|Peace Corps Writers January 2004
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Peace Corps Writers 1/04
THE LONG AWAITED BOOK about Sargent Shriver is coming out this May from Smithsonian Books. The title Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver was written by Scott Stossel and is 700 pages long. Much of the book focuses, naturally, on the establishment of the Peace Corps. The book also, of course, covers his launching of the War on Poverty, creating Head Start and Legal Services, and starting the Special Olympics, as well as his time in France as our ambassador.
The book is terrific, and I have read (naturally) the section on the Peace Corps. While much of what Scott Stossel, the author, has to say about the start of the Peace Corps is not new (for those of us who were there, or have closely followed the development of the agency), Stossel has pulled it all together into a tight, well written narrative.
Most interesting to JFK fans is the detailing of Sarges significant role in the Kennedy White House in the aftermath of the assassination.
Those of us who admire Sarge will come away (once again) with the impression that if one door instead of another had opened (especially when he was in Chicago and there was a movement to run him for governor), he might well have had even a larger role in American political life. But then he would not have been the first director of the Peace Corps.
Scott Stossel, the author, is a senior editor at Atlantic Monthly. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic and other publications.
Writing course offered by Peace Corps Writers
Over two dozen RPCVs have contacted us about the new writing course that we are preparing to present, and eight writers working on their Peace Corps books have been selected for the first class, beginning in March. The on-line course will be for ten weeks.
If there is continued interest, we will present the class again, starting in May. Anyone interested and would like to know more about the course should email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
NPCA Conference in Chicago
Peace Corps Writers will hold a series of workshops at the National Peace Corps Association Conference hosted by the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association (CAPCA). The dates of the conference are August 58, 2004.
Workshops titles are:
- Publishing Your Peace Corps Story (Fiction or Non-Fiction)
- Careers in Publishing
- Peace Corps Prose: Literature from the Peace Corps
- Self-publishing with the new technology
If you are attending the conference, and wish to be considered for participation in one of these workshop panels, please email me at: email@example.com.
Peace Corps Writers will also have a table at the International Bazaar, and any writer who would like to sell and sign books at out table is welcome to do so. We will NOT do the selling for anyone. If you would like to avail yourself of this opportunity, please contact Marian Haley Beil at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In all probability, there will be a bookstore at the conference that will handle books by Peace Corps writers from the larger publishing houses, however we have not heard any specifics on this so far.
Peace Corps Writers awards
Do you have a favorite book written by a Peace Corps writer that was published during 2003? Nominations are now being accepted by Peace Corps Writers for its awards for best books of the year written by PCVs, RPCVs, and Peace Corps staff. Please recommend your candidates for the following categories:
- Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award
- Maria Thomas Fiction Award
- The Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award (for best short description of the Peace Corps experience)
- Award for Best Poetry Book
- Award for Best Travel Writing
- Award for Best Childrens Writing
Send in your nominations to: email@example.com.
New at this site
With this issue, we have added a new feature to our ever-growing list of resources for readers Tell Me about the World: Childrens books about Peace Corps Countries by Peace Corps Writers. These books for children are listed by country, and the recommended age group is shown for each.
In This Issue
We have been receiving some wonderful essays for A Writer Writes and in this issue, we publish two. The Things I Gave Her by Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 199800) recalls her complex relationship with a village woman in Ghana. Ethan Gologor (Somalia 196264) looks back at his group of RPCVs the first PCVs to Somalia and wonders what has become of them and the country they left behind in an essay entitled, From Peace Corps to Warlords.
In this issue five new books by RPCVs are reviewed. We also interviewed Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 197880) about his fourth book, A Handful of Kings, that Simon & Schuster publishes this month. There is a Letter Home from Hilary Heuler (Guinea 200103) who is just home herself. Our own Andy Trincia (Romania 200204) sent us a Travel Right idea as well as his letter about his Peace Corps service in Romania. And Literary Type has fourteen items about Peace Corps writers here, there, and everywhere good writing is found and appreciated.
So, as my young son might put it, get down with this issue.
Recent books by Peace Corps Writers 1/2004
The Road to Makokota
by Stephen Barnett (Sierra Leone 197678)
Women Who Eat
A New Generation on the Glory of Food
edited by Leslie Miller
Christine Basham (Thailand) [contributor]
Stories from the Last Frontier
edited by Boris Fishman
Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan 199697) [contributor]
Justin, Charles and Company
Memories of Sun
Stories of Africa and America
edited by Jane Kurtz
Lindsey Clark (Morocco 200203) and Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198990) [contributors]
The Structure of English for Readers, Writers, and Teachers
by Mary Morris Clark (Nigeria 196365)
The Silver Farmer
by Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890)
Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry
Chapbook available as PDF at www.TMPoetry.com
Koans for the Inner Dog
A Guide to Canine Enlightenment
by LLyn De Danaan [formerly Lynn Patterson] (Sarawak, Malaysia, 196264)
Hypathia-in-the -Woods Press
Memoirs of Growing Up Global
edited by Faith Eidse and Nina Sichel
Eileen Drew (Zaire 197981) [contributor]
Nicholas Brealey, pub.
The Taos Massacres
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
Puzzlebox Press www.PuzzleboxPress.com
Pilgrimage of the Heart
A Heros Journey of Love And Philanthropy
by Maggie Finefrock (Nepal 198285)
(writing as Maya Namarnus)
The Learning Project Press,
A Handful of Kings
by Mark Jacobs (Paraguay 197880)
Simon & Schuster
Open My Eyes, Open My Soul
Celebrating Our Common Humanity
edited by Yolanda King and Elodia Tate
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880) [contriutor]
Informational Text in K3 Classrooms
Helping Children Read and Write
by Sharon Benge Kletzien (Tunisia 196466) and Miriam Jean Dreher
International Reading Association
Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why
The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure
edited by Sean O'Reilly, Larry Habegger and James O'Reilly
Kendra Lachniet (Paraguay 199294) [contributor]
Travelers' Tales Inc
Landscape as Spirit
Creating a Comtemplative Garden
by Martin Hakubai Mosko (India 196567) and Alxe Noden
by Robert Nilsen (Korea 197476)
Avalon Travel Publishing
by Robert Nilsen (Korea 197476)
Avalon Travel Publishing
Violence in War and Peace
edited by Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Brazil 196466)
& Philippe Bourgois
$69.95 (hardback), $34.95 (paperback)
The Stranger at the Palazzo D'Oro and other Stories
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
Houghton Mifflin Company
Hold Your Horses
Nuggest of Truth for People Who Love Horses . . . No Matter What
by Bonnie Timmons (Kenya 197578)
Workman Publishing Co.
(Nations in Transition series)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
San Diego: Greenhaven Press
Literary Type 1/2004
Indianapolis Monthly magazine, in its annual Best of Indianapolis issue (December 2003), chose War Stories: A Memoir of Nigeria and Biafra by John Sherman (Nigeria 196667; Malawi 196768; PC staff: W 197071, 197577; Ghana 197173) for the sole recipient of the category, Book By A Hoosier Author for 2003. The book details Shermans experiences with the Peace Corps and the Red Cross during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s. This book, published by Mesa Verde Press, is available in Nigeria, from Francis Van-Lare Bookshop in Ikeja (a Lagos suburb), and online from them as well at www.vanlare.com.
Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880) has two stories in the recently published collection Open My Eyes, Open My Soul. Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder, Muhamad Ali, among others, are also in the collection. Paul was a Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher in Samoa and has taught in Korea, England, Connecticut and American Samoa. He has published over one-hundred articles and short stories including five in the Chicken Soup series. In the Santa Cruz area he can be heard reading his short stories each month on radio station KUSP (88.9 FM). He currently teaches 5th-graders in Castroville, California and lives in Monterey.
Peter Hessler (China 199698) published a profile of basketball great Yao Ming in the December 1, 2003 issue of The New Yorker. Hessler, who lives in Beijing, writes of Yao Mings journey from China to the N.B.A., and back home again after his rookie season with the Houston Rockets.
Charles Michener (Ethiopia 196264), a former senior editor at The New Yorker (and Peter Hesslers editor there), is now the classical-music columnist for the New York Observer. Michener also had a piece, The Soul Singer, in the January 5, 2004 issue of The New Yorker on American mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.
David Reene (Poland 199496) published two new short stories during 2003 Senegalese Sky appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the literary magazine Potpourri, and won the Herman B. Swafford prize, Potpourri s best short fiction of the year award.
Noted Washingtonian photographer, Shawn Daviss (Mali 199698; Crisis Corps/Guinea 1999) photo essay on Josephs House AIDS Hospice in D.C. was the cover story for the December 12, 2003 issue of Washington City Paper. This January Shawn is in Africa, returning for the first time in five years on a photo assignment. To view his work, go to shawndavisphoto.com.
The influence of RPCV writers continues.
A new book by anthropologist Donna M. Goldstein about the shantytown near Rio de Janeiro entitled, Laughter Out of Place: Race, Class, Violence, and Sexuality in a Rio Shantytown, coming out from the University of California Presss Public Anthropology series owes its inspiration to Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Brazil 196466) a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of the 1992 book Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Nancy Scheper-Hughes was Donna Goldsteins dissertation adviser at Berkeley.
Ms. Goldstein said in the December 12 Hot Type column in The Chronicle of Higher Education that, like Scheper-Hughes, she hopes to find an audience beyond the confines of academic anthropology. At a central level anthropologists do want to communicate about what weve learned.
Charlene Caprio (Poland 199799) invites Peace Corps readers to visit and writers to contribute to her online magazine on cultures and subcultures, Szirine, at www.szirine.com. Szirine's mission is to bring to the English speaking world cultures and subcultures, and good writing that do not usually receive attention in mass media. Currently, Szirine is being viewed in over 20 countries, and their readership and writing staff continues to expand across borders.
Writers interested in having work considered for publication should go to Submissions Guidelines. This is a terrific site and a great place to be published on line.
Christopher Conlon (Botswana 198890) has published The Silver Farmer, an online chapbook of a 10-poem sequence, all of which are Holocaust-related. You can access a .pdf file of The Silver Farmer at Tamafyhr Mountain Poetry www.tmpoetry.com. Go to Chapbooks>Christopher Conlon>The Silver Farmer.
At a time when books arent selling (does anyone read anymore?) Sarah Edmans (Cote D'Ivoire 19982000) Nine Hills to Nambonkaha has gone back for a third printing, and continues to sell, her editors says, at healthy levels.
A new YA book, Memories of Sun: Stories of Africa and America, edited by Jane Kurtz has just been published by Greenwillow Books. This collection of 15 stories by American, Africans and African-Americans has two stories by RPCVs. What I Did on My Summer Safari by Stephanie Stuve-Bodeen (Tanzania 198990) and Into the Maghreb by Lindsey Clark (Morocco 200203).
Kendra Lachniet (Paraguay 199294) wrote an article about her experiences on buses in Paraguay during her Peace Corps service called Life in the On-Coming Lane. It is included in the collection published by Travelers' Tales in October 2003 called Hyenas Laughed at Me and Now I Know Why: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure.
Photographer Bill Owens (Jamaica 196466), author of Suburbia, Our Kind of People, and Working, is offering a week-long course in Documentary Photography: The Modern Digital Technique from May 29June 5, 2004 at Latitude, a unique cultural center in the idyllic Lot Valley of southwest France. This is not a course for "art" photographers.
Costs start at $1,000 and include 15 hours of instruction, most meals, lodging, swimming pool, and natural beauty. Details at Latitude.org.
This month both the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune announced that Imagine a House: A Journey to Fascinating Houses Around the World by Angela Gustafson (Dominican Republic 199496) has been nominated for a Minnesota Book Award under two categories: (1) Children's Nonfiction and (2) New Voice. This book for young children is published by Out of the Box Press in Minneapolis. It blends together architecture, people and geography, showcasing twenty-two types of dwellings used by fifteen diverse cultures.
Talking with . , .
. . . Mark Jacobs
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
WHEN I FIRST MET MARK JACOBS (Paraguay 197880), he reminded me of Thomas Wolfe (the real Tom Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel and You Cant Go Home Again) big and slightly ungainly with a quiet brooding presence, a thick wedge of dark hair and a massive face. A hulk of a guy. There is something of Wolfe in Marks prose, the luxury of his language and the way Mark fills a page with wonderful details, but Jacobs is a much more disciplined writer, and more inventive.
We met in Union Station in Washington, D.C. where I had been waiting for him in that beautiful, vaulted marble main lobby and he came in out of the sunlight of the city, a towering figure and I thought: now theres a guy who looks like a writer! And truly he is one. He joins a small band of first-rate intellects and creative minds who served in the Peace Corps and came home to write brilliantly about the world.
The famous editor Maxwell Perkins once said of Thomas Wolfe: His own physical dimensions were huge; so was his conception of a book. Thats Mark Jacobs. He has published short stories, essays and novels including A Handful of Kings, coming out in February.
And he has done all that while working as a cultural attaché and information officer in Spain, Turkey, and several posts in Latin America, in addition to raising a family and living a full life beyond books and writing.
They tell a story of Thomas Wolfe when he lived in New York on First Avenue. Late one night the writer Nancy Hale, who lived on East 49th Street near Third Avenue, heard a kind of chant, which grew louder. She got up and looked out of the window at two or three in the morning and there was the great figure of Thomas Wolfe, advancing in his long countrymans stride, with his swaying black raincoat, and what he was chanting was, I wrote ten thousand words today I wrote ten thousand words today.
Thats Mark Jacobs!
Where are you from, Mark? What was your education?
I was born in Niagara Falls, New York and went to school in Michigan at Alma College. From there I went to the School for International Training in Vermont for a Masters in International Administration, and earned a Ph.D. in English from Drew University in New Jersey.
Where were you in the Peace Corps?
In Paraguay from 1978 to 1980 I worked in an isolated rural village doing community development, which translated into a school construction project. I did have the great good fortune to return to Paraguay as public affairs officer in the U.S. embassy years later and was able to rekindle the friendships and relationships with people from the village Id worked in, Potrero Yapepo.
Did you join the Foreign Service right after the Peace Corps?
No, right after the Peace Corps I went to graduate school. I took the foreign service examination while I was at Drew University but didnt get a job offer until I had left the university and was working in a computer company in New York. I started out with the U.S. Information Agency, but joined the State Department when USIA was abolished by Congress in 1999.
How many years were you with the foreign service?
A total of eighteen. I served in Ankara and Izmir, Turkey; Asuncion, Paraguay; La Paz, Bolivia; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and Madrid, Spain.
When did you start to publish your fiction?
My first story was published in 1980, I think, but I didnt begin to publish consistently until ten years later when I was working in Izmir. Until that time an agent had been submitting stories for me but not doing so very energetically. Then a good friend and mentor, Bob Ready, suggested that I take control of my own stories. I did that, and began to have more luck placing them. Like everything Bob has said to me through the years about my writing, his advice was exactly right.
What was that first published piece?
A story called Spring Cleaning, and it came out in Webster Review, which is now unfortunately defunct. Its set in Peru and is a story about politics and religious faith, told from the point of view of an American missionary nun.
How many short stories, novels, and essays do you think you have published over the years?
Ive published perhaps sixty stories, a handful of essays, two collections of short stories and two novels.
Where have you short stories appeared?
The Atlantic Monthly, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, The Southwest Review, New Letters, The American Literary Review, The Kenyon Review and North Dakota Quarterly.
Tell us about your writing? For example, how do you go about writing a short story?
Stories seem to develop in different ways for me. Sometimes it starts with a character. Other times its a situation, or the flavor of a memory. Once in a while, its just a phrase. The phrase lifestyle implants came to me while riding on a bus along the Aegean coast of Turkey. I had no idea what it meant; had to write The Lifestyle Implant Capers my current project to figure it out.
Mark, how do you write? For example, do you write in long hand? Do you work everyday and try to write a certain amount of words or do you work for a set number of hours? Also, how many drafts or how long did it take you on A Handful of Kings?
While I was in the foreign service, I wrote whenever I could: after work, on my lunch hour, on holidays, even at the doctors office. In Washington, I wrote much of my new novel A Handful of Kings on a commuter train, writing longhand. Since leaving the service a year ago, I ve been able to work pretty much every day for four to five hours in the morning, sometimes longer, which is a real luxury and one I wont easily give up. Kings took maybe four drafts, but Ive lost track.
Our good friend Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769) has said that if John le Carré were an American, his name would be Mark Jacobs. Whats A Handful of Kings about?
A Handful of Kings tells the story of a Colombian political groups attempt working with the Basque ETA against American interests in Spain. The principal character is Vicky Sorrell, the cultural attaché in the U.S. embassy in Madrid, who is tired of the diplomatic life and trying to get out.
Is this mystery novel something new for you?
I didnt set out to write a thriller, but thats the way people are describing the book. I wanted to write the story of Vicky Sorrell. It started as a short story called The Cultural Attaché and grew into the novel as I realized there was more story than the short story could hold.
How did you find a publisher for it?
My agent, Christy Fletcher, got the manuscript to Michael Korda at Simon and Schuster.
What are you writing now?
Im finishing up a novel, The Lifestyle Implant Capers, which is different from previous books because its set in the U.S. and because its a comedy.
You organized Writers on America for the State Department, a book of essays that was distributed around the world. How did you come up with that idea?
So-called cultural diplomacy was eviscerated through the 90s, as the staff and budget of the U.S. Information Agency were relentlessly pared back. The agency was eliminated in 1999. While the staff and mission were absorbed into the State Department, what went in was a greatly weakened public diplomacy effort, precisely because of the decade of cuts, coupled with a lack of political leadership. In practice, that meant we were severely constrained in the ways embassies talked with, engaged with, foreign audiences. Writers on America was an attempt to broaden the dialogue, to express a more nuanced and therefore more realistic sense of who we are as a society.
What has been the reaction to the collection?
50,000 copies have been distributed through embassies around the world, and the collection has been translated into about seven languages. Coverage in the U.S. was also gratifying. Most of the reaction was positive. However, a few reviewers, both in the U.S. and abroad, chose to see the collection as cover for the Bush administrations pre-war effort, which it definitely was not.
What books have you read by Peace Corps writers?
I think of Moritz Thompson as the ultimate Peace Corps writer. I read and admired his books enormously, beginning when I was a Volunteer. Through this web site which is an invaluable resource I stay up on PC writers. I particularly liked Paul Eggers Saviors. Set in Latin America, where I have lived ten years or so, Marnie Muellers Green Fires had great resonance for me.
Do you have any advice to give someone who wants to write fiction about getting published, finding an agent, any suggestions?
Grow a tough skin, tune out the distractions, ignore e-mail, read poetry every day, boil your adjectives, burn your rejections in an internal bonfire. The best piece of advice I got was from Mary Lee Settle, who told me to find one or two people whose opinion I respected, then listen to them and tune out the editorial cacophony, which starts the moment you begin submitting your stuff. I was lucky to find one person early on Bob Ready who has consistently understood what I am trying to do when I write, usually before I know it myself.
The Curse of Chief Tenaya
by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 197880)
Southern Trails Publishing
$24.95 (limited edition hardcover)
To purchase call Bookmasters at (800) 247-6553
Reviewed by W. Tucker Clark (Nepal 196770)
WHAT AN ADVENTURE reviewing Peace Corps writers. Even the New York Times Book Review is making references to the new hot travel books coming out of the Peace Corps experiences: (books that have their roots in the same ambitious-young-writer-looking-for-a-subject-impulse Sunday Dec 7, 2003 referencing PCV in Uzbekistan Tom Bissells Chasing the Sea and Ivory Coast Volunteer Sarah Erdmans Nine Hills to Nambonkaha.)
So it was a pleasure to review Craig Carrozzis 5th book. Carrozzi is well known for his Peace Corps related books, but this one comes from his summer work as a teenager for Camp Mather, a camp located 9 miles from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in northern California. This novel's dedication reads: In memory of the lost Hetch Hetchy Valley May it soon rise from its watery grave.
The curse in the title has to do with Chief Tenayas revenge of the Sierra Miwoks of the Yosemite Valley the tribe driven by Gold Rush-lust-filled settlers from their lands. Tenaya morphs into a great, phantasmal grizzly-bear to terrorize the sheep and cattle herders setting up ranches on the tribes formerly pristine lands.
This book because it is so magical and Western has to become a movie, perhaps using a computer-generated John Wayne as Jeremiah Ignatius McElroy in 1891.
We follow this legendary survivor of Irelands potato famine, who travels to America on board a ship working as a cabin boy. Once in the new land, he meets mentors everywhere, survives living with Indians, fur trading, hunting, and works with Gold Rush partners in California. It is there that he sees the mystical Hetch Hetchy Valley.
One of these partners, a Frenchman, has a beautiful daughter, Colette, who Jeremiah meets in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco when she comes from France to write about her deceased father. Jeremiah falls in love with Colette during his quest to hunt the grizzly rampaging the lands of a robber baron.
For such a short novel, 226 pages, there is plenty of action, wonderful wild west-lore and romancing. There are real-life, colorful personalities in the likes of Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and John Muir. The reader gets to lap up, in wonderfully sequenced time jumps, the big- as-the-wild-west story of Jeremiah, aging survivor of Oakland waterfront saloons and the Gold Rush of the 1840s.
I eagerly followed Jeremiah as his days as a hunter and guide played out in his search for the phantasmal grizzly raising havoc with the Sierra ranchers. Little can Jeremiah do as destiny unravels, even though his Indian friend and his hallucination/dream tell him not to kill this spirit.
It does one good to know that such great writing and historical adventure is out there, and that people are digging deeply into history for such adventures. I can only hope that Craig can get the proper exposure for this book and that he continues to write other novels based on historical events.
For the Good of Mankind
A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands
by Jack Niedenthal (Marshall Islands 198184)
2001 (2nd edition)
Reviewed by Nick Wreden (Korea 197476)
THE LAST PARAGRAPH of Jack Niedenthals book, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands, describes the symbolism behind Bikinis complex flag. The 23 white stars in the upper left-hand corner represent the islands of Bikini Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands in the south Pacific. Three black stars in the upper right-hand corner symbolize the three islands that were vaporized by a 1954 atomic bomb test. Two more black stars in the lower right-hand corner represent the two islands where most Bikinians now live, about 425 miles south of their homeland. The Bikinian phrase, Everything is in the hands of God, runs near the bottom. That was the reply of the Bikinian leader when the U.S. asked the Bikinians to move for the testing of atomic weapons for the good of all mankind. The striped background closely resembles the U.S. flag to remind others, says Niedenthal, that a great debt is still owed by them to the people of Bikini.
Niedenthal was posted to Micronesia in 1981 as a PCV. He had a epiphany that most Volunteers who find themselves adrift amid dramatically different cultures and ways of thinking: Your only two choices are to change the way you think and live, or go home.
Niedenthal both changed the way he thought and made Micronesia his home. He married a Bikinian and has four children. He is responsible for the trust set up by the U.S. government as a form of reparation for the extensive atomic bomb testing on Bikini Island during the 1950s. Fluent in Marshallese, he has worked extensively with world media concerning Bikini Island, and is now active in helping promote Bikini Island, with its extensive fleet of sunken aircraft carriers, submarines and other Japanese and U.S. ships as a world-class diving destination. Profits from book sales go to the people of Bikini.
The great debt still owed is based on the nuclear testing, code-named Operation Crossroads. In 1946, a U.S. commodore traveled to Bikini to ask the 167 Bikinians to leave Bikini Island for atomic bomb testing. They were replaced by 242 naval ships, 156 aircraft, 25,000 radiation recording devices and 5,400 experimental rats, goats and pigs these facts are a good example of the depth of research behind the book.
The Bikinians then went on a Job-like odyssey, first to Rongerik Atoll, which was 1/6 the size of tiny Bikini and was considered uninhabitable. There the Bikinians rapidly suffered from starvation and fish poisoning, and within two months were begging the U.S. authorities to restore them to their homeland. Plans were made to transfer them to another island, but instead the people of another island that was to be a nuclear test site were moved there. After two years of near-starvation, the Bikinians were moved to Kwajalein Atoll, where they were housed in tents beside a massive military airstrip. After six months, they were moved to Kili Island, where again they suffered from starvation. Atomic testing continued on Bikini Island until 1958.
In 1972, some Bikinians returned to their homeland, reassured by U.S. government promises that radiological clean-up now made it safe to live on the island. But, in the mid- to late 1970s, additional scientific studies determined that radioactivity still remained a threat, and the people were advised to eat only one homegrown coconut per day and depend on imported food for the rest of their sustenance. Finally, in late 1978, the Bikinians were moved off their island once again.
After that move, the people of Bikini were the recipients of three trust funds to pay for everything from construction to scholarships. Finally, in the mid-1990s, some people of Bikini returned to their homeland, although debate about the best ways to rid the island of its toxic legacy continues. One bright hope for the future is a dive center to explore the many one-of-a-kind wrecks scattered around the atoll.
The book examines this and other history of the Bikinian people through a mix of oral histories, scientific reports, personal reminisces and even diving schedules. This is both the books greatest strength and greatest weakness. It is probably the most complete history of Bikini Island, and will continue to be a reference touchstone for future studies of the Marshall Islands and even the south Pacific. However, it is disconcerting to go from oral histories concerning the mythological beginnings of the island to the EPA Dose and Risk Assessment Philosophy referencing the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. Even many of the submerged ships are described.
Most interesting are the oral histories captured by the author, many of which reflect the island-to-island exodus. These include stories about spiritual ancestors. The most feared mythical god was Worejabato, who killed two twins guilty of the sin of vanity. He then made a home out of seaweed, so even today seaweed from Bikini is believed to have medicinal power. Also interesting are the stories about the Japanese occupation. As one said, When they were nice, they were very good to us, but when they were in a rotten mood, they could be very mean.
The cultural observations are superb. For example, Niedenthal describes the three phases of a Marshallese funeral. The first phase is similar to a Western wake, except that dollar bills are dropped into the coffin. The second phase is the burial, where stones have to be laid at the bottom of the grave to avoid the low water table. Finally, six days later, there is a great feast to release the spirit of the deceased from earth.
In many ways, this book resembles the scrapbook that every PCV keeps, except that the scrapbook reflects more than 20 years of living among and fighting for the Bikini people. Sometimes the pieces are highly interesting, such as noting that the two-piece bathing suit was named bikini to capitalize on media interest in the atom-bomb testing; at other times, a sharp editors hand is missed, such as an out-of-place description of a search for a missing friend in Las Vegas, of all places.
Nick Wreden was a PCV in Korea 1974-76. His recent book is FusionBranding: How to Forge Your Brand for the Future.
Shadow over Fiji
by Barbara Restle (Fiji 197980)
Reviewed by Jim Jackson (India 196567)
CULTURAL FAUS PAS are the province of every Peace Corps Volunteer. No matter how comprehensive and rigorous cross-cultural training may have been, and how culturally sensitive the individual, every returned Volunteer can provide a list of cultural gaffes they would prefer to forget. In retrospect some are funny, much funnier than when they occurred distance and time always help. And sometimes the mistakes were serious. Often times they are both. There cannot be many that equal a mistake made by Barbara Restle early in her Peace Corps service in Fiji. Literally getting off on the wrong foot, Restle committed an act that can best be appraised for its seriousness by her Fijian hosts: No one has ever done this . . . . For this insult to us we have killed in the past.*
What lesson comes from this? Well, among the more obvious, it is good to be in the present, although the incident influenced the remaining 18 months Restle was in Fiji. What would have gotten her killed in the past sets the stage for a continuum of episodes in which different, confusing and unexpected cultural practices play a predominant role in her Peace Corps experience, all very ably recounted in Shadow Over Fiji: A Memoir.
Some blunders are so basic, readers (at least RPCV readers) may wonder if there was any cross-cultural training. For much of the book the author seems to be in the dark about what is going on around her. Perhaps she was not part of a Peace Corps training group and perhaps there was no cross-cultural training. The book does not tell us, although Restle does mention one month of language training and orientation lectures.
Her puzzlement about the situation in which she finds herself is attributed to people in the know not telling her what they should have for her to carry out her duties. This applies to both Fijians (the cultural conundrum again) as well as British colonial officials. Because of the silence surrounding her, a theme that runs the course of the book, the story unfolds as one surprise after another.
Barbara Restles job title was bulamacow [livestock officer], and she was to work with the Fijian Agricultural Ministry, and a male Fijian co-worker [he never materialized]. The scheme (project) involved 500 cattle on 3,000 acres. Restles job was to improve feeding and disease control by assisting local Fijian cattle farmers on whose 21 farms the cattle were located. Funded by a World Bank grant, the cattle scheme was financed locally by Fijian bank loans to those 21 farms, money that was not being paid back on time when Restle arrived in country.
Restle, who has a degree in journalism, is very good at drawing the characters who populate her story. She is so good that because of the negative circumstances associated with some of those characters of which there are an abundance, their names have been changed.
In addition to good characterizations, the book is generally very well written. And whatever else can be said about it, it is dramatic, and reads like a who-done-it. One chapter leads inexorably to the next, each with dramatic surprises and more mysteries to solve.
Dialog is used to tell the story, and while dialog as a literary device can effectively be used in works of nonfiction, a little goes a long way. But in Shadow Over Fiji there is, as my grandfather use to say, a right smart. One wonders if the author always carried a tape recorder. How else could she remember exactly everything everyone said page after page, chapter after chapter? Presumably, she did not tape conversations nor remember them in such detail, so her use of dialog must be a device. But it is too much. Because the dialog is copious, some doubt as to the events creeps in, not that the reported events did not transpire in some fashion, but surely not with as much color and drama.
My criticisms of the over-use of dialog and drama are personal preferences. Others who like well-written mysteries will find the book appealing and a good read.
The book could have benefited from more information about Fiji, although some reference is made to its colonial history, its use by the allies during World War II, and one of its significant, ongoing problems: the animosity between native Fijians and the minority population of Indian descendants. Fiji is not a place widely known and additional background information would have been helpful.
Frustrations for Restle abounded. As she observes, To be goal oriented in Fiji is to go insane. Besides the silence that surrounded her, the cultural conundrums, the ill will of those caught and exposed for corruption by her, and the almost limitless obstacles encountered in a third-world country, Fiji supports a plethora of tropical diseases. Restle comes down with one or more malady characterized by fever and weakness that results in her being bed ridden. No diagnosis is ever made and her work is essentially over, although in a last effort she attempts limited desk work.
But that does not work out and within a couple of months she is on her way back to the U.S. She concludes Shadow Over Fiji with poignant letters sent to her in the U.S. from Fijian friends, and this observation:
I was confident that the time would come I had no idea when that I would bring sense and find a meaning out of my bulamacow days. I told myself to have the faith to believe that some goodness had been left behind. If not that, then a few hours of whimsical storytelling.
Nothing more needs to be added. RPCVs and those with similar experiences will have recognized the familiar. Others without the experience will intuit that something important has happened.
* Restles mistake was to stumble and step into a ceremonial bowl. Later a Fijian explained to her, Our yanqona tanoa bowl is the largest in Fiji. It is a village treasure. The bowl was carved by our ancestors from a tree maybe four hundred years old. Even the oldest man in our village, born during the years of tribal wars, does not know how old our tanoa is. After the incident the village chief sent another villager with Barbara as a body guard to keep anyone from cutting her throat.
Jim Jackson was a rural health and sanitation Volunteer in Mysore, India (now Kanartaka State). After the Peace Corps he worked on the Peace Corps staff at the University of Kentucky as a cross-cultural trainer for Volunteers going to India. Later he was drafted and served in Vietnam. After having careers in the Model Cities Program in Texarkana, Arkansas, and as a lawyer, Jackson is now a librarian.
by D. J. [Don and Joyce] Arneson (Jamaica 1989)
Reviewed by Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798)
SOON COME ISNT a novel it reads more like a barely-disguised memoir, which isnt necessarily a good thing. This is a Peace Corps book, first of all. Soon Come tells the story of Beth Ohlsson, a middle-aged returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Jamaica until roughly two years before the book starts. The novel begins with her opening a box of memorabilia, which she buried upon her return to Minnesota. Now she is recovering them to face her Jamaican duppies, or ghosts, by writing a book about the Peace Corp to relive and purge some of the more traumatic elements of the experience.
One cant help thinking that the authors would have done better fashioning an autobiographical memoir of their story in Jamaica; both are middle-aged RPCVs who served in Jamaica. By writing a novel, they set up expectations for tension that do not always deliver.
In preparation for writing, Beth escapes home for a summer and settles into her cabin at Bent Needle Lake in the forests of Minnesota, a location that dredges memories of a former marriage to Mike, who served alongside her in the Peace Corps. Soon Come dangles an initially compelling carrot: we learn that Beths service in Jamaica has been cut short by a year and that she and Mike have since divorced for as yet unknown reasons. But then the novel splits and here is where the breakdown occurs. One section includes firsthand accounts of the book Beth is writing, and this is interesting stuff. The Peace Corps section explores Beths issues dealing with her husbands problems adjusting to life in Jamaica, her suspicion that he is having an affair with another Volunteer, her problems with a power-hungry supervisor and her burgeoning romance with the charismatic Jamaican Reverend Sydney Reid, who oversees her work at a school outside Kingston helping six young girls make and sell their dolls at a local marketplace.
The other section, by contrast, reads slowly, making me impatient to return to Jamaica. When Beth is not writing at Bent Needle Lake, she takes lots of long, meditative walks in the woods. She begins a romance with the gentleman in the next cabin, Nick Faber who is not only there for the summer as well, not only roughly her age, but also, improbably, writing a Peace Corps book, albeit an academic and statistical account of Volunteers experiences. Ultimately, her relationship with Nick will provide the happiness that helps put the duppies of her former men to rest.
This is, perhaps, why the Arnesons chose to write a novel rather than a memoir: to show not only a Peace Corps Volunteers overseas experience, but the process by which they put their compelling experiences to rest by finding new distractions in life. But not much really happens while Beth and her boyfriend are together, except for a brief storm that trashes Nicks cabin. In the case of Soon Come, this is simply not as interesting as the suspense gripping readers in Jamaica.
Beths romances are also uninspiring. Virtually every display of affection by Nick is followed by a stuttering apology: He cant seem to get into bed with Beth without asking: Is it all right? Do you mind? When Mike pays a brief visit to tell Beth hes considering a job in Costa Rica, he hints rather than asks her to join him, though its obvious thats why hes come. Men in the Arnesons book have a problem with directness, which creates listless relationships and dilutes romantic tension. After Beth completes her manuscript and is about to return to Jamaica (possibly without coming back), Nick accompanies her to the airport without asking her to stay. When Beth begins talking about their summer together, Nick acts like he wants to hide under a rock. The world of fiction is often driven by the competing desires of individuals, and the competing desires between people who care for each other, laid out on the page, creates an exciting, page-turning experience. Unfortunately, Arneson avoids taking this route.
Many RPCVs whove penned stories of their experiences may perhaps indulge the Arnesons characters, and Beths reflective escape to the woods of Minnesota rings true. But in Soon Come, it doesnt make for interesting fiction and non-RPCV readers are not likely to identify enough with Beth to stick with the story. The Jamaica section is riveting, and its too bad the Arnesons dont focus here. Fraught with Minnesota ennui, Soon Come is, ultimately, an unbalanced book.
Joe Kovacs served as a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka from 1997 to 1998. He writes for WorldView Magazine, the quarterly membership publication of the National Peace Corps Association, and is currently working on his second novel.
The Taos Massacres
by John Durand (Philippines 196264)
Reviewed by Craig J. Carrozzi (Colombia 1978-80)
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ, the Nobel Prize winning Colombian novelist once said, I write fiction because it is truer than our history. Perhaps the same can be said of John Durand and his historical novel The Taos Massacres.
When viewed through the prism of official United States history books, we are often given a simplistic view of the Mexican-American War. It was all about MANIFEST DESTINY! and REMEMBER THE ALAMO! and THE WHITE MANS BURDEN! to bring civilization and the rule of law to the benighted savages. Well, in this book, John Durand doesnt settle for these jingles. He shows the other side of the coin right alongside the more official version. To the dispossessed Mexicans and most of the Native American tribes in the region, the United States invasion of New Mexico was an imperialistic grab for land and resources.
Using a panoply of colorful historic figures, ranging from Lewis Garrard, the young educated tenderfoot from St. Louis, to En-di-ond, a huge Delaward Indian known as Big Nigger to whites, Durand paints a landscape of grit, blood, fury, beauty, and bemusement in the Land of Enchantment. Why then, after the bloodless takeover of Santa Fe by Colonel Stephen Kearney and the Army of the West in August of 1846, does Taos explode in an orgy of violence in January of 1847?
As Father Antonio Martinez put it to the American officers who came with a mixed bag of troops, trappers, and frontiersmen to avenge the massacre of the American governor Charles Bent, and some of the leading townsmen who were viewed as collaborators, by a mob of Mexicans and Pueblo Indians, We have a saying: The best law is a rusty tool. And Father Martinez went on to explain how under Mexican rule most disputes were settled by the alcalde (mayor) talking things out with the involved parties, and perhaps calling in the priest for counsel, and often as not the quarrels would disappear like water into the ground. But with you Americans everything is the law. The law is a shiny, sharp tool. Everything has to be looked up in books. Everything has to be written down. And when Senor Lee became Sheriff, he of course said everyone had to follow these new laws . . . even though he lived here for many, many years where the law is a rusty tool. Sheriff Lee locked up a number of Pueblo Indians for various infractions under the new laws which were a source of unrest.
Of course, beyond the rusty tool analogy was a deeper problem. Property rights. The former Rico Mexicans were going to have to prove they actually owned what they said to the new American rulers and figured they might have a better chance to keep what they had if they fought to drive the Americans out. Caught between the American invaders and the New Mexican-Mexicans and Pueblo Indians were a group of white settlers, mainly French-Canadian trappers and Missourians, who had married Mexican women and acquired land under the old regime. Most of these sided with the new American authority, some were given important positions, and the stage was set for a massacre of innocents and an even bloodier series of reprisals which Durand illustrates in Maileresque detail.
Near the end, Ceran St. Vrain tells Lewis Garrad, . . . theyre all going to live with a lot of hurt for a long, long time. And for what, Lewis? For revenge? For getting what we think is ours? For getting more? Because we think we know whats right or whats true? St. Vrain was silent, lost in thought. But then it never ends, does it?
No, it never does!
Craig Carrozzi, author/publisher has just published his fifth book, The Curse of Chief Tenaya, and is doing a number of performance readings throughout California to dramatize this historic western thriller and call attention to the possibility of someday restoring the Hetch Hetchy Valley which was dammed in 1915.
Letter from Guinea
I write to you poised on the brink of The Heat. It hasnt arrived, but you can feel it coming, you can smell it in the half-ripe mangoes awaiting the humid Mango Rains. Last week we got a sneak preview of the hot season when overnight it stopped cooling down in the evenings and there was nothing to do during the day but sit and stare at the wall and fan yourself. Its bearable again for the moment, but tomorrow ushers in March, the month everyones been warning me about since I arrived in Kankan. Well, bring it on, I say! Lets get this thing over with and get on with our lives.
Not that mine is overly-exciting at the moment. My latest excuse for not teaching? The Muslim fête of Tabaski (the Festival of Meat!), which mysteriously removes students from school for two weeks. The compositions ended two weeks ago and Tabaski was the next weekend, so everyone just went home to their villages and have yet to return. I tried going to school on Wednesday, and had nine students (of 150); so I gave them back their compositions, showed them their grades, and played a game. I handed out bonbons as prizes and fête gifts (salimafos). Productive days, these. If I do end up teaching next week, it will basically be the first time since mid-December. Thats a 2 1/2-month vacation! But fortunately Ive come to realize that education here is a joke for everyone, so I dont take it personally and Ive stopped feeling guilty. Ive shed that nasty Western impulse that tells one that one should be doing something useful. Thats one thing Guinea will do for you; spend enough time here and you may never feel the need to leave the house again.
We did have a bit of excitement here with the fête. During Tabaski every family who can afford to kills a sheep, then distributes the meat among the families who arent so lucky. Were pretty rich, as families go, so there was a damned sheep tied to the tree in the courtyard for a good two weeks, next to my stick fence which he proceeded to mangle beyond repair. On Tabaski we all got dressed up and went to Mosque, then trooped home and ceremoniously slit the animals throat. I took lots of pictures, which thrilled people. All the boys and men in the family elbowed one another to try to get into the picture without being squirted with sheep blood. Then the non-distributed meat went into the sauce, and just like every other day we ate rice. Ah, rice. (I went through a period of several weeks when I got so sick of rice that I couldnt eat the stuff, but fortunately Ive moved beyond that.) In the afternoon all the little girls got dressed up in their frilly Victorian-nightmare plastic-bag dresses, the little boys donned their miniature rapper outfits, and the kids roamed the streets in packs demanding salimafos from family members and unwary passers-by. Its customary to give them money. Its like Halloween, sort of, so I gave them candy instead.
Girls Conference here was a success, though the girl I ended up choosing (based on an essay I had each of my 14 female students write about what they wanted to do with their lives) probably didnt need it much. In contrast to 30-odd village girls, many of whom had never been to Kankan or seen a computer, my girl is from a wealthy, cosmopolitan family and has email buddies in Europe and Canada. And damn, she dresses better than we Volunteers do! (Actually, thats not saying much ) But she probably provided a good model for the others, at least. Shes a sharp girl. Too bad shes so bad at English.
Hilary Heuler was a PCV in Guinea from 2001 to 2003 where she taught English and math at a secondary school. Now living in Southern California, she will be attending graduate school next fall, and study International Affairs.
A Volunteer's Life in Romania
from Andy Trincia (Romania 200204)
THERE ARE ALWAYS faces you never forget, especially when traveling or living abroad. Sometimes its a stranger youve befriended or simply someone with whom you had a chance meeting, perhaps a person who performed a brief act of kindness. Maybe you learn their name or not. In my travels over the years, there are certain people Ill never forget. Faces.
For example, Mele, a young man I met some years ago at a tasty taqueria in Oaxaca, Mexico a proud Mexican with Indian heritage who volunteered to take me around his hometown, even talking his way past armed guards at the state capitol to show me incredible murals of Benito Juarezs heroics. Or the poor Vietnamese couple living on a tiny fishing boat in Halong Bay, who gave me, a friend and our guide a much-needed lift when our rented boat began to leak. As a thank-you, I presented to them a few bucks, cigarettes and airplane-sized bottles of Jack Daniels, all of which were recommended to me as useful gifts in Vietnam. Ill never forget their broad smiles, which stretched their tough skin, weathered by sea and sun.
The gregarious owner almost cartoon-like of a fabulous tapas restaurant in Mallorca, Spain; the high-ranking Cameroon politician I met in Morocco, where he was trying to drum up tourism for his country; one of the most beautiful women Ive ever seen, a shy clerk in a remote roadside convenience store in Iceland; and an ever-so-hip Bulgarian couple who stopped me and another Volunteer on the street in Sofia last summer, offering unsolicited directions amid the Cyrillic signs and head-shaking yess and nodding nos that so confused us. There are many faces from many memorable moments.
Here in Romania, which has been my home for going on two years, too often the faces are, well, just plain sad, or suparat in Romanian. Poverty, slow progress, a string of economic and political disappointments for its citizens since the 1989 fall of communism, as well as a fatalistic, glass-is-half-empty culture, are the main reasons. At times we Volunteers get caught up in this, especially in the gloomy days of winter, and Im sure we, too, look sad. Ive gone through entire days here without seeing a single smile.
So all the more reason to be relieved, even thankful, when you do see a smile, or meet an upbeat, motivated person what a huge difference that makes for those faces now etched in my mind. Sure, there are faces I wouldnt mind forgetting from my time in Romania. Countless moments of rudeness and certain callous remarks linger in my mind, along with more pleasant memories. As I begin the homestretch of my service in Romania, I want to remember those people who, despite the tough surroundings here, try hard at work and life, remain positive and unselfish and inspire, perhaps unwittingly.
Take a mid-20s lawyer named Ioana from Brasov, Romania. We recently shared a train compartment for a 9-hour journey, but only talked near the end. She was on her way to Hungary to see a medical specialist, for a second opinion on her hearing, after getting bad news from three different Romanian doctors. She is slowly going deaf. The determination in her dark eyes and on her face, not only to overcome the hearing problem, but to flourish in her career despite a corrupt system and other hurdles not to mention learning English from TV shows and movies is admirable. She is a true optimist in a land with too few of them.
Or the elderly farmer I encountered last summer during an outdoor competition in the rugged area of north-central Romania. Our team stopped mountain biking for a water break, but we also were discussing the map and directions. Though all of us speak enough Romanian, we were in the middle of an ethnic Hungarian area where many of the people speak little or no Romanian. I decided to go up to the man laboring by hand in his small plot. His wrinkly face flashed a smile, exposing only a few teeth, when I greeted him. I shook his rough and dirty hand. We managed through basic Romanian, to get the directions clear enough. He said we were crazy to try to bike in this terrain, advising us instead to flag down a truck (tempting, but we didnt). When I thanked him and waved good-bye, this humble peasant took off his hat and bowed, wishing our team a good journey. Money doesnt buy class, as they say.
And how about Adrian, or Adi, to his friends, one of the high school students I taught last year. This big young man, elected president of the student company I was advising, is a leader among his peers. Thousands of young-generation Romanians have become quite adept at computer skills (national news proudly described one Bucharest firm that sold its anti-virus program to Microsoft) including Adi. While many Romanians arent so good at follow-throughs and meeting deadlines, this kid is on top of his game. He develops and designs web sites and other work for clients in his spare time, sometimes staying up all-night to finish jobs all in the confines of internet cafes! Some months he earns three times more than the national average of $100. His economics teacher once told me how tired Adi is from sleepless nights. Indeed, his intense face looks a bit older than he is many Romanians do, due to the overall environment here, the constant worries but the way he struts and smiles after learning something new, or doing a good job, is refreshing and terrific. He also told me that he wants to do business in Romania. If he does, he will not contribute to the serious problem of brain drain, the steady exodus of bright, young people to the United States, European Union and other places. I have no doubt that Adi will succeed. You can see it in his face.
It would be nice to have photos of the special faces Ive encountered over the years. In a few cases, I do. But its OK. Theyre all in my head.
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
From Peace Corps to Warlords
by Ethan Gologor (Somalia 196264)
SOME OF US were motivated by the thrill of adventure, some by a spirit of idealism, and some (me) by a need to get as far away from the Bronx as possible. Some were extroverts, off at every opportunity to scale mountains, search for baboons and exchange teashop political wisdom with strangers; and some were introverts, spending the next two years teaching grammar or algebra in the morning, reading Thoreau or Montaigne in the afternoon and counting stars in the evening. And later this year, on the heels of the 40th anniversary of the Peace Corps founding, our Somali group, as we have done each decade, will have our own reunion. While our purposes and personalities will still be as varied as forty years ago (Randy will arrive with sleeping bag and Diane with Armani garment bag; Bob will have pictures of his son in nuclear physicists uniform and Nan will be mute about her son, who is just leaving rehab; Brad will have added a few more pounds to the hundred or so that we last saw and Phil and Merrill, with only a little help from their hair-dressers, will look hardly a whit different from the days of our robust youth), ninety per cent of us will come.
But this time may be a little different. As Somalia suspected lair of significant numbers of Al Qaeda members is in and out of the headlines these days almost as much as Iraq, and as it has been brought further into public consciousness by Blackhawk Down, ostensibly the story of our 1993 incursion, we Volunteers will have cause to wonder whether we dreamed up the whole thing. And I say that as a member of a project that was described by Peace Corps brass as the most difficult ever, that reputedly made Sargent Shriver cringe whenever its name came up, and that during our two years of service lost more of its Volunteers (40%), administrators (100%) and even doctors (67%) than any group before or since.
I say that because despite all this travail, the causes of which were much more complex and incidental than trying to live in the middle of a barren desert (Entertainment facilities, read our training hand-out, are extremely limited and it is up to the Volunteers to entertain themselves), our host Somalis were a people once so innocent that, at least in the bush, they looked as if theyd come right out of the pages of the Old Testament.
Leading camels in a vast expanse of parched earth, supported by a forked walking-stick, his dusty sheet wrapped loosely around him and bellowing in the wind above his bare feet, this nomad looked for all the world like Moses, tending his flock. These were a people whose camels carried not just their meager household belongings, but the straw mats and bamboo that constituted their entire houses, as they followed the sparse rains for hundreds of miles. These were a people who would stop upon seeing one of us strange Mareykans at a tea shop in a tiny village, and form rings around our table to do nothing but stare. And if one of us displayed a tape-recorder, they would implore us to do me, do me and then giggle incessantly as we played back their voices. And if one of us snapped a Polaroid and showed them the result, they would look incredulously, not so much at the marvel of technology, but at the figure they wouldnt recognize, never having seen themselves before.
Warlords? These were hardly the machine-gun toting gangsters, displaying the bodies of Special Ops on the streets of Mogadiscio or storming wounded Rangers as depicted in Blackhawk. These were people who, hoping we could do something, came to us with an infected eye or scorpion bite or carrying a goat that had been mauled by a cheetah. And often, though our expertise was limited to the supplies available in our first-aid kit, we were, with a little common sense, able to do some repairing, and word of our miraculous healing powers spread throughout the land.
Revolutionaries? These were students who apologized for a classmate, if one had the effrontery to question our assignments or methods. Who stood when we entered the classroom. Who, when Mike got peeved at them for not being responsive enough and reminded them they should be doing more outside reading, in unison picked up their chairs and walked outside. Flag-burners? These were people who offered us their protection when the occasional protest march against some biased British policy caused a little anxiety among expatriates or the Peace Corps staff back in Washington. These were people who would insist we take the only seat in the cab of the trade truck, rather than stand in the open back and get assailed by the vicissitudes of the weather.
Nor were these Moslem believers zealots devoted to anti-Semitic diatribes. On discovering that a few others and I were indeed Jehudis, most became intensely curious. How many times a day must you pray? (Ahh, we must do five.) Can you go to heaven if you dont? Do you kneel and face always in the same direction? I know of only one couple who allegedly suffered any discrimination (some of their religious jewelry was stolen), but they, having given up any real sense of worship in adolescence, tended to wear their stars of David on their sleeve. In a few weeks after arrival, most students would forget we were Jews, identifying us only as Mort, the science teacher who was so good at football, or David, the maths teacher who was so bad at football.
No, these were hardly the politicians, the strategists, the Machiavellians playing one nation or authority against another. These were people, in towns or villages with a movie house, who talked back to the screen, who oohed and aahed whenever a love scene came on (and were talking Doris Day, not Nicole Kidman). These were people who wanted to know where our cowboy hats were or whether anybody could safely walk the streets of Chicago without being mowed down by a mobster.
Upon completing our tour, the authorities gave us a card to keep in our wallets, should we suddenly collapse on the streets of Paris or Indianapolis without warning. Doctors, be alert. The bearer has been exposed to amebiasis, brucellosis, Dengue Fever, loa loa, schistosomiasis. If I now break into a rash on seeing movies like Blackhawk Down or clips of the latest Marine invasion on CNN, doctors be mindful that Ive been exposed, as have only a handful of others in this world, to Somalias innocence and I become feverish thinking of what happened to it.
Or to our own.
What do you hope to accomplish by serving two years in the Peace Corps? read the last question on the initial application. Attach additional pages if necessary. One Volunteer, according to newspaper accounts, ingenuously responded with but a single word, Peace (one whom I immodestly confess I happened to know intimately).
Two other members of our group, Paul and John could have doubtless made the short list of Papal nominees (Innocent VIII and IX?). Paul, ruddy-cheeked and pot-bellied, played Santa Claus to the country, accommodating every stray dog and dick-dick (miniature versions of Bambi) that wandered into his yard, and donating his free time to teach extra English classes to the families of students. On his arrival back home in Seattle, he enrolled in veterinarian school, got into a dispute his last term with an advisor, wasnt savvy enough to find an alternative, and spent the next thirty years being a house painter and bead salesman. John, former forest ranger, naturalist, environmentalist, who could fix anything (from a blocked latrine to a short-wave radio to a kerosene lantern) spent his free Somalia time collecting and cataloguing what looked to everyone else like identical African beetles, and returned to Washington with two dozen boxes of these carefully preserved specimens as well as with pregnant Emilie. But supporting a family while struggling with a geology Ph.D. dissertation and worrying about piling up loans proved a bit much, and he ended up becoming a home-building inspector for the last quarter-century. (People about to buy a house call me in to tell them whether its going to fall down anytime soon.) And both Paul and John, not unlike a number of other parents in the group, have seen one of their sons not only follow in their aborted career footsteps, but engage in a major drug or sociopathic episode, so powerful apparently is the tragic model of life that each has bequeathed.
So, poignant as the history of Somalis has been, they are not the only ones who have lost something. And we reunite, it now dawns on me, to find each other because we know what we can never again find. Carole says we were all innocents back then. And surely, if anyone can still imagine a world before Oswald, before Kent State, before Watergate, before semen-stained dresses, before bin Laden, it would be hard to disagree. Yet, John and Pauls biographies cut more specifically and deeply than that. Theirs are the stories of two exemplary teachers, each who would eventually find himself so unsuited to the academic world of America that they make any of us who have ever had any inclinations in that direction shudder, knowing that one errant step, one errant sperm, one errant remark in the classroom or boardroom or mens room and there but for the grace of God go forty years of I.
So there we have some of it. What these reunions bring to mind is that our Peace Corps stint, if not the most important or unusual chapter of our lives (which it clearly was to some), was certainly the one that psychologically or politically has proved the most defining. And one that has continually to be reread. For if its about the loss of innocence, its also about birth and death and the people with whom, as much by chance as by design, we end up spending the interim (Of the nine single women in our original group, seven married fellow Volunteers). Its about success and failure and those, as much by the shifting desert winds as by talent or effort, who get to wear the badges of each (In addition to the cases already cited, our two award-winning trainees, voted by staff most likely to succeed, were the first to go home). Its about militant authority and righteous rebellion (Five of our most devoted Volunteers were terminated by a psychotic administrator for defying his arbitrary and trivial rules, and while each subsequently was exonerated, the effects were irremediable). Its about a group that had been described by the Washington authorities as complaining, depressed, even hateful of their host country, and by their hosts as devoted, honest and eminently competent in their work. Its about those seven couples who found each other within our group, all of whose marriages were intact thirty years later, but a significant number of whose kids had wandered not just to Africa but off the map of normalcy. It was about whether our individual lives during the last generation of the second millennium were as idiosyncratic as our Peace Corps groups or terribly typical.
Our next reunion
And when we next meet, what will also be clear is we will not be there to dwell on these matters. Rather will we share beers and slides and reminiscences of the pleasantly ridiculous. And have fun playing the Who-Remembers-His-Name? Game. The Indian teachers houseboy who bolted from the long-drop, pants around his ankles, screaming and gesticulating, when a wart hog ambled into his sanctuary. The British teacher who would roll off his chair during faculty meetings, having chewed qat all night in an effort to get to know his students better. The poor Volunteer in Brazil, pictured in one PR release reading by a kerosene lamp because the electricity in his village would go off at 7 PM. We who had to wait until noon for any kind of spritzbath since only then might our one water pipe have sufficiently been warmed by the sun to make the temperature bearable had certainly gotten a kick out of our compatriots suffering. Electricity? Would your air-conditioning or delivery of cold Heinekens occasionally fail too? But Marty, our historian, or Anne, our librarian, or George, our journalist, would remember his name, this newsletter PCV whom no one would ever meet, but who would become the prototypical characterization of our estrangement and togetherness. It was George Croon. Are you still out there, George? Are you rocking on your porch in suburbia telling war stories to your progeny? Croon another for us, will you, George? Show us how to shed some kerosene light on all this.
Ethan Gologor served as a math teacher in the first Somalia group. Encouraged by the psychologist assigned to his training group, John Sullivan, he went on to become one himself, teaching (and serving as chairman of his department) at CUNY, practicing in Manhattan (till he gets it right) and occasionally surfacing as a sports psychologist (Psychodynamic Tennis [Wm. Morrow]; this year's Psyching Team captain for the medical division of volunteers at this years New York Marathon).
Somalia I trained at New York University, starting on April 23, 1962 and lived at the old Van Renssalaer Hotel. Training was for eight weeks, but, when the eight weeks was completed, Somalia wasn't quite ready for them so they spent another two weeks at a camp in Connecticut that Columbia operated. They spent the days learning how to climb flagpoles and rappel down mountains vital skills in the deserts of Somalia. Fifty Trainees started in April, forty-five went overseas, and twenty-seven completed service two years later.
A longer version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of Bibliophilos, Vol. VIII, No. 2. A special subscription is available for RPCVs who would like to subscribe to this unique publication. The address is: The Bibliophile, 200 Security Building, Fairmont, West Virginia 26554.
Thanks go to Bob Blackburn (Peace Corps Deputy Director, Somalia 196466) who brought this essay to my attention.
A Writer Writes
The Things I Gave Her
by Lisa Kahn Schnell (Ghana 199800)
THE FIRST THING I gave Genevieve was a pile of my clothes to wash. The shirts and trousers were red with dust from day-long bus rides and bike rides, and from nine weeks of my swirl-and-rinse washing. I gave her my full attention as she showed me how to wash thoroughly, with merciless, strong arms, two basins of water and a small bar of soap. She returned my clothes to their normal color and left them smelling only of wind.
Once I had more than just a mug to eat out of, once I cleaned the lizard poop off my bed and chased the scream-sized flat spiders from behind the kitchen shelves, I gave Genevieve my trust. She maneuvered me down the rutted, dusty path of Daffiamas Sunday market, around people talking limply in the sun, past men who called to me with exaggerated smiles, and past adolescent girls in satin Church dresses with torn lace who watched me out of quickly guarded eyes. She guided me past table after shaded, rotting-wood table covered with small pyramids of tomatoes, onions, soap, dried fish. She showed me the best okra, and made jokes to escape the toothless old women who pestered me to give them my earrings. When she pulled a bench into the shade so we could share a pot of pito to quench our thirst, I was relieved.
I gave her my curiosity and willingness to try tempane, banku, baobab leaf soup; I let her laugh at the way the soup, green and slimy as a turtle, curled around my fingers and slithered between my knuckles.
I gave her my tomatoes on the verge of spoiling and I gave her my insect-ridden beans for her pigs, I told her, but I knew she would let them sit in the hot sun to chase the insects away, and that she might eventually eat them. From the town of Wa, I brought treats for her and her childrenbread, plantains, oranges. I gave her children handfuls of peanuts and mangoes when I had too many, and I gave Genevieve eggs from my chickens when she got her sore and rotting teeth removed. She said the TZet I prepared according to her instructions was delicious.
My second year in Daffiama I gave her money and she brought me dinner. Every evening she came, whether the cool, moist air swirled on the skin like chiffon or whether it scraped like sandpaper, whether Orion glinted above, or whether a slate-purple rainstorm drowned out the skronks and whistles of the mating frogs in the field next to my house. She came after we spent all day tending thousands of young trees in the nursery, and she came after she had knelt over her children who were feverish with malaria the night before. I hoped I was giving her more than enough money to cover the cost of the food maybe even enough for her and her children to eat comfortably as well but she would never let me pay her for her knowledge and effort.
I went away for a night, a week, a month, and I left her the key to my house so she could take care of my cat. I promised her one of the cats spring-loaded kittens, but there was an accident, and one kitten lost part of a paw. She would take that one, she insisted, and I knew she was the only person who was kind and nurturing enough to accept a cat that might not be able to catch the mice gnawing on her dried corn. I helped her stand up to the men who wanted to buy her pito on credit but would never repay her, but she resisted when I said I wanted to make her nursery treasurer. I told her Id pay for training in fabric dying, teaching, anything to help her earn a reliable living, but her confused look begged to know how she would do it, when the children needed her, there was cooking and washing to do and water to carry; she could never take me up on the offer, whether she wanted to or not.
I tried not to give her my impatience. It was her idea to bring the food to me she never knew exactly when it would be ready but waiting made me hungry and bored and a little lonely. I chased the thoughts of burritos or pizza or ice cream away before they had a chance to spoil in my brain. When Genevieve bustled in and announced with smiling, crinkly eyes that we were having beans leaves soup, I gave her my enthusiasm, privately wondering whether she had forgotten wed already had beans leaves soup three times that week. When I offered thanks, Genevieve chastised me for saying the words before Id even tasted the soup.
How do you know you will like it? Genevieve demanded. You taste it and see.
I knelt by the water storage tank and washed my right hand, having learned before that if she didnt see me do it, she would remind me. Then I took a small corner of the TZet and dipped it into the soup bowls green abyss.
Can you take it? she asked hopefully.
Its good, I assured her, letting the starchy lump and viscous soup slide down my throat. I can take it.
And when I was alone again I did take it. I took it silently and gratefully as I hovered in the candles yellow-orange glow.
I could not give her a comfortable house with a roof that didnt blow and leak in storms. I could not give her easy access to clean water, or a courtyard gate to lock out the noisy assholes from the bar who stole her water, leaving her without enough to wash her face in the morning. Still, when the health clinic allowed her to draw good, clear water for me as part of her tree nursery duties, I always encouraged her to take an extra basin home for herself. I could not give her guts that stayed solid under the assault of internal parasites, and I could not repair her gums that twanged when food was too hot or sour or sweet. I could give her respect for never complaining. She didnt need me to give her dignity.
I gave her my loneliness and she didnt even notice the burden. Genevieve invited me over to pound fufu at her house, and told me to keep trying, even after I almost brought the wooden pestle down on her hand; she let me grind the nuts for the shea butter, even though I took twice as long as she did. When, each evening, the familiar timbre of her voice arrived at my house behind her flashlights dying glow, I wondered if she knew that her few moments of company were just as important as the food she brought me. She carried me along to festivals where her brown eyes grew wider and her claps louder as I stamped my feet in the dust trying to dance, and to her hometown where I met her mothers brothers wifes aunt, who showed me yellowing photo albums and gave me as much pito as I could drink, welcoming me as kin. I gave her the privileges of mother, sister, friend, and counted on her to fill the roles.
After the first kitten died, I gave her another one. I gave her six yards of orange cloth for a new dress. The shedda cloth, hand batiked by my favorite artist in Accra, made my eyes giddy. It made Genevieves black skin radiate, and I gave her earrings and a necklace to go with it. I told her she looked like a queen, but I would never tell her that the cloth cost more than three months of her salary.
When I cleaned out my house before I left, I gave her my old foam mattress, my pots and pans, my cheap aluminum silverware whose handles got hot moments after plunging into a boiling pot. I gave her my most comfortable shoes, a pair of Tevas nearly everyone in town coveted. She traveled part way to the airport with me, but eventually we had to say goodbye. We faced each other, and my mind grasped for one last idea, something to give her a way out, a chance to be something more than a village woman in second-hand clothes who wondered each morning what she was going to feed her children. I wanted to give her courage, independence, relevance. Instead, I gave her stationery, stamped and with my address already on it, and when she was boarding the lorry to go back to Daffiama, I gave her money, not knowing what else to do. She thanked me tearfully and mentioned that she needed a towel, like the old ones I had given away to my male employees. If I saw one, she suggested, maybe I could send it. She needed it.
Lisa Kahn Schnell was a Forestry Volunteer in Ghana. She currently teaches school children about raptor migration at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and is working on a collection of creative non-fiction essays about her experiences in Ghana. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and baby daughter.
Travel Right Recommends
from Andy Trincia (Romania 200204)
PERAST, WHICH IS officially now in Serbia & Montengro, is a lovely town on the coast of the Adriatic Sea, not far from (approx 50km) more heavily touristed Dubrovnik, Croatia. Stunning scenery, cheap prices. Accessible via road or boat (e.g. Herceg Novi). Lovely church, town center, walkway along waterfront, Baroque architecture. Two stunning islands out in the distance, with Catholic churches (one has a museum). Try the hip Otok Bronza, a small cafe on the waterfront, complete with brick-cellar ambiance, grapes growing outside, and nice art on the inside. I only had a beer but I heard the food was exceptional.
The whole area is worth a visit.
Friendly editors, etc.
Promote Your Book John Sherman (Nigeria 196667, Malawi 196768; Staff: PC/ W 197071, 197577, Ghana 197173) has a publishing PR firm, Sherman & Company, where he markets his own books, as well as other authors works. He offers an array of editorial services and can provide detailed advice on self-publishing. His firm has handled marketing and publicity for authors based in Washington, Santa Fe, and Indiana. The firm received a Gold Circle Award from the Washington EdPress Association for its national press campaign on behalf of An American Biography by Pat McNees. Rates vary, depending on the complexity of a project. John may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opportunities for writers
Publish Your Prose Glimpse Magazine is an online and print publication that features first-person, cultural-experience pieces written by study abroad students, international students, volunteers and others living abroad. Selected work is also republished by major newspapers or commissioned by Glimpse partners such as National Geographic Traveler. Its a first rate place, check them out at TheGlimpse.com and send them some of your prose.
Want to see a sample issue of Glimpse Quarterly? While supplies last, Glimpse would be happy to send you a complimentary copy of its Fall 2003 issue. Click, and enter RPCV-W in the Promotional Code field. This offer is valid only in the U.S
Charlene Caprio (Poland 199799) invites Peace Corps writers to contribute to her online magazine on cultures and subcultures, Szirine, at www.szirine.com. Szirine's mission is to bring to the English speaking world cultures and subcultures, and good writing that do not usually receive attention in mass media. Currently, Szirine is being viewed in over 20 countries, and their readership and writing staff continues to expand across borders.
Writers interested in having work considered for publication should go to Submissions Guidelines. This is a terrific site and a great place to be published on line.