supply of toothpaste, clothing, books, hairbrushes, sanitary napkins, aralen, blue jeans. The soldiers gasped at the quantity of blue jeans, a luxury in Africa. “You must be very rich,” they said, and we laughed a little. The soldiers questioned a few people closely, especially one man who had maps of the area and books in Swahili — an African Studies major whom they presumed to be a spy. They dragged him off somewhere. We were exhausted and a bit fearful, especially since no American Embassy official had so far appeared.

Back on the plane
The soldiers decided we weren’t dangerous and allowed us to return to the plane. What a relief, we thought, as we prepared for take-off, our earlier euphoria broken. “What an experience,” we said to each other, thinking our first political incident finished. After a long, hot wait, the flight attendant announced that we would not be allowed to take off. We deplaned and hovered under the airplane’s wings for shade. A few Volunteers tried to chat with the guards, “Beautiful airport . . . how many planes come into Entebbe a day?” The only friendly guard was removed from duty.
     Having learned that we must await presidential clearance, we returned to the airport. For the first time we understood that Amin himself had ordered us detained. As we learned later, he couldn’t resist the opportunity for a small victory — exerting his power over a whole planeload of Americans was too tempting, especially in the presence of a visiting head of state.
     By this time, an official from the U.S. embassy appeared. He looked small, pale, and worried at having to handle such a situation. We had no ambassador in Uganda. Rumor had it that Nixon and Amin were on the outs, Amin having sent Nixon a telegram blasting the U.S. role in Vietnam. “He should talk,” we thought to ourselves. The embassy official was not encouraging. “We don’t know how long it will take.” Helplessness set in for the first time. How could we Americans be in a position where our government could do nothing for us?

Dinner, rumors and song
That evening was a strange one. We trooped to the dining room for a meal of pork chops and peas, provided by East African Airlines and drank our first African beer. Waiting wore on our nerves, as tension compounded with fear that someone would break down — but we stayed outwardly composed. We were strangers to one another after all. Wild rumors circulated: “We’ll be out of here in an hour”; “We’ll be leaving at midnight”; “ No one can negotiate with Amin.” Rumored deadlines passed uneventfully, but we lived on such speculation. “The U.S. will get us out of here, “ “Mobutu wants us in the Congo.” Some Volunteers sang in an attempt to boost the group’s spirits, humorous songs, folk songs, patriotic songs. George began, “Amen, Amen, Amen,” but quickly stopped when he realized the guards thought we were singing, “Amin, Amin, Amin.” Watching the faces of those watching us made the songs dry up in our throats — the mixture of bravado and naiveté that inspired them had worn off. Our actions carried more weight than ever before. Our lone embassy official warned us not to say or do anything that could be construed as criticism of the government. Such criticism could land us in a Ugandan jail.

A night at the airport
That night, desperate as we were for sleep, we collapsed on the airport’s red plastic couches. Our luggage was on the plane. We weren’t allowed soap or toothpaste. Planes came in all night, their passengers loudly conversing in English and Swahili. Once, during the night I got up in a daze because I heard someone speaking French. A Zairian, Mutamba, was telling our group how welcome we would be in Zaire. He was smiling, friendly, sympathetic — “Here,” he said, “les murs ont des oreilles”— the walls have ears. No one could deny we were being watched.
     The next morning the airport was hectic with preparations for the president of Gabon’s departure. We were told to stay in the terminal. Out came the red carpet again, the jubilant dance and music. Not only young people were dancing, but children and old people, too, their strong bodies absorbed in the music. The women in feathered skirts, the old men pounding out their complicated rhythms — all seemed to promise much more of Africa than we were experiencing in the Entebbe airport. We would have liked to be out there under the bright sun. Our first occasion to see African dance and hear the drums at close range! We surely would have enjoyed it if we hadn’t been so eager to leave Entebbe, Uganda and President Amin behind. Now came the oddest event of our forced stay — Amin, grinning, gleeful, came round and took snapshots of us, as though we were his trophies in some game we’d never played.

A night at the Hotel Victoria
Later, we were moved by bus to the Hotel Victoria, a huge empty hotel on the lake shore. It might have been some white-pillared plantation on a tropical island with its gardens of red and yellow canna-lilies, tortoises meandering the courtyards. We could have enjoyed the hotel except for the armed guards outside and the spies inside. No tourists could be found now, but the hotel with its large rooms and big bathtubs had obviously once been a luxury resort for Europeans. After being so crowded together in the small airport, the hotel seemed spacious beyond belief; even spiders in the bathtub couldn’t discourage me. After all this time, we’d get a bath!
     The staff was friendly, eager to talk, eager to tell us all Ugandans were not like Idi Amin. We got a different view of Uganda and some badly needed rest, but we were prisoners. An older Volunteer, well-traveled, a World War II veteran, someone who should have known better, set off for a walk by the lake, far beyond our bounds. “Where’s Jean?” everyone worried. The consul became alarmed, obviously afraid that the man would be shot. We weren’t tourists, but prisoners. Jean returned unharmed, but the rest of us were far more cautious after that episode.

Finally, because of the intercession of President Mobutu of Zaire, a dangerous dictator himself, who had more influence with Amin than Nixon did, we were released. Rumor had it that a huge bribe had been paid to free us. Who paid it? we wondered. Air Zaire picked us up in Entebbe. We were a different group of Volunteers than we had been only a few days before. We cheered — but only after we had left Uganda’s air space. In later months we heard reports from Ugandan refugees fleeing Amin’s reign of terror. Refugees arrived in Kinshasa, capital of Zaire, telling of massacres of whole families. We realized how precarious our situation had been. At Amin’s order, his cut-throats were now murdering and pillaging his own people.

The fondest of memories
Fortunately, another kind of initiation awaited us. What we came to love in Africa so much was: the beauty and generosity of the people; the mountains of the moon; the insect hum as we walked toward Bukavu; the boy rolling a hoop in front of a house that once belonged to a mercenary. What we remember most are the students I taught, and how they hated to let us go. “Do you leave us with joy, Madame?” asked Mutamba. Our time in Africa was the most vivid part of our lives, and we still go back to remember what it was like riding the fulla-fulla — passengers hanging on everywhere — or taking the 3rd class train from Harrar to Addis Ababa; Andrew caring for a man with cerebral malaria; I, teaching my quatrieme and troisieme students, convincing them that they wanted to hear a story of South Africa of how one man risked his life to sit on a bench. Andrew taking the College Boboto students to see the infirmary, hoping that some would become doctors. Or the two of us sitting around a mesob [a large basket with stand used to serve a meal] with Ethiopian friends in Addis Ababa and gulping the honey wine; or us on an expedition seeking out flamingoes in Lake Shala, or watching the black-robed Danaquil and their camels carry salt to the Harrar market. Most important were our friendships, the friendships with Africans. Mpoyi wrote to my sister, Georgeen, for a long time. Is he still alive? Did Mobutu kill some of those bright students? What happened to them? After the junta took over in Addis Ababa where did Astair live? Was Itifiwerk able to send Simon to school? So much we don’t know after all these years.
     Travel in Africa was not only being an interloper and witness to both horror and beauty, but also enjoying a feast for the senses, a world opening, a metamorphosis brought about by the taste of mangoes, working up a good sweat over a spicy chicken moambe, the pungence of markets everywhere, the warmth of greetings. Living in Africa was having a look at the heart of things.

One Final Word


As you will notice, this is not an unbiased report on Idi Amin Dada. I’ve seen the brutal dictator, and I’m glad he’s buried in Saudi Arabia. I promise never to visit his grave, never to say a good word about him, always to hope for the end of dictators, mountebanks, and brutal killers on the African continent. This man called himself, “Lord of All Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.” Ugandans suffered terribly during the “Lord of All Beasts” monstrous reign.
     In 1973, we escaped Amin in Entebbe, probably because we were Americans, or because someone paid a bribe. I hadn’t awakened to the terror he would thrust upon his own people. Some Ugandans survived to walk out of their country and tell their stories in Bukavu or Kinshasa or Kigali. According to most sources, during Amin’s nine-year rule, he and his thugs killed 300,000 people, wiping out entire ethnic groups. Bodies were dumped among the crocodiles in the Nile River because graves could not be dug fast enough according to the Biographical Research Center. Who knows how many were raped, mutilated, forced to kill others, tortured, or traumatized for life? Amin was a man who admired Hitler.
     Amin, who had a fourth grade education, ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979 when he was forced from Uganda and fled with his wives and more than 30 children to Libya, then Iraq, and finally to Saudi Arabia. Ricardo Orizio interviewed “Big Daddy” in Saudi Arabia for The New York Times:

    Do you have any regrets, Mr. President? I asked. And the man who had killed at least 300,000 Ugandans, who had the Anglican bishop of Kampala assassinated and dumped on the side of the road, and who had several of his own ministers thrown to the crocodiles of Lake Victoria, placidly replied, with his trademark Big Smile: “No, only nostalgia.”
         I asked how he wanted to be remembered. Apparently, recalling his boxing days, he replied, “Just as a great athlete.”

A number of journalists who visited Amin in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia were frustrated by the opulent setting in which Amin spent his last days. Ethan Bronner of The New York Times wondered how a “man who, in the 1970’s had . . . robbed his nation into endless misery and admitted to having eaten human flesh was whiling away his time as the guest of the Saudi government” had received such a comfortable reception in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials referred to their “desert habits of hospitality, Amin’s conversion to Islam, and his support for the Arab boycott of Israel in the 1970’s.” Why wasn’t Amin jailed for crimes against humanity?
     As one punishment for Amin, who must surely be in hell, Asians have returned to Uganda. They are thriving, and they have invested a billion dollars in the Ugandan economy, according to Mark Lacey of The New York Times. Amin had wanted “a black man’s country.”
     The Asians had the last word — a compliment to offer the dead Amin — who died his past August 16
th in Saudi Arabia. “He wanted the indigenous Ugandans to get involved in business, too, and that’s happened. There’s room enough for everyone here.”

Margaret Szumowski has been a teacher since 1970, and teaches English at Springfield Technical Community College. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Willow Springs, American Poetry Review, Poetry East, The Agni Review, River Styx, as well as in a chapbook, Ruby's Cafe. Her first book-length collection of poetry, I Want This World, was published by Jeffrey Levine of Tupelo Press. She is the winner of the 2002 Peace Corps Writers prize for poetry.