Letters from Zaire
A Peace Corps Life in Africa

by John S. Jochum (Zaire 1975–78)
Winepress Publishing
February 2005
218 pages

    Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    WHEN A LATTER DAY KEN BURNS decides to do the history of the Peace Corps, there will be no dearth of first-hand information for pictures and quotations. This book will be one of those quoted.
         With little editing (apparently) these are the letters of John Jochum written between July 13, 1975 and Feb. 19, 1979. Nearly all were written in Cameroon or Zaire to his family in the United States. The letters were straight-forwardly written and of the moment. They represent a record of John’s life as a Trainee and Volunteer in a fisheries project to boost fish/protein production in man-built ponds. His successes and failures, achievements and frustrations are detailed during a turbulent period in Zaire (when hasn’t it been turbulent?).
         I enjoyed the book for the chronicle that it is. It is a good reflection of the changing awareness that many (all?) Volunteers go through during their time in service. It reflects everyday life, food, weather, health problems, etc. His continuing concern for the reliability of the mails is one that many of us worried about. The gratitude for news from home is a recurring theme.
         The style is neither exciting, nor Shakespearean. It is, however, engaging and engrossing. It is the story of many PCVs who had some idealism and an honest desire to help their fellow human beings and to make the World a little bit better place to live. It ends with realization of the complexities of local and world politics — the pettiness of people and bureaucrats the world over.
         The short epilogue seems entirely too naïve to the letters that it follows. I think the letters deserve better. An updated review of events over the decades in this part of the African continent would have benefited those who have not followed recent history. In the ’70s the author expressed his desire for more governmental transparency concerning the U.S./Zaire relationship and he was concerned by the United States’ continued support of the Mobutu regime then. A more perceptive analysis of the situation in Zaire (by whatever name these days) and some historical perspective would have made this volume immeasurably more valuable.
         The editing is flawless as far as I can see. There is a fine collection of colored photographs taken at the time the letters were written. Unfortunately, few are labeled so that you can connect a face with a name. His fellow Volunteers are frequently mentioned, but rarely is there a caption to let you know who is in a picture. The chapter headings are particularly attractive.
         This book would have been more enlightening if John had elaborated on some of the references to his family and friends. His answers to questions would have benefited if he had included the questions (in the letters he is answering). A good read — not a great book.

    Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, and eventually returned to Africa and taught in Zambia (1973–78, 1980–86), Botswana (1979–80), and Malawi (1980). Upon returning to the United States in 1986 he and his wife, Diane (Ghana 1961–64), owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota until retiring to California in 2002 where he has become a student of gardening in a Mediterranean climate.