Peace Corps Writers September 2006
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Peace Corps Writers 9/2006: Introduction
Where were you on
September 22, 1961?
That was the day JFK signed the legislation that created the Peace Corps. He had signed the Executive Order to establish a “Peace Corps” earlier that year, on March 1, 1961, so that date is considered the “birthday” of the agency. By September of 1961 about 500 PCV had already gone overseas to 9 countries. By 1965, the number of Peace Corps Volunteers grew to 8,000 worldwide, a year later it was at 15,000.
The Peace Corps hasn’t been as successful as Kennedy had hoped. He envisioned sending out 100,000 Volunteers a year, whereas most years there have been fewer than 8,000. Over the past 45 years a total of more than 185,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in more than130 countries. So, Happy Birthday Peace Corps, Again!
And then Sarge said to me . . .
. . . Sarah (O’Connell) Seybold (Turkey 196365)
AN ORANGE HARD-COVER BOOK with Sarge’s picture sits on my mother’s coffee table. It’s been there since 1965. Sargent Shriver: A Candid Portrait by Robert Liston has a bookmark on page 120. That’s the black and white photo section, which features Sarge on a raft in North Borneo, Sarge sharing bread in an Iranian bakery, Sarge visiting with the Shah of Iran, and Sarge at my Peace Corps site in a hospital in eastern Turkey.
I am dressed in white, with starched cap, pale hose and polished nurse’s shoes. Sarge is tall and athletic looking, with cropped hair and a ruddy face. He wears slacks and a bulky ribbed cardigan frayed around a small hole on the left shoulder. Scuffed boots warm his feet. In the background, temperature charts hang over white metal cribs in a Turkish pediatric ward. Veiled mothers wearing hospital-issued gowns sit at bedsides. They are on-hand around the clock to comfort and feed their sick little ones. Like mannequins these village women sit and stare at us. I make a plea for Sarge’s help. In my right hand I hold a glass thermometer. My left hand extends to explain that our school of nursing is in urgent need of teaching supplies. He listens earnestly and promises a modest budget.
And then Sarge is off to the orphanage and high school, the other sites where Peace Corps Volunteers work in this central Anatolian railroad town of 50,000. His departure reminds me to get on to the afternoon shopping. My roommates and I must prepare to serve tomorrow’s breakfast to Sarge, his entourage and eight Peace Corps Volunteers including myself. Bundled in winter wear and snow boots and carrying several string bags, I head for the open market, wondering how to explain to the poultry vendor my need for fifty eggs. But he asks no questions and gleefully wraps up the thirty in his inventory, takes my money and sends me in the direction of his brother’s stall.
The breakfast is hearty, a full platter of scrambled eggs layered with herbed cheese and garnished with home-fried potatoes. We hug our steamy mugs filled with spiced Turkish tea. When dishes are cleared away, Sarge calls us Volunteers together.
We pull up chairs in a circle. Only two months have passed since our early November 1963 arrival in Turkey, and so much has changed. When we ask Sarge to describe how the Kennedy family, the Peace Corps staff and Americans in general responded to the assassination he takes a deep breath as if to steady himself.
Tales of November 22 and its aftermath pour out. We hang onto his every word. We feel compelled to tell him where we were when we heard the news. Two Turkish nurses had run into our dormitory holding a portable radio. They were sobbing and screaming, “Baskinin Kennedy Olmis!” We didn’t understand, our Turkish language was so new and our vocabulary so limited. Their sobs and screams continued until finally we knew the truth. Grief and loss flooded Ankara. Flags flew at half mast as sober and silent people walked the streets. The American Embassy opened its doors for ceremony and reflection.
Suddenly his time had run out. Sarge’s plane was scheduled to leave within the hour. We said our goodbyes. His departing words gave comfort, inspiration and a sense of mission. “You are the ones who must carry the torch.”
[Do you have a Sarge Shriver story you’d like to share? Send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add it to our growing collection of Then Sarge Said to Me! Tales from the early days of the Peace Corps.]
First Peace Corps Fund award
Todd Lester (Cameroon 200002) is the first individual to receive a Peace Corps Fund Award a grant of $3000. The Fund, which provides support to RPCVs for Third Goal projects, is a non-profit organization established several years ago by myself and Barbara Ferris (Morocco 198082). Over the past two years the Fund has worked with Peace Corps Writers on several projects enlisting Peace Corps writers and their books.
Todd's grant is to support his work with a group of volunteer professionals in New York as they launch a non-profit organization known as freeDimensional which has initiated a global network to provide administrative and organizing support to centers worldwide that seek to create short-term safe havens for exiled human rights defenders who have been working at the intersection of arts and journalism before fleeing their countries of origin.
Todd brings a wealth of experience to this volunteer organization. As a PCV he was a small business development Volunteer coordinating youth business apprenticeships, journalism training, and cultural and public information events. During his service Todd he completed his Masters in Public Administration through a joint initiative of Rutgers University and the Peace Corps known as the Masters Internationalist Program. He is currently a candidate for a Doctorate of Public & Urban Policy at the New School for Social Research, and an adjunct instructor at the New School, New York University, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
How many novelists can stand on the head of a pin?
[or] You are not alone!
When speaking to one of our “Friendly Agents” last week he mentioned that he receives an average of 1000 emails and letters a month from new writers not all RPCVs ! requesting that he represent them. He personally answers all of of these requests.
This agent already represents three RPCVs writers who have published books within the last two years. So, keep writing.
Peace Corps Writers would like to welcome back to the Peace Corps Ron Tschetter (India 196668) who has been appointed the new Peace Corps Director he is the third RPCV to hold this post. For the second time both the director and deputy director (Jody Olsen, Tunisia 196668) were both Peace Corps Volunteers.
Jody, a faithful Republican, has been with the agency since Gaddi Vasquez’s appointment in 2002. Unfortunately, Jody, the only senior staff with real Peace Corps experience, was ordered by Gaddi not to travel overseas to visit PCVs. I am not sure if he was concerned about her safety, or was afraid she would outshine him since his only international experience before he became Director was several trips south of the border to visit relatives in Mexico. But Jody kept her head down and she kept quiet. Meanwhile, Gaddi did rack up a great many frequent-flyer miles as he traveled the world visiting Peace Corps countries.
Ron Tschetter, another life-long Republican [and who said the Peace Corps was full of do-good, liberals?], in his first letter to the community thanked our war-monger president “for his confidence in me” for giving him the job. Well, I guess in D.C. you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. Ron, however, is a good guy and we wish him well. But, Ron, please give back Jody’s passport and let her go visit some PCVs.
In this issue . . .
. . . is an interview with Kris Holloway (Mali 198991) and a review of her wonderful new book, Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 199698). We also have two “A Writer Writes” columns, one by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 197173) entitled, “I Love you Is Not the Same in Every Language.” Also reviewed in this issue is The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities, the new book by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587). It is reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 196264). We list 11 books recently published by Peace Corps writers, and two additional reviews, plus plenty of Literary Type.
We hope you enjoy it all.
Recent books by Peace Corps writers 9/2006
The Punishment of Virtue
Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban
by Sarah Chayes (Morocco 198486)
Letters from Bulgaria
An Older PCV Writes Back to the States
by Rel Davis (Bulgaria 200103)
Memoirs of a Travlin’ Man
by Galen Spencer Hull (Malawi 1964-66)
A Journey of Discovery
by Mark Landsberg (Iran 1964-66)
Cures Include Travel
by Susan Rich (Niger 198486)
White Pine Press
The 5 Secrets of Marriage from the Heart
by Jack Rosenblum (Costa Rica 196264)
and Corinne Dugas
The Ravaging Tide
Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Simon & Schuster
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference!
by Lynne Truss
Illustrator Bonnie Timmons (Kenya 1976-78)
From Binge to Blackout
A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking
by Chris Volkmann and
Toren Volkmann (Paraguay 2003)
New American Library Trade
Soldiers in Hiding
by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967-69)
(new edition with preface by the author
and introduction by Wole Soyinka)
Winner of the 1987 PEN/Faulkner Award
Syria in the News
Past, Present, and Future
(Middle East Nations in the News)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
Literary Type 9/2006
Roland Merullo (Micronesia 1979-80) who published A Little Love Story and Golfing with God this year had an op-ed piece “Of God, and Men” in the September 9, 2006, Boston Globe. Roland is now writing “another” book about God.
Japanland, a 4-Hour PBS Series, by Karin Muller (Philippines 198789) is now available as a 2-DVD set with a slide-show and never-before-seen footage. This film by Karin follows her as she seeks out the many unique and sometimes obscure subcultures of Japan including sumo wrestlers, sword makers, geishas, Buddhist monks, and even the now-iconic workaholic, career-track salary-man. She experiences the great diversity and proud humanity of a nation rooted in the past but looking toward the future. You can contact Karin at: Karin@karinmuller.com. Or check out: JapanlandOnline.com.
Nita Noveno (Cameroon 198890) is a writer and educator who after graduating from the New School MFA Creative Writing Program asked her wise advisor “What next?” and the answer she received “Start a reading series!” She founded the Sunday Salon prose reading series in the summer of 2002 and along with fellow graduate, Caroline Berger, hosts a pool of talented emerging and published writers (a few RPCVs included!) every third Sunday of the month in Brooklyn. For more information, go to: SundaySalon.com.
Toren Volkmann (Paraguay 2003) and his mother Chris and their book From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking were featured in the September 4, 2006 issue of People Magazine. Toren went to Paraguay where at a September in-country conference he had an emotional breakdown and was sent home. It was the first his family realized he had an alcohol problem. In Paraguay, Toren recalls, “I found serenity being out in the country with some of the warmest people I have ever encountered. In my little community, I was trying to reinvent myself as a normal person. When I saw other Volunteers in Asunción, I tried to be a social drinker, but I was lying to myself . . . I was hiding drinks and was ashamed for the first time. Finally I found myself in the Peace Corps medical office. I was given Valium and put in a hotel room to begin detoxing.”
Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973-74) has just published her fourth piece on Amazon Shorts, a new site where readers can download stories, essays and segments of serial works from published authors for 49 cents each. The current piece, “The Hungry Ghosts,” is her first non-fiction entry on the site, an essay about traveling in Hue in 1969, during the author’s service as an Army nurse in Viet Nam. O’Neill also has three fiction stories available on the site:
“The Bingo Game,” “Walking Funerals and High-Heeled Pumps,” and “Things that Go Bump in the Night.”
O’Neill is the author of Don’t Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Viet Nam, a collection of interconnected stories based loosely on her time as an operating room nurse in Viet Nam. It is available through Amazon.com. She has a website at SusanOneill.us and a blog at Amazon where her latest (9/24) riff is on torture.
Paul Karrer (Samoa 197880) published a story about a former student, now in prison, writing to thank Paul for teaching him to play chess. This full page story entitled, “All The Wrong Moves” was published in Teachers’ Magazine.
Another of Paul’s stories, “Ghost Kid,” appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine. It was about a fifth-grade writing assignment which made a nondescript invisible kid, visible.
The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban by Sarah Chayes (Morocco 198486) came out in August from Penguin Press. Sarah was a reporter in Afghanistan for NPR and then become “field director” of Afghans for Civil Society.
Steve Coll, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Ghost Wars writes that Sarah has “produced a passionate, involving, important work of journalism.”
Publishers Weekly sums up the book this way, “her hands-on experience as a deeply immersed reporter and activist gives her analysis and prescriptions a practical scope and persuasive authority.”
George Packer (Togo198283) won the 2006 New York Public Library Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism for his book, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. This award is given annually to honor a journalist whose work brings clarity and public attention to important issues. Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of two novels and three works of nonfiction one, a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. In presenting the award, NY Public Library president Paul LeClerc said Assassins’ Gate “provides a balanced and nuanced view of the forces that led to the war in Iraq and its human and political consequences” and is “an immensely valuable contribution to our understanding of this complex and tragic drama in the Middle East.”
Also, in a long “Letter From Sudan” in the September 11, 2006 issue of The New Yorker Packer writes about Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, an unorthodox Sudanese mystic and the development of his “radically peaceful vision of Islam,” in Khartoum and throughout the Islamic world.
The cover story of the Spring 2006 issue of African Arts was written by Shawn Davis (Mali 199698) who works for the Academy for Educational Development. Davis, a photographer, wrote “Visual Griots of Mali, Empowering Youth through the Art of Photography,” a 14-page homage to a project created by the late Washington, DC photographer Nestor Hernandez. Davis and Hernandez, together with their team, including Malian photographer Alioune Ba, mounted a series of interactive workshops for 22 young Malian sixth graders in Bwa country. The young photographers’ work was exhibited in Bamako at the 6th African Encounters of Photography biennial and may now be enjoyed by visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington from October 2, 2006 to April 29, 2007. For more information, visit www.aed.org/visualgriots or contact Shawn Davis at email@example.com.
Shawn’s website is at ShawnDavisphoto.com
Word from Beijing is that Peter Hessler (China 199698) has finished his research on his next book on China and is moving back to the United States by the first of the year. Peter also reports that he was married in June to a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Leslie Chang, an American who has been living in China for awhile. Leslie is also working on a book. They plan on living next in the Southwest of the U.S. to finish their books before heading back overseas. At the moment, they are not sure where they will go, though Peter writes, “we’ll figure it out.”
Talking with Kris Holloway
an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
I BEGAN TO HEAR ABOUT Kris Holloway (Mali 198991) several months before her book appeared. I had heard that Carol Bellamy (Guatemala 196365) and former Peace Corps Director had given a great quote for the jacket. It also had a wonderful title Monique and the Mango Rains that suggested that the author had a sense of what sells a book. Kris also had an aggressive publicist marketing her book. My wife, an editor at a major women’s magazine, came home with a pre-publication copy that had been sent by Kris’ PR person. While the book was unsuitable for my wife’s magazine she knew I was always on the look out for new Peace Corps writers. Then Kris sent me an email and we began our correspondence via the Internet. Here’s what Kris has to say about her Peace Corps years, and wonderful new book.
Where are you from, Kris?
I grew up in Granville, a small town in corn-central Ohio.
What colleges did you attend?
Allegheny College (BA), University of Michigan (MPH).
Okay, why did you join the Peace Corps?
I wanted to make a difference, of course. I was fresh out of undergrad, with a degree in environmental science and French and wanted to use the combination of the two to help halt the spread of the Sahara, and stop global poverty. A small goal! Also, Peace Corps felt familiar to me in the ’60s my uncle was headed to Sierra Leone (but then was drafted for Vietnam), my mom’s best friend is an RPCV, and my family is just riddled with folks in the service field. It was social work with an exciting twist.
What was your assignment?
I was assigned to work in community forestry which mostly involved training teams of young men in anti-erosion techniques. But then I quickly found that I was much more effective (and had a lot more fun) working with the local women in health-related matters. I fell in with the local midwife, Monique Dembele, and worked with her, completely ignoring my official duties as a forester. And to Peace Corps Mali’s credit, they didn’t balk.
Let’s talk about your book. Why did you take the approach you did in writeing about your Peace Corps experience?
I always thought I’d write a story about Monique. She was such an amazing African woman, midwife, and mother really the first “feminist” in her tiny, rural region of West Africa and her effect on me during the years I lived with her was profound. My life here in the U.S. was filled with work and kids way overprogrammed as all parents can relate to and writing about her remained a dream, something others would remind me about saying “you really should write a book about that . . ..” But when Monique died in the throes of her own labor with her fifth child I knew that this book had to be written. I had to go back, had to tell the story of her life, her death, and her remarkable legacy. This book grew out of our trip back and took on a life of its own.
How do you think your book is difference from other Peace Corps books?
This book is primarily about friendship the power of friendship to transform us. When we met, Monique and I were both young women in our twenties. She was a rural African midwife seeking relief from her life of toil; I was a middle-class Peace Corps Volunteer, eager to make personal connections in my foreign assignment. We lived together in the remote village of Nampossela in Mali, and became as close as sisters, “same mother, same father,” as Monique once said to me. We worked together, shared our innermost secrets, challenged each other's assumptions about work, life, and love, and stood by one another through sickness, birth, and tragedy. It’s this intimacy that makes Monique and the Mango Rains different from the other books out there, though many of them are wonderful! This book is the personal story of a remarkable African woman, told by a friend.
Where you worried about writing about an African woman in such detail?
I never thought about it that way. I never thought of Monique as my “black” friend. Skin color was the least of our differences. We didn’t speak the same language, didn’t come from the same socioeconomic class, didn’t have the same schooling, and came from completely different cultures. I was more worried that I would not do her story justice due to my own biased cultural lens. But then I realized that if I didn’t write a book about her, who would?
When you were a PCV did you concern yourself with changing the culture’s values and ideas? How did you deal with the question of cultural imperialism?
First, this sharing of ideas is going to happen, whether we want it to or not. Our world is getting smaller. But the question gets at an issue that anthropologists call “cultural relativism” meaning that people act in accordance with their own culture and belief system and their actions should only be judged from within the context of this belief system. This means that if we’re coming from another culture, we cannot and should not judge their actions. I agree with this in general being careful about assessing others when we don’t know them but not in the specifics. I believe that there are certain inalienable human rights that transcend culture. For example, I believe women should not suffer violence at the hands of others; I believe women have the right to have all their body parts intact. These are universal human rights, even if they may not be accepted as such in every culture.
Would you talk a bit about how you went about preparing to write this book about Monique and yourself?
The research was on three levels. The first was gathering journals, letters, cassette tapes, anything I, or my husband had written or recorded about our Peace Corps experience.
The second was during a return trip my husband and I made to Mali following her death when we gathered Monique’s clinic records and her own prenatal records, as well as taped conversations and interviews with Monique’s family, friends, and colleagues. The interviews were conducted in French and Bambara, but had to be translated into English. Thus I had to portray each person’s distinctive voice and personality in a language that she or he had never spoken!
The third level of research was more academic: “Does this story illuminate a larger truth about women’s lives?” I have a master’s in public health, with a concentration in maternal and child health, so I had a pretty good idea that it did. I spent a year reading articles, books, and dissertations/research on women in Mali. I think this background brings a depth to the book, while using the words and stories of Monique and the people who knew her renders the characters and their struggles unforgettable. My first-person viewpoint keeps it all personal and offers a needed cross-cultural perspective.
What was the hardest aspect of the book to write?
Putting myself so much in the center of the story was hard for me I wanted the story to be about Monique, not about me. But the women in my writing group, my agent, and others kept telling me that they identified with me and my perspective and reactions as a Western woman. Having me as a guide allowed them to relax and absorb this foreign world. But it meant that I had to admit my frailties and faults, my doubts and insecurities, and show aspects of myself that I’m less proud of. I also had to write about the things that I knew Monique wouldn’t be proud of her affair with Pascal, for example. I had to write about it because it was real, but it wasn’t easy.
In the beginning, it was emotionally hard to write about Monique because it constantly reminded me that she was no longer here. I had to bring Mali and Monique alive again I would smell mudcloth, play music, listen to her voice on cassette tapes and on videotapes. Then I would write for six hours, totally and completely back in Mali, but of course, then I’d “awake” to the reality of typing on my computer at my dining room table, and realize that she was indeed gone.
What has the reaction been to the book?
I’m thrilled when readers love it, of course! One woman said it made her think of following her heart; it made her believe that ordinary people can make a difference. Another said she would never think about African women the same again. I thought, “wow if this book affects one more person in such a way my work is done!” I knew Monique’s story touched me deeply (hence the reason I spent five years writing it), but didn’t know if it would touch others in the same way. I’m also surprised by how people relate to the female issues in the book the stories of lack of control over childbearing or birth control, of rape, and of domestic violence. Women have said “ I,” or “my sister,” or “my friend” “have suffered the same, and yet go on just like Monique did.” That has been remarkable.
Are you in touch with her family?
I’m thrilled to report that all three of Monique’s children her two daughters, and her son, are enrolled in school. I can’t tell you what an achievement this is, considering their mother is dead and their father was initially against their schooling. It’s all due to the support of Monique’s siblings in Mali, and the generous funding from people here in the States.
Monique’s sister Angele has kept her vow to become a midwife and continue Monique’s work. She received her degree last year and will soon be practicing on her own. Monique’s brother will be installed as a priest in 2007, and we’re invited back for the big ceremony John and I plan to return to Mali and bring our children for the first time.
Monique’s cousin Maxim has started a rural birthing house and health clinic in Monique’s honor called Cabinet de soins Monique or “Clinique Monique.” Currently, he is able to perform minor surgeries and conduct prenatal visits, but his dream is to provide obstetrical care as well. For this, he will need to construct a new building. Another birthing house in an area with the fewest doctors and nurses of anywhere in the world! Monique would have been thrilled. Proceeds from the book will go for capital improvements and program development at this clinic.
You met your spouse in the Peace Corps?
Yes. In fact, this book tells the story of our meeting. I was from small town Ohio, and he was from even smaller town New Hampshire. We were both members of the 30% Club a joke, really, but based on the fact that our Peace Corps trainers told us that 70% of all Peace Corps Volunteers eventually marry other Volunteers lots of us wanted to buck that trend. Guess we didn’t succeed. John and I lived apart for a year in Mali an 8-hour motorcycle ride through hell apart then together for a year. We got engaged in Egypt traveling home, and married in Ohio. He has been a huge part of the writing and research for this book.
Where do you live now?
Northampton, Massachusetts. “Where the coffee is strong, and so are the women.”
Do you work outside of raising your children?
Yes. I’ve used my background in writing, and public health and development in several non-profit organizations and institutions, including Planned Parenthood, the University of Michigan, Springfield College, and the Green Belt Movement. When I’m not writing, you can find me fundraising at the National Priorities Project, a national research and education organization that shows the impact of federal spending policies on local communities.
Would you talk a little about how you wrote the book at what time of the day on a computer? That sort of thing.
Our boys were 3 and 1 when I returned to Mali and began writing the book, so I didn’t have much time alone. I was doing part-time consulting work, and spending the rest of the day with them. The early morning hours were the only available writing time that and weekends/holidays when John or other family members gave me precious hours to write.
Even though the kids are older now, I still find that the morning hours are my most productive time. I think it’s because I’m the ultimate extrovert, and the early hours offer limited social opportunities so I’m forced to focus. I wrote all of the book on my laptop, as I’ve got lightning fast fingers, though I did keep a small tablet and pen with me, in case I needed to jot something down when I was up and about.
Are you writing anything more about Mali?
I’d love to do more work in Mali and write about other aspects of the people and of life there. I’d also like to write about other great women who are too humble to write their own stories. I have some ideas. Another idea has more to do with stories from mothering and parenting. That would certain require the least amount of research (I’m living it!).
What suggestions might you have for someone like yourself who wants to write a Peace Corps book?
If I can do it, anyone can do it! I never set out to write a book based on my experience in the Peace Corps. When Monique died, I simply knew that I must write about her life, so that others could meet her, and potentially be as affected by her as I was. My advice to would-be writers:
First: Peace Corps offers a never-ending stream of interesting tales. You must separate grain from chaff and find the kernels worth telling, Who are people that changed you? What are the experiences that you can’t get out of your head?
Second: When you know this “essential story,” then learn craft. I took fiction-writing workshops because, ironically, I had a story, but I didn’t know how to tell it. Belonging to a writing group where every one of us is working on a manuscript has also been vital. I’ve learned so much through critiquing others’ work.
Third: Keep writing. Force yourself to write every day. All writers will tell you this and it is true. Be okay with putting crap on a page, because now at least it’s on the page, and not in your head. And besides, there WILL be something not smelly in there.
Fourth: Get something published in a local paper or a magazine, or a Peace Corps-related publication so that you’ll have something to show an agent when you need one. And don’t forget the Peace Corps Writers’ friendly agents on this website.
I give this advice because it’s the advice that I followed. I contacted an agent on this website, and she wanted to represent the book! I didn’t end up using her, but the point is that there are more resources than ever before to help writers at each stage of the journey to bookdom. Best of luck.
And the best of luck to you, Kris, and your lovely book.
Monique and the Mango Rains
Two Years with a Midwife in Mali
by Kris Holloway (Mali 198991)
Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam(Russian Far East 199698)
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.
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in the best-selling anthology, Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.
Kris Holloway (Mali 1989-91) will be reading and signing autographs of her wonderful book Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali at the following locations in the upcoming weeks.
October 24, 2006
Hale Black Cultural Center
Ohio State University with musician Mady Kouyate
October 26, 2006
Granville Public Library
November 5, 2006
New Rondo Branch Library
Dale and University Avenues
St. Paul, MN
November 9, 2006
Ann Arbor Public Library
Downtown, 5th and William
Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 10, 2006
Jackson and Maple Avenues
Westgate Mall, Jackson and Maple Avenues
Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 11, 2006
Crazy Wisdom Bookstore
Main Street and Huron Avenue
Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Ravaging Tide
Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 196264)
MIKE TIDWELL’S LATEST BOOK of dire predictions, The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities follows a previous book, Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast published in 2003, which predicted the disaster associated with Hurricane Katrina.
This book is about global warming and some of the consequences that follow from that phenomenon. In 11 short chapters he reviews information about the events that followed Hurricane Katrina, looks at societal suicide a la Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; provides us with statistics about global warming, sea level rise, hurricane strength, and the use of fossil fuels; tells of current technology, and lack of leadership; and advises about what can be done on an individual level to arrest and possibly reverse global warming.
When I first started teaching at the college level, way back in 1970, one of my terminal lectures in introductory biology was about ecology and our future as fellow travelers on this precious Earth of ours. These were some of my more successful classes halls of 200 students fell silent as I laid out our future in stark ecological terms. Even then some of us were concerned about rising sea levels and living on the East Coast (New Jersey) our concern was mostly focused on Florida. I devoted three years to trying to help students understand their impact on the environment trying to get them to understand their responsibility for the future we would all share.
Having spent many years teaching in Africa (Ethiopia, Zambia, Botswana, and Malawi), I have seen first-hand the use and misuse of the environment. The degradation of the land and vegetation in Ethiopia and Malawi as exploding populations struggled to feed themselves is burned upon my memory. There too, many of my teaching duties centered on ecology. What is our role in the system of nature? What are our impacts on the environment? What is our responsibility to the planet?
Mike Tidwell has written THE book, which I would have used as a resource for my teaching in New Jersey as well as in those classrooms in Africa. He wasn’t a student of mine but he has gone in the direction that I wanted my students to go. He’d get an A+. He provides a wealth of examples. Every one of his chapters grabs us and says: “Stop what you’re doing! Pay attention to what I’m saying! This is not theoretical this is real!” Because the chapters are short, the vast number of statistics and actual examples of ecological tragedies are somewhat tempered in their delivery. He does beat us over the head with the message. But he needs to! We are on the road to disaster; we need to stop and change course; we can make a difference to the future.
Mike writes in what I would call journalistic style. A simple message bolstered by many additional words, examples, events, statistics. While all of this is good ecological stuff he does not burden us with the scientific jargon we academics are so fond of. Ever the academic, I would have couched the language in that of ecology, trophic levels, carrying capacity, energy flow, etc. He spares us all of that. His Bibliography is mostly of writings since 2000. Timely and important for the message, but I guess I would have paid homage to some of the classical ecologists who set the stage for us long ago (well, at least as long ago as 1950!).
No admirer of the Bush Administration, Tidwell calls again and again for leadership and ecological priorities. He points out the many ways in which our direction to a viable future has been thwarted by the misguided, short-term and selfish vision of so many of our politicians, business leaders and petty bureaucrats. Unfortunately for President Bush, his legacy in ecological terms (and in the long run these are the ones that matter as these are the basic, immutable laws which we are all subject to and which no president, king, dictator, legislature or judicial body on the planet can change or nullify) will be of massive failure.
Have I made the point that this is a must-read book? It is well written and well documented. There are faults to be found but they are sins of omission in my view. The author gives us examples of changes we can make in our own lives (he cut his fossil fuel energy usage by 90%) to ensure a better future for our planet. We have the technology now. We don’t have to wait for hydrogen fuel cells. The energy merchants would like us to remain addicted to oil. That path will only lead to disaster.
Read this book. Get everyone you know to read this book. Then act.
Wayne Handlos now lives close to the Pacific Ocean in retirement in California. He grows geraniums and other plants adapted to the Mediterranean climate in which he lives. He composts and eats mostly pesticide-free, organic foods from lower tropic levels sold at his local farmers’ market.
River of No Reprieve
Descending Siberia’s Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny
by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 198890; PC/Staff Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 199293)
Reviewed by Mark Brazaitis (Guatemala 199193)
WHEN IT COMES TO TRAVEL WRITING, Jeffrey Tayler is the opposite of, say, Frances Mayes. Mayes has made a fortune writing about the good life in Italy. Tayler has made something less than a fortune writing about off-the-beaten-path locales such as the Congo and the Sahara, where to call life “good” might require redefining the word.
For his latest travel book, Tayler doesn’t ease up. He and a guide, the sometimes morose but ultimately heroic Vadim, steer a custom-made raft 2,400 miles down the Lena River, the world’s tenth longest. They begin near Lake Baikal in Siberia and finish, two months later, in Tiksi, on the Arctic Ocean. En route, they stop on the shores of a dozen or so towns and villages. While Vadim tends to their campsite for company, he prefers nature over humans Tayler befriends numerous colorful locals, whose stories add up to an informal portrait of Siberia today.
The funniest of his encounters is with a Yakut shaman, who concludes his blessing of Tayler with: “May you find peace. May you succeed in your journey. May you tell other Americans about the House of Archy, soon to appear on the Internet at www.domarchy.ru! The end!”
Other memorable encounters include a visit with German survivors of Stalin’s deportations during World War II and a to-bribe-or-not-to-bribe showdown with a man named Petrov from the Tiksi Department of the Ministry of the Protection of Nature.
What Tayler finds in all the towns and villages he visits is alcohol, which the population uses as a tonic to their hard lives. Tayler asks one woman what people in Tiksi do besides drink in bars. “Drink at home,” she replies. “There’re no cinemas and no theaters. When we go out here, we drink. And when we stay in, we drink.”
The title of the book suggests that the volatile Lena River represents the most dangerous encounter Tayler faces on his journey. There is truth to this. Particularly in the latter half of the journey, the Lena becomes riotous, throwing seven-foot waves at Tayler’s craft and soaking him and Vadim with chilling water. Had they capsized, they would have been hard pressed to survive. But for much of the book, Tayler and Vadim’s relationship to the river is relatively serene.
What isn’t always serene is the relationship between Tayler and Vadim, a veteran of the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. Vadim is opinionated to the point of dogma, and when Tayler challenges his assumptions, Vadim doesn’t yield:
“I need to have another person along with me that I can express my love of the taiga to,” Vadim said. “I can’t bear it alone. The north! Tell me, how could anyone want to live anywhere else?”
“It is beautiful, you’re right.”
“I’m asking you a question: tell me, why would anyone want to live anywhere else? I detest all those idiots who spend their salary on beach vacations so they can bronze their asses on the Mediterranean.”
“Well, I wouldn’t call them idiots. Different people ”
“They are idiots….”
Their relationship never reaches a tipping point, however. And, indeed, Vadim ultimately seems like a guy anyone would like to have around in a tough situation. And he cooks!
The success of nonfiction writing depends on the drama of real life. Would the best-seller lists have seen the likes of Jon Krakhauer’s Into Thin Air if the expedition he was on to the top of Mount Everest had gone off without a hitch? And what would Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil have been without a murder? Midnight in the Garden of Everyday Life?
If on Tayler’s trip down the Lena River, Vadim had engaged him in a duel or the two men had been forced by bad weather to camp in the wilderness for months, living off bear meat and icicles, Tayler might have had a better chance to see his book on the best-seller list.
As it is, he’ll have to be satisfied knowing he’s written an engaging, often gripping, portrait of a fascinating (and little understood) part of the world.
Mark Brazaitis is the author of The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, winner of the 1998 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and Steal My Heart, a novel published in 2000 by Van Neste Books. His most recent collection of stories is An American Affair, winner of the 2004 George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. Brazaitis is an asssociate professor of English at West Virginia University.
Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile
by John C. Schafer (Ethiopia 196365)
Southeast Asia Publications
Reviewed by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 198284)
Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile is the first book-length study in English of a modern Vietnamese writer. Võ Phiê'n was one of the most respected and popular writers in the Vietnamese language during the last half of the 20th century and author John C. Schafer provides a detailed chronology of Võ Phiê'n’s life and career, analyzing the relationship between Võ Phiê'n’s writing and the historical, cultural and intellectual contexts of which they were born.
A brief outline of Võ Phiê'n’s life and writing may help Peace Corps Writers readers understand better the man about whom John Schafer writes so eloquently. Võ Phiê'n was born in 1925 in a small village in Binh Dinh Province, central Vietnam. When he was thirteen, he moved first to the provincial capital and then to Hue to study. He began writing for publication in 1950 and in 1959 requested a transfer to Saigon to cultivate this calling. During the Vietnam War (known as the “American War” in Vietnam), Võ Phiê'n began to write in opposition to the Communist party. In 1975 he emigrated as an exile to the United States with his wife and daughter.
As John Schafer says, Võ Phiê'n “witnessed European colonialism in Vietnam and the revolution to end it, the spread of Communism and the United States’ efforts to suppress it, the disruption of Vietnamese village life, and the emigration of Vietnamese to escape political turmoil and war.” These grand movements at national and personal levels are major themes in Võ Phiê'n’s writing. Schafer also examines the influence of literary trends in the ’50s and ’60s on Võ Phiê'n’s writing, including his departure from socialist realism.
Schafer has constructed the main body of Võ Phiê'n in eight chapters preceded by an introduction. He moves from details of Võ Phiê'n’s early life in rural Vietnam, through a close examination of his writing technique and his success as a popular novelist, critic and short story writer, to the twilight of Võ Phiê'n’s career as an exile in the United States. Also included in Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile are a list of works by Võ Phiê'n, a list of collections containing reprints of his works, and a list of English translations of his works. Ten illustrations add interest for the reader.
I found Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile to be informative and engaging. Though the book’s subject necessitated a scholarly not light type of writing, I enjoyed it for two reasons. First, Schafer’s organization and process are transparent. His chapters are broken into boldfaced subtopics which guide the reader through his analysis. Furthermore, he illustrates his points with lively excerpts from Võ Phiê'n’s writing. A tightly-written scene in “Again, a Letter from Home” gives a glimpse of earthy Vietnamese village life along with illicit love. A short selection from Võ Phiê'n’s delightful essay “Bubbles in Tea” provides a clear illustration of a style of Vietnamese essay writing called tuy but and gives insight into Võ Phiê'n’s subtle wit and values. Also featured in these excerpts are Võ Phiê'n’s trademark: colorful characters, people with unattractive idiosyncrasies and odd names such as “Sister Four Lime Stick” and “Brother Four No More.”
The second reason I appreciated Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile is that I have recently finished a 10-month stint as a Fulbright scholar in Vietnam and want very much to keep my ties to the country. This book is a great supplement to what I have learned about Vietnam’s modern history and culture. I highly recommend Võ Phiê'n and the Sadness of Exile to students and scholars of modern Vietnamese literature, Asian-American studies, and the history of the Vietnam War. I also recommend it to readers like me who have a basic knowledge of Vietnam’s modern history but want for more, and those who have a keen interest in how writers are affected by their cultures. With an even broader audience in mind, author Schafer writes that Võ Phiê'n is a chronicler of loss and broken dreams. He suggests that, especially since the events of 9/11, Americans can draw strength from Võ Phiê'n’s characters, who know how to live with panic, destruction and vulnerability.
John C. Schafer is a fine writer. He is Professor Emeritus of English at Humboldt State University, and his articles about Vietnamese literature have appeared in several journals, including Crossroads, the Journal of Asian Studies and the Vietnam Forum. He has taught English in Vietnam with International Voluntary Services and the Fulbright program.
Darcy Meijer served with the Peace Corps as an EFL instructor in Gabon, and has been teaching ESL ever since. She and her family just returned from Ho Chi Minh City, where she lectured in applied linguistics under a Fulbright Scholar’s grant.
A Writer Writes
The Lion in the Garden of the Guenet Hotel
by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
IN THE FALL of 1962 in the final days of my group’s in-country Peace Corps training in Ethiopia, we had a celebratory dinner at the Guenet Hotel in the Populari section of the capital, Addis Ababa.
The Guenet Hotel, even in 1962, was one of the older hotels in Addis Ababa. It wasn’t in the center of town, but south of Smuts Street and down the hill from Mexico Square, several miles from where we were housed in the dormitories of Haile Selassie I University. While out of the way, this small, two story rambling hotel, nevertheless, had a two-lane, American-style bowling alley, tennis courts, and a most surprising of all, a real lion in its lush, tropical garden.
Surprising, because at that time in the Empire no Ethiopian commoner was allowed to keep a lion, the symbol of His Imperial Majesty’s dynasty. The Emperor, Haile Selassie, whose full title was Lion of the Tribe of Judah, Elect of God, Emperor of Ethiopia, had a private collection of animals, including the Imperial lions, antelopes, monkeys, and cheetahs at Jubilee Palace, his royal residence.
There was also a small government lion park near the campus of the University. This park had about twenty full-grown lions in a large circular cage and sometimes late at night we would hear them roaring in the distance.
On a rare occasion a wild lion would wander down from nearby Mt. Entoto looking for food and be spotted by townspeople and that would create headlines and eye-witness accounts in the next day’s morning paper.
So, seeing a lion up close and personal in the heart of Africa was something special for a group of young Americans new to Africa.
We 275 Peace Corps Volunteer teachers, the first to serve in Ethiopia, arrived in Addis Ababa in September at the end of the African Highland long rains. In our final days of training, before being dispatched to our teaching assignments throughout the Empire, we went off one evening to a farewell dinner at the Guenet Hotel. It was the first time any of us had been to the Populari section of the city or seen the lovely gardens of this hotel or seen their caged lion.
Well, actually it was a caged lion and a large German shepherd dog.
I recall that when I first saw the lion the German shepherd was stretched out comfortably between its paws, and both the dog and the lion were calmly gazing out through the bars of the small cage at the lot of us. The dog was able to come and go through the narrow bars but we were told by the hotel staff that he always spent the night sleeping inside the cage, curled up with the lion.
AS IT TURNED OUT, I was assigned to teach at the Commercial Secondary School in Addis Ababa and in the early fall of that year was living in the Populari section near the Guenet Hotel.
The Peace Corps had issued bicycles to whomever needed them to get to school and I had gotten into the routine of riding back and forth to classes, and also of stopping off at the Guenet for a coke or coffee after school and to correct my students’ homework while sitting in the gardens of the hotel surrounded by thick bougainvillaea bushes, wild roses and carnations, and gnarled eucalyptus draped with streamer-like leaves. It was here that I came to know the lion and the German shepherd, who often slipped out through the bars of their cage to beg food from me while his partner stood at attention inside the cage silently watching the transaction. They were quite an odd but wonderful couple.
During one of my mid-day rides home for lunch I was tearing down a steep hill, and an American pulled his car up along side me and singled me to stop. He turned out to be a TWA pilot employed by Ethiopian Airlines who had been in-country for several years, and he invited me, and several others Volunteers, to a “home cooked” dinner that weekend. It was his way of welcoming the new Peace Corps to the Empire.
DURING THE DINNER I mentioned the lion and dog in the garden of the Guenet and the pilot asked me if I knew the story of how the they had gotten to the hotel.
It seems that the first American TWA director in Ethiopia had raised the lion from a small cub in his home’s compound along with the family’s dog. The lion was such a household pet that everyone who visited the house treated it as such.
But there was the time the CEO of TWA worldwide came to Ethiopia to meet the Emperor and visit his overseas operation. Trans World Air Lines had managed Ethiopian Airlines since 1946 and that relationship was one of the great early success stories of private development in Africa. In fact, by the time we reached the country in ’62 over a third of the trained pilots were Ethiopians.
The CEO arrived at dawn in Addis Ababa on an overnight flight from Europe and immediately took a morning nap at the managing director’s home.
Later that afternoon, rested and revived, the CEO was sitting with a half dozen pilots who had stopped by for a drink and to meet their boss. The group was sitting in the livingroom and the the French doors were open to the garden so that they could watch the African sunset and enjoy the first cool breeze of evening.
Sometime towards dusk, the full grown lion, who had been asleep in the sunny terrace beyond the French doors, woke up and ambled passed the open door, gazed in at the assembled group, and then ambled off.
No one commented about the lion, as all the pilots knew about the animal. However, the visiting CEO had no idea that the enormous maned lion was a household pet and sat petrified at the sight of this legendary African beast on the loose and just yards from him.
He didn’t say anything until the next morning when he confessed to his host what he thought he had seen, thinking it must have been a frightening fantasy caused by his fear of being in Africa. The host explained the presence of the lion to him and the CEO’s mind was put somewhat at ease.
Some time later, the American manager’s tour in Ethiopia was scheduled to come to an end and the family decided to give the lion to the nearby hotel as the tame animal could not be returned to the wild. The German shepherd, however, would go back to America with them.
In the weeks before their departure, the lion was successfully transferred, but when the family realized the German shepherd was so lonely and unhappy with the loss of his companion they decided to leave the dog as well, giving both animals to the Guenet where they could live peacefully in the small cage in the hotel gardens.
And it was there that I found them when I arrived in Addis Ababa.
I LEFT ETHIOPIA in the mid-sixties and did not return again until the early ’70s. While I had a short list of old friends in Addis I wanted to see, high on that list also were the lion and the German shepherd in the gardens of the Guenet.
A day or so after arriving, I took a taxi to the hotel, which had thankfully not changed much in the years I had been away, and I walked into the garden to find the caged lion and the German shepherd.
The cage was where I remembered it. However, the door was wide open and the lion was gone. Sitting alone in the middle of the empty concrete floor was the old German shepherd.
I walked inside to the front desk of the hotel and asked about the lion and was told the animal had died only months before. It had been such a news event that a story was published about his death in the Ethiopian Herald, the English language newspaper in the country. The staff found a copy of the article that detailed the demise of the lion and I sat down in the lobby of the old hotel and read the account.
Several months earlier when the lion was suffering from an infected tooth, doctors from the Pasteur Institute of Ethiopia decided to drug the animal so the tooth could be extracted. Unfortunately the dart of drugs was too much for the old animal and the lion died before it could be saved.
The hotel had not yet decided what to do about the lion cage for the dog still lived there, spending his days waiting for his lifelong companion to return.
I gave the article back to the receptionist, thanked him for the information, and then I went out into the garden and walked through the open gate and inside the cage. I knelt down beside the German shepherd and petted the old dog one last time, then I left Addis Ababa and Africa.
I have never been back.
John Coyne is the founding editor of Peace Corps Writers and the author of the recently published novel, The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan.
A Writer Writes
“I Love You” Is Not the Same in Every Language
by Reilly Ridgell (Micronesia 197173)
THE TRUK ISLANDER, a 95-foot long copra and supply ship, pulled slowly away from the Weno dock to begin its journey to a group of atolls 180 miles west of the Chuuk Lagoon. There, at last, I would begin my Peace Corps assignment. I would start teaching school, something I’d never done before. I would live the whole time without electricity or plumbing, something I’d never done before. I would go shirtless and wear the brief one-piece loincloth traditional to the Central Carolines, something I’d never done before. And I promised myself I would whatever it took definitely learn to speak the language. Learning to speak a foreign language was also something I’d never done before despite four years of French classes in high school and college.
As the dock receded I waved to the three friends who had come to see me off, Volunteers waiting for another ship to take them to their islands. I had been on Weno, at that time called Moen, a vestige of some 19th century explorer’s mistake, for about two weeks. Weno had all the charm of a ramshackle but lively frontier town. Pick-up taxis with people piled in the back wove their way through pot-holed roads past quaint and musty stores in corrugated tin buildings with some inventory items that probably hadn’t been handled, or dusted, since first put on the shelves years ago. It had been an interesting couple of weeks. Weno at least had power and some plumbing. There were restaurants and stores with cold drinks, a few make-shift movie theaters, and several tacky bars that were best avoided. Most of the Peace Corps and ex-Peace Corps who had stayed in country, along with other Americans who found themselves in what was then called Truk, another mistake in transliteration, preferred places like the tin-covered-by-thatch roofed Maramar Hotel. It had a breezy, comfortable, screened-in restaurant where one could have a reasonably decent breakfast or lunch and look past the coconut trees to the broad Chuuk Lagoon, pretending the rusting hulk of a ship in the view was a war relic when it actually was some fishing boat run aground in a storm in the ’50s or ’60s. “Is that Somerset Maugham at the next table?”
Then there was the language. Chuukese was everywhere because well of course that was their language and in the 1970s, that’s just about all anybody spoke. We had spent ten weeks on the Big Island of Hawaii in training. The language portion for the training had been good. Four hours every morning of intense immersion, no English allowed. But in the end, we arrived in Chuuk with only a starting point. Actually learning to speak and understand would be up to each Volunteer. It was hard to get used to the sound of Lagoon Chuukese. Choppy and often spoken in a quasi-falsetto, it was hard for us to make sense of it. Then there was that thing with the Ns and Ls. The people of Chuuk could not pronounce the L-sound. It wasn’t used in their dialect, and when speaking English their Ls sounded like Ns. Outer islanders however, who spoke different dialects, had no trouble saying Ls.
THE TRUK ISLANDER headed for the Northeast Pass out of the huge Chuuk Lagoon, a 40-mile wide expanse with several mountain-tops poking up out of the sea all surrounded and enclosed by a single barrier reef. Physically, it was beautiful. In the bright tropical sun the greens of the islands and blues of the water were overpowering. As we slid along the Weno shore with the island of Fefen dropping off to port, the engines thumped reassuringly somewhere in the bowels of the ship and the smell of diesel mixed with the fresh salt air. Yes, I was off to my great adventure.
It took about an hour to reach the pass. We slipped out between the two flat reef islands on either side and headed into open ocean. The swells weren’t too bad, but it was easy to tell we were no longer in a lagoon. By the tim, dusk was approaching and I watched the mountain tops of the lagoon islands turn grey and shrink lower on the horizon.
The passengers consisted of only one Polowat family returning home to the island where I would be stationed, and a strange Lagoon Chuukese girl going out to one of the other islands on the ship’s itinerary.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was riding deck passage. I had purchased a pandanus sleeping mat, but there was scant room on the ship’s fan tail for it. Besides, the Polowat family was there and had practically made a tent from a sheet to help keep out the wind. I don’t think I even thought much about where or how I would sleep. I had been too busy enjoying the experience and watching the scenery.
It was then that I was approached by the Lagoon girl. She was in her early 20s, moderately pretty, and had a really nice smile. She tried to converse with me, and we managed a little. But her English was about as good as my Chuukese, so communication was difficult. Finally, she got around to asking me where I was going to sleep. I replied that I didn’t know. She then said something to me in Chuukese that I did, in fact, understand, except that it made no sense. She said “Ua tonguk.” Which means, in English, “I love you.” I was really caught off guard. I just stared at her with a befuddled expression on my face. So she repeated it, in English this time: “I nove you.”
OK, so I knew the “nove” was actually “love” and I had heard her right the first time in Chuukese. Now I was definitely confused. Here was a girl I’d only known for a couple of hours, and only talked to for about 20 minutes or so, and she was already in love with me. To make matters more puzzling, romance in Chuuk was supposed to be very difficult and always clandestine and discreet. Was I actually going to “get lucky?” Right there on the ship with a girl I’d just met?
Then she told me that she had a cabin bunk, but that I could use it. Now my thoughts were really taking off. I decided not to say anything, or really do anything, but just wait to see how things played out. I couldn’t really believe that anything would happen. But why did she tell me she loved me?
She took me to a small cabin and pointed to the bottom bunk. She insisted that I sleep there and put my pandanus sleeping mat on the floor for her. There was a Chuukese man using the top bunk. With three in the cabin it was not very conducive for amorous activity, but I still made a couple of half-hearted efforts to get her to “share” the bunk with me. She demurred. Then, feeling less than gallant for having the bunk while she had the floor, I tried to get her to switch places with me but she absolutely refused. I was very confused by then, not really understanding much of anything that was going on, but eventually I fell asleep. The night passed without incident. When I awoke it occurred to me that maybe she wanted me there so she wouldn’t be alone with the other guy.
We reached Polowat in the morning. It lay flat on the sea like a green pancake, with the spire of the old Japanese lighthouse rising up above the tree line. The Truk Islander was small enough to come through the one pass into the tight Polowat lagoon, anchoring just a hundred feet or so off the beach. I said goodbye to the girl and went ashore, anxious to meet my new family and settle in to my new home. The ship left the next day, taking the mysterious Lagoon Chuukese girl with it.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS I was bombarded with new sights, sounds, and especially people. The women wore only a wrap-around lava lava and went topless, including my students in school. The men wore a loincloth and walked with the pride of Polowat, the island of sailing canoes and traditional navigators. The thatched canoe-houses were large, cool, and impressive, though no more so than the sea-going 27-foot sailing canoes they housed.
There was already another Peace Corps Volunteer on Polowat. He had spent a year on Udot in the Chuuk Lagoon and had requested a transfer. We were to become fast friends, but his presence was both helpful and hindering. He already was able to speak the language. I was stumbling along, confusing the hell out of people. So the people would ask him to explain what I was trying to say instead of teaching me how to say it correctly.
One day shortly after I had arrived, he and I were in one of the canoe-houses talking with some men. Barefoot, I accidentally stepped on a sharp stem of a coconut leaf from a frond that was on the floor. I let out a slight yelp and pulled my foot back, a drop of blood appearing at the site of the wound. Witnessing my misfortune, one of the men said something in the Polowat dialect that I didn’t catch. I looked at him for a moment, then he repeated it in Lagoon Chuukese. “Ua tonguk.” There it was again. I just stood there, a puzzled expression on my face, and he said it, haltingly, in English: “I love you.” Now I was really confused. I knew there was no homosexual implication at all in the situation, but there was something I just wasn’t getting.
By this time, my fellow Volunteer had a big grin on his face. “He just means he feels sorry for you. It’s what they say when something bad happens to someone or if someone has an accident or a bad day or doesn’t get what they want or misses out on something or whatever. They say “I love you” to express sympathy, it doesn’t mean they’re coming on to you.”
The light of sudden understanding nearly blinded me. Now everything made sense with the girl on the ship. And indeed, in the weeks and months to come, I’d hear the phrase used over and over again in situations where Americans would never think of saying “I love you.” Someone would bump their head, or get really sick, or not catch very many fish, and out would come the “I love you.” After a while, I got used to it.
MY EXPERIENCE WITH the love phrase made me even more determined to learn the language. But it wasn’t easy. For one thing, we had been taught Lagoon Chuukese, but the dialect on Polowat was markedly different. First were the phoneme shifts. An s in Lagoon was pronounced as an H on Polowat. Likewise a CH in Lagoon became an unrolled R. And it was very important, when speaking the Polowat dialect, to make sure and use the correct R, for if you rolled the R in a certain word when it was supposed to be unrolled, you could be talking about a rather private part of the female anatomy. The shift from S to H and CH to unrolled R gave the Polowat dialect a completely different sound from Lagoon Chuukese. The Polowat dialect, variations of which were spoken on about nine islands west and northwest of the Chuuk Lagoon, sounded like a deep-throated, flowing rumble. In fact, few Lagoon Chuukese could really understand it.
Then there were the vocabulary differences. It seemed that most of the easy words, the words we had learned in Peace Corps training for such things as “big” and “many,” were all different on Polowat. In Lagoon, “big” was wattei. But on Polowat, it was likap. Likewise “many” in Lagoon was chamong while on Polowat it was tolap. And so on, and so on.
The frustrating thing about learning a language is that it starts so slowly at first. One month on the island and I still felt lost. Perseverance is the key. It is also vitally important to dive in headfirst and not be afraid to make mistakes. Even if you roll the R in the wrong word in mixed company. Two months on the island and I realized I knew three times more than I did at one month, and by three months I actually began to feel that I could do this. With a language, the learning curve accelerates rapidly. The more you learn, the more you can learn. By the end of that school year, with a ship coming to take me back to Weno for the summer, I felt comfortable. I could communicate quite well, could understand easily when questions or comments were addressed to me, and could even pick up the meaning of most overheard conversations.
By the end of my two years, I was fluent in the Polowat dialect. I felt proud of that. I was finally bi-lingual. My accent, especially, was pretty good and I was even occasionally able to fool some islanders who heard me talk from behind them. When they turned around to see who it was, they were quite surprised to see me. Of course, I hadn’t learned any major language like the French I had studied or the ubiquitous Spanish or even Russian or Chinese. No, I had learned a dialect that, in the early 1970s, was spoken on nine tiny islands by a total of 3,000 people or less. Not something that would be terribly useful in the future unless I stayed in the area. I had also managed a working knowledge of Lagoon Chuukese, a language spoken at that time by about 50,000 people.
For all Peace Corps Volunteers, I think learning the language is vital. Language, to a large degree, determines how people think. To really appreciate the culture and the whole experience of living in a different society, learning the language is a must. But not all PCVs do. In Chuuk, most outer island PCVs became relatively fluent. Volunteers assigned to the Lagoon islands other than the main island of Weno also did pretty well if they made the effort. But those assigned to Weno, where much more English was spoken, sometimes never picked it up. A few years ago I showed slides to a group of Micronesian PCVs who had come to Guam for a mid-term conference. Less than half of them said they were learning the language.
Well, OK. Everybody has different priorities I guess. But to those PCVs who spend at least two years in a place and don’t bother to learn the language, I just have this to say: I love you.
Reilly Ridgell taught for 28 years in Chuuk and Guam and since 2001 has been Dean of the School of Trades and Professional Services at Guam Community College. The fourth edition of his textbook, Pacific Nations and Territories, and the second edition of its elementary level version, Pacific Neighbors, has recently been released by Bess Press of Honolulu. His anthology of Peace Corps stories, Bending to the Trade Winds is available on Amazon.com.
Opportunity for Writers
The National Peace Corps Association’s WorldView magazine is looking for nonfiction submissions from returned or currently serving Peace Corps Volunteers for consideration for publication in the magazine’s print or online versions (WorldViewmagazine.com).
Stories should center around working and living in a developing country, with a focus on first person reminiscences or reporting of a host country community or project. Stories should be approximately 10002000 words. To submit or for questions, please email Bonnie Robinson (Ukraine 200205), WorldView magazine James Collins Fellow, at firstname.lastname@example.org