FROM HER FIRST IMPRESSION of a birthing house, with its overpowering stench “like an oven, baking all the secretions and juices into a rank casserole” to her final heartrending farewell, Kris Holloway evokes the tragedy, the humor and the spirit of life in an impoverished African village.
Even as the young Peace Corps Volunteer to Mali had to force herself to enter the fetid confines of the hut where women came to give birth, she understood that this was a place of refuge, “one of the few hallowed grounds where men were not allowed to tread.”
But this is not the story of Kris Holloway, although it does track her maturing understanding of life’s essentials as she goes through her two years in the village. It’s the story of Monique Dembele, the young African woman who tends to all the medical needs of the village after a cursory nine-month training in health care.
Monique came to the village as the reluctant bride of a selfish man who ignored her except to father her children, eat the food she prepared for him, and collect the small salary she earned for the work she did. Left behind was Pascal, the man she really loved. The author accompanies Monique on excursions to her home village and describes her brief encounters with Pascal. This bittersweet thread in the tapestry of Monique’s life breaks after Pascal’s army unit is moved to a war zone in Liberia.
Death is a constant element in the village. As the author so eloquently puts it: “Death was skulking behind every calabash of dirty water, untreated burn, or mosquito bite.” In another passage, she describes a baby brought in for weighing. “I picked up his body, as brittle and hollow as a worn shell, afraid he would crumble in my arms. I’d read that two out of five children die before their fifth birthday in Mali. Now I felt it.”
There is this frequent weaving of the personal and the informational. The author describes the practice of “cutting,” or “female circumcision,” as it is called in a Peace Corps manual. She comes to understand how it is perpetuated, and why. She describes how African women are often introduced to sex by having it forced on them, and pondered that “She hadn’t called it rape.”
Her ability to accept the existence of points of view outside her own embrace, without judging, is a gift to the reader. The conversation she has with Monique about “cutting” and about sexual pleasure illustrate how one can teach without being the least bit pedantic.
Throughout, the author makes it clear that she is learning as much or more from Monique as she is giving her. There is none of the “I’m here to help you” attitude that can mar a volunteer worker’s experience. Kris Holloway, known in her African village as Fatumata, and Monique Dembele, the midwife, are friends. They work together, confide in each other, travel together, and learn from each other.
Mango rains, as Monique explains, are “The small rains that come, in February and March. They come when the earth is dry and the heavy rains still far away to make the mangoes sweet.” The explanation comes with a ripe, juicy mango, knocked off a tree by Monique and presented to her friend.
After going home and becoming engaged to fellow Peace Corps Volunteer John Bidwell, the author invites Monique to visit her in America. When Monique is convinced she won’t have to hold onto the outside of an airplane which she’s only seen at a distance high overhead she agrees to make the journey. The things she marveled at in America, and the things she missed, are a touching counterpoint to the author’s experience in Africa.
Kris said she was moved to write the book when Monique died in the throes of labor, with her fifth child. It’s the “personal story of a remarkable African woman, told by a friend.”
Kris Holloway has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan and works in writing and development for non-profit organizations. She and her husband have two sons. They’ve kept in touch with Monique’s family over the years, and at this point Monique’s three children are all enrolled in school, in spite of their father’s initial objections, and Monique’s sister has become a midwife. A percentage of the book’s proceeds will be donated to a rural women’s health clinic begun in Mali to honor Monique Dembele and continue her work.