Peace Corps Writers September 2007
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Peace Corps Writers: Home page September 2007
THIS ISSUE is short in length but long in quality.
Writers write wonderfully
We have two wonderful pieces for our column A Writer Writes.
Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567) in her piece “Second Time Around” writes about going to China with her husband Chuck whom she met in her Peace Corps years. Married after her tour, Kathy went with Chuck back to Africa when he was an Associate Peace Corps Director. Besides writing award-winning collections since those early Peace Corps days, she has raised a family and taught at all levels, from elementary school to college. Read about her latest adventures of teaching with Chuck in China.
New to the site is a Writer Writes not by a PCV or RPCV but by a Peace Corps family member. In “What I Learned by Visiting Our Daughter’s Peace Corps Site: And Other Tales of Motherhood,” Ruthmarie Mitsch writes about finally coming to terms with her daughter in Africa. Ruthmarie is the managing editor of a scholarly journal on oral and written literatures of Africa and teaches African literature at The Ohio State University. We are very pleased to publish her piece and have a different perspective on what it means to be “in” the Peace Corps.
The backstory on P.F. Kluge
In Literary Type I mention that National Geographic Traveler has an article by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196768) about his Peace Corps country. Kluge has written six novels, and two of them are set in the Pacific isles. As a writer, you might say, he “owns” the Federated States of Micronesia.
How Fred got to Micronesia in the first place is an interesting tale. His roommate when Fred was getting his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago back in the mid-sixties was a recently returned PCV, Marty Benjamin (Ethiopia 196264.) Marty suggested the Peace Corps to Kluge. At the time, the agency was selling Micronesia as a new Peace Corps country with poster images of a small island and a single palm tree and the tag line: Peace Corps Goes to Paradise. [I want you to know that PCVs overseas at the time were really pissed off about that recruitment campaign.]
However, Kluge took the bait and went to “paradise.” As part of his Volunteer duties he helped pen the preamble to the constitution of the new Federated States of Micronesia; and Fred worked closely with the man who turned out to become the second president of Micronesia. Kluge’s book about all that is entitled, The Edge of Paradise: America in Micronesia published in 1991 and winner of our Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award in 1992.
Back home, Kluge became a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and an article by him about an attempted bank robbery in New York was turned into the movie, Dog Day Afternoon. Another novel, Eddie and The Cruisers, written in 1980, was also made into a movie of the same name.
Today, Fred writes full time and teaches creative writing one semester a year at Kenyon College. You can read his account of Kenyon College in Alma Mater: A College Homecoming, published by Addison-Wesley in ’93.
Many thanks to all you from Marian Haley Beil and myself for all your support for our efforts on behalf of the wonderful writers from the Peace Corps, those published and unpublished, and the many, many other of us who are just about to write “the Great Peace Corps Book!”
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
From the Mundane to the Sublime
by Gene Bellm (Colombia 196668)
Letters from Nuremberg
My Father's Narrative of a Quest for Justice
by Christopher Dodd (Dominican Republic 196567) with Lary Bloom
What It Means to Serve
From Airborne Ranger to Peace Corps Volunteer
by Robert Donayre (Moldova 200305)
Americans Do Their Business Abroad
Stories by People Who Should Have Known Better, But Are Glad They Didn’t
Edited by Jake Fawson (Gabon 200002) and Steve McNutt (Gabon 200002)
- Danial Adkison (Gabon 199700)
- Laurence Budd (Philippines 197980)
- Joshua Berman (Nicaragua 199802)
- Heather Carroll (Russia 0001)
- J. K. Dane (Central African Republic 200305)
- John Evans (Bangladesh 199901)
- Jake Fawson (Gabon 200002)
- Debby Hangbe (Benin 200204
- Betsy L. Howell (Argentina 199294)
- Noah Jackson (Philippines 199901)
- Roderick Jones (Nicaragua 199296)
- John Krauskopf (Iran 196567)
- Jerry Loudenback (Afghanistan 197274)
- Steve McNutt (Gabon 2000-02)
- Amanda Noble (Philippines 197678)
- Richard Sitler (Jamaica 200002)
- William Thomas (Fiji 7072)
- Jett Thomason (Uzbekistan 200204)
- Tom Weller (Chad 199395)
(Buy at Lulu)
You Can Lead a Politician to Water,
But You Can't Make Him Think
Ten Commandments for Texas Politics
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 196769)
Simon & Schuster
Time It Was
American Stories from the Sixties
Edited by Karen Manners Smith and Tim Koster
Contributor: John Manners (Kenya 196872)
A-Z of Grenada Heritage
John Angus Martin (Sierra Leone 198689)
Seven Years to Seven Figures
The Fast-Track Plan to Becoming a Millionaire
by Michael Masterson (Chad)
Life’s A Campaign
What Politics Has Taught Me About Friendship, Rivalry, Reputation, and Success
by Chris Matthews (Swaziland 196870)
Breakfast with Buddha
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
The Feedsack Dress
by Carolyn Mulford (Ethiopia 196264)
(Young adult novel)
Cave Hollow Press
by Anne Panning (Philippines 19881990)
University of Georgia Press
Warrior Kings of Sweden
The Rise of an Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
by Gary Dean Peterson (Colombia 196466)
McFarland & Company, Inc.
The Elephanta Suite
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
The Mosquitoes of New Mexico
by Theodore A. Wolff (Malaysia 196567)
and Lewis T. Nielsen
University of New Mexico Press
Literary Type September 2007
National Geographic Traveler (September 2007) has two articles by P.F. Kluge (Micronesia 196768). One is on the beers of Europe, “Bavaria on Tap” and the other is entitled, “America’s Best Kept Secret” about Micronesia.
Having gone to “paradise” in the mid-sixties as a PCV, Kluge has placed two of his six novels on Pacific isles, and in 1975 he helped pen the preamble of the constitution of the Federated States of Micronesia.
Long time reviewer and writer for our website, Paula M. Hirschoff (Kenya 196870), published an op-ed in the Washington Post on September 3, 2007, entitled, “From a Mix of Skills, A Fine Porridge.” Paula and her husband Chuck Ludlam are doing second tours in the Peace Corps in Senegal. Paula was sent to Senegal as a “small-business consultant” though as she writes, “What I knew about entrepreneurship could have fit into the cap of my ballpoint pen.” Before this tour, Paula was a Washington based anthropologist and writer. In Kenya, in the Sixties, she was a teacher and principal.
“Allah Brings the Rains, But No One Knows When” by Christopher Huh (Niger 1994-97) won 2nd Place in the Creative Nonfiction category of Ghost Road Press 2007 Contest. Ghost Road Press is a Colorado based publisher.
Talking with . . .
Interviewed by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
JOSH SWILLER (Zambia 199496) HAS WRITTEN a wonderful new book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, published by Henry Holt. Writer Laurence Bergreen says in a blurb for the book that “Africa transformed him, and this book will transform readers.”
We know that it is tough enough to be a PCV, but how about being a deaf PCV? Josh Swiller went to Zambia, to a rural village, and spent two years digging wells and working with deaf children, and trying to understand himself and Africa, and discovering that his “deafness” actually helped him survive.
Josh came to us in a roundabout way. While working as a housepainter in New York City, he met up with [I think on the sidewalk] Jason Boog (Guatemala 2000-02) who is editor of the website The Publishing Spot, and they started talking and comparing histories and the Peace Corps came up, writing came up, and Josh’s new book, and Jason said to him, “do you know about www.PeaceCorpsWriters.org?” So Josh emailed me. I had heard about Josh from the publicity people at Henry Holt as they are publishers of such Peace Corps writers as Maureen Orth (Colombia 196567), Sarah Erdman (Cote D’Ivoire 19982000) and Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968), and are quick to let us know about new RPCV writers that they are publishing. With all of that as background, here’s what Josh has to say about his new book.
Where are you from, Josh?
I was born in Philly, grew up in New York City and then moved to the Westchester suburbs. I went to college at Yale.
What was your Peace Corps assignment?
I was part of the first group to serve in Zambia, back in 1994. From an initial group of twelve, eight finished. Our assignment was water sanitation specifically we were supposed to dig wells. But we were assigned to such remote villages that had no experience with community development and no infrastructure to get necessary materials, that none of us Volunteers actually finished a well.
We had been sent way out to the boonies because President Chiluba of Zambia had requested that the initial Peace Corps group go to his home province. I think he had a mistaken idea of what Peace Corps was and what we could accomplish. But to be fair, so did we.
Explain what the Peace Corps has in the way of assignments for deaf PCVs. I know there is the Kenya project. I understand you were the first in your host country?
I don’t know much about the deaf PCV project, to be honest. I went to Zambia as a regular PCV, getting by with lip-reading and what little I got from my hearing aids. I did end up working a lot with a deaf children in the city of Kabwe but for much of my time as a Volunteer I was far from any deaf community.
In fact, much of the first half of this book is about learning about deafness through the experience of being in a place, a wild bush town, where deafness was as irrelevant as it could possibly be. I had always wondered while growing up on the margins of the hearing world, unable to follow all but the most basic conversations, what it would be like to find such a place. I imagined it would be something like happiness. But the bush had other ideas.
What do you mean but the bush had other ideas?
Well, first, I absolutely did find what I’d been seeking that place past deafness. In the village, by nature and out of respect, people spoke slowly and clearly and repeated themselves without complaint or embarrassment. Nor did anyone automatically assume that I understood them because of the language gap they took their time to make sure I got everything they said. And my hearing aids, the weird things hanging from my ears, were insignificant to the villagers next to the color of my skin.
So the village was this place past I’d sought my whole life. And then almost immediately I learned how irrelevant that was, how irrelevant my self-absorbed searching was.
First, the rainy season rolled in, bringing malaria, meningitis and cholera, and children started dropping like flies. Then, moments of explosive and brutal violence blasted away all thoughts of personal striving and quests. And on any ordinary day, a simple daily event like weighing babies on the porch of the clinic could make God seem, in the words of Denis Johnson, like “a senseless maniac.”
What was important in the face of all that? To me, aside from trying to bring some attention to worlds that most people don’t ordinarily get to see deafness and Africa The Unheard is largely about answering that question.
Where do you live now and what do you do for a living?
I live in Cold Spring, NY, about 90 minutes north of New York City. I’ve been a social worker for a couple years. I started in 2004, a year after I completely lost the rest of my hearing I gave up speech and communicated in sign language and worked at a school for the deaf in Queens, counseling students and coaching the basketball team. After having surgery for a cochlear implant in 2005 and then acclimating to it, for the last year I’ve worked as a hospice social worker in Brooklyn. It is immensely rewarding, wonderful work.
Do you see yourself as a writer or was this just the one story that you had to tell?
Well, I plan for this book to be a springboard to other ones. I’ve been living an off-the-margins life for years, bouncing around the globe, living at a Zen center, spending a year as a forest ranger, working as a carpenter in rural Georgia and in Manhattan, plastering the apartments of David Bowie, Edie Falco and the like. I spent three years making and selling sheepskin slippers up and down the East Coast. I spent two years living completely in the deaf community, unable to hear at all. Through it all I never stopped writing. And now that I have my foot in the door, I plan on getting more of it out.
First up is a non-fiction book about hospice. I’m really excited about it. I’m deeply interested, as a writer and a human being, in exploring spiritual insight and wisdom and our attitudes towards life and death. I hope I can do the subject justice.
The descriptions of your childhood intertwine moments of hilarity when you’re interacting with your siblings with sober reflections on how you felt increasingly isolated from the world. Do you think your family will be surprised by what they read here? Do you think your struggles reflect a common experience for young children who are deaf?
Well, my family won’t be surprised at my descriptions of sibling humor. To this day, my three brothers are the funniest people I know. And, if anything, they’d say I pulled my punches in my descriptions of childhood. Our house growing up was full of knock-down drag-out brawls and while I was prone to disappearing for long periods in quiet introspection and long books, I learned to really enjoy the scrums as well. They were a release and also, oddly enough, a connection, and they taught me to be fearless but not, unfortunately, how to pick my battles.
I wouldn’t say this full-contact coping style is common in deaf children, but I think that the emotional injury behind it is. Being a mainstreamed deaf child is a particular animal you are constantly fighting your disability to navigate situations that are so effortless to everyone else, and so you begin to hate the disability and by extension, you begin to hate yourself. I’ve seen this internal struggle a lot with the deaf children I’ve counseled over the years, and it often takes them years to get past it. The gifts that disability bears are subtle and take time to mature.
After Yale, you went into the Peace Corps. Why?
Immediately after finishing college I wanted to learn about the deaf community so I spent four months learning sign language at Gallaudet, the National University for the Deaf. Then I went to work in the redwoods of Northern California as a forest ranger for a year. That was a tough, intense job we often set up camp in the middle of the woods and worked from dawn to dusk rehabilitating streams and trails, planting trees, and fighting fires. Amazing forests, amazing people, and you had the satisfaction of working until you had nothing left, but still I felt lost. I still struggled so much with daily communication. My impulse was to find something even more intense than rangering and I don’t think my family was surprised when I told them I had applied to Peace Corps. It pretty much fit the path I was on.
Were questions raised by the Peace Corps about your deafness in the application process?
A few. But I could usually understand speech quite well in one-on-one situations like interviews, so I imagine it didn't seem like a big deal.
Once in Zambia, what were some of the signs that this might be the place past deafness that you had been searching for? Were any of the other Volunteers on similar quests?
To be honest, from the very first day of training I felt I was on to something. We were in a fairly large, well-developed city, but not a single home had a phone in it. That made me happy phones are obviously very difficult for the deaf. And more than that, as I said, the way Zambians spoke was so easy to understand slowly, clearly, without talking over each other and they looked you directly in the eye. That’s a lot less common here in the States than it should be. When we finished training and got out to our placements, I was able to quickly form satisfying connections with the people from my village.
One thing I find interesting is that of the eight Volunteers in Zambia One who made it through two years, each one seemed to have an experience that seemed like a direct reflection of their personality. The mellow guy found Zambia very mellow. The go-getter found it a happening place. The ladies’ man found it full of beautiful and willing ladies. I wonder what that says about me . . .
Tell us about being deaf in Mununga. How did you relate to this world?
As I said, I found it easy to acclimate to the village and I think deafness was the main reason for this. People distinguish themselves and others as black, white, African, Jewish, American, Chinese etc, but deafness is a much more powerful distinction than any of these ethnicities and races, and makes them seem much less important than they might otherwise. It makes them seem artificial really, and once they’re eliminated, what’s left is people trying to get along. However, as I found out the hard way, feeling like you have a good connection and understanding village customs are two completely different things.
Did you ever think of Early Terminating as others did in your project?
Not really. I was stubborn and I wasn’t going to give up easily. And actually, for most of my stay, the hardest part actually wasn’t violence, but it was being so ineffectual. There was so much disease and suffering in Mununga and next to nothing that I could do about it. I felt like I’d been sent to fight a forest fire with a spray bottle.
Not until the very end of my stay did I feel personally threatened, and when that happened, I got the hell out of town but not before some genuinely terrifying moments.
Throughout your book, your friend Augustine Jere is your guide, and you mention that he is “the best friend you ever had.” Have you been in touch with him since the Peace Corps?
This is the great frustration of my life. I’ve tried to contact him in so many ways for so many years. Through letters, through newspaper advertisements, through messages sent along with people traveling over to Zambia. But he’s been hard to find and I worry that he might not be alive. My hope is that this book will help me find him again. I plan on going to Zambia early next year.
How did your relationship with your deafness, if that’s a fair description, change after you left Africa?
Oy, it sometimes seems to never stop changing. I lost what was left of my hearing around 20023, went two years communicating almost entirely in sign. Then in August 2005 I had surgery for a cochlear implant. Nowadays, I hear so much better than I ever have that I really don’t know how to define my deafness. For the first time in my life I can talk on the phone!
But for me, the lesson of Africa has been that how well one hears really doesn’t matter. I searched for years for the place past deafness and as soon as I found that place, it rearranged itself in unexpected and terrifying ways. The world doesn’t put much weight in our quests. All you can do, in Africa, in sound, in deafness, is just be grateful for what comes.
Are you the only deaf person in your family?
No. I have three brothers, the youngest, Sam five years younger, is also deaf. Also a cousin, eight years younger, is deaf as well. Sam and I got implants the same month. Having him to share this experience with has been a great blessing. I could not do it without him.
Tell us a little more about a cochlear implant and the “deaf world” argument about it?
A cochlear implant is a 3-centimeter electrode coil threaded into the inner ear (in my case the right one). It is wired to a transmitter embedded into the skull. Behind the ear there’s a removable external piece, a processor, which captures sound and translates it into ones and zeros. Signals from the processor pulse the implant, which stimulates the hearing nerve in lieu of sound itself. The end result: sound goes to the brain through a computer, bypassing the defective ear.
It’s an amazing piece of technology, but not without controversy. For many people including me, thankfully hearing improves to near-normal levels. For a few, however, hearing does not improve and because the operation is irreversible (the nerve to the ear is cut), they can’t go back to wearing hearing aids.
The main controversy regarding implants is their impact on the signing deaf community. The signing community is a beautiful one, full of deep emotional connections the connections of lost people finding a home and it feels under assault from implants. More and more parents are opting to give their infants implants and keep them from the signing community. The community is becoming smaller and more marginalized and, to a degree, has responded by “circling the wagons.” This is not, obviously, a long-term solution.
I hope this conflict ends well. I’m not sure it will. But you can be sure I’ll be writing about it.
Breakfast with Buddha
by Roland Merullo (Micronesia 197980)
Reviewed by Josh Swiller (Zambia 199496)
MY ZEN TEACHER ONCE TOLD ME when I was having trouble hearing his lectures (I was a monk for three years after leaving the Peace Corps and was deaf), that his words weren’t so important; what was more important was the mood. I feel the same holds for Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha.
Spiritual wisdom is a hard thing to get across. In addition to being a subtle and loaded thing, it is also about the end or at least finding a route to the end of personal drama.
Which puts it in direct opposition to the novel. Because novels at least orthodox ones rely upon the tension of plot and character. We grow attached to individuals as they blunder across the pages and worry for them and hope they will be ok. So to pass along spiritual lessons in the novel form is, I think, one of the hardest tests for an author.
In Breakfast with Buddha, Merullo attempts to pass this test. Merullo is a beautifully talented writer. He’s published at least seven books and they are full of great feeling, but convey that feeling humbly and respectfully. Unlike the likes of a Saul Bellow or a Gary Shteyngart, who engage in breathless verbal pyrotechnics to arrive at the emptiness and futility their characters sense at the heart of things, Merullo generally starts with that emptiness, and then, with modest, grounded prose finds it full of hope. I find that his prose reflects sincere spiritual practice there’s no neediness, no unnecessary fireworks. He’s sharing what he knows, instead of shouting or preaching it. Merullo was thirty-nine before his first book was published and in each of his books since then one can sense the patience of what must have been years of apprenticeship.
Does this background make for great writing? In Merullo’s case yes, undoubtedly. Does it make for a great novel? Not so clear. I approached Breakfast with Buddha with trepidation for the reasons above and I still can’t say if it worked as a novel. But it’s a beautiful, moving and even necessary book.
It’s simple in plot and execution: a middle-aged man, Otto Ringling, is tricked into driving Volya Rinpoche, his sister’s spiritual guru, across the country. Otto’s parents have died suddenly in a car crash near their home in rural North Dakota, and he is headed there from New York to tie up loose ends. He and Volya leisurely drive across the two lane country highways of middle America, stopping here and there for lectures, Americana (bowling, swimming, miniature golf) or most often, food (Otto is a publisher of food books). Along the way they talk, don’t talk, watch the scenery, get lost in their thoughts and listen to the radio and its constant stream of bullying invective.
Volya is beyond personal conflicts, and Otto is a man with no monetary complaints, a satisfying home life, and a lovely and loving family so almost all the novel’s drama comes from Otto’s trepidation about accepting the wisdom Volya offers. Which doesn’t always work a few too many chapters seem to end on the note of “Volya had a point but I wasn’t ready for it yet” but when it does work, it does so in a subtle, backdoor way that catches you by surprise. The simplicity of the setup, the humility of the narration, Otto’s ordinariness and his understandable doubt, allows for the book’s wisdom to take root on Otto and on the reader.
“Surely,” narrates Otto, “there were phonies and charlatans claiming to know The Way. But at some point you had to stop closing yourself off because of them. At some point you had to risk the ridicule of the mob, of your own internalized voices, and try to see clearly what had been set in front of you in this life, and try to act on that as bravely and honestly as you could, no matter what kind of rules you had been living by.”
Though one can question Breakfast’s success as a novel, question its set up, or question some of its teachings, one can’t question the beautiful mood it leaves on you. One can’t complain about its ultimate message: be good to those around you; try not to make too much of a mess of things. And the closing image is one of such sudden, unexpected grace that I wiped my eyes and reread the last chapter several times to figure out how it arrived there, and still can’t say.
Josh Swiller’s first book, The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa, a recounting of his Peace Corps experience, was published this month. He is currently on his book tour.
From the Mundane to the Sublime
by Gene Bellm (Colombia 196668)
Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 196668)
GENE BELLM’S LIFE STORY took him from a family farm, to a Catholic seminary, and then to Peace Corps/Colombia as a community development worker. While there he met his wife, who is Colombian. For 37 years as a secondary school educator he participated in international academic programs that took him to Pakistan, Israel/Jordan, France, Turkey, El Salvador, and Paraguay. These experiences were augmented by other travels to Europe, Mexico, South America, and Thailand.
Mr. Bellm is now at a point in his life where a thoughtful person takes stock of things and reflects on life’s journey so far. If it has not been our habit to assess how life is going, many come to this point by way of a parent’s decline or death, a personal illness, the death of a friend or sibling, or the loss of a vital relationship. One or more of these things combines to drive home the point: this life as I know it will end. We ask ourselves: Where have I been? What have I valued? What lies ahead? What is important to me now? How do I best live the present moment? This book of poetry is Gene Bellm’s effort to answer those questions.
The title of this book of poetry provides a key to its contents. The free-form poems, arranged alphabetically, range widely from laments over bad restaurant breakfasts (The Universal Bland Breakfast), to travel pieces, to those with a religious topic, such as The Rule, a description of men living a monastic life. The largest number of poems are about Mr. Belm’s experiences in foreign cultures. A handful are about his own family life.
I particularly enjoyed Mr. Bellm’s several poems about growing up on a family farm in Illinois. It doesn’t take too much introspection on my part to realize I appreciate those poems because I too grew up on a family farm, though in Wisconsin. I sense Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry “emotion recollected in tranquility” in these farm poems, but perhaps it is my emotion recollected in tranquility at least as much as the author’s. No doubt this is the mysterious way in which successful poetry, or prayer, or music, or any form of art seems to work: something in it elicits a positive and creative response from the perceiver. In any event, when I read . . .
Cold winter night
Raw wind blowing up snow drifts along the yard fence
Farm animals bedded down for the night in drafty barns
While inside the house, the warmth of the kitchen cook stove
Holds the cold at bay
. . . am there. We had an electric stove in our kitchen, not a “cook stove,” but on cold winter nights my mother would often leave the oven door open, hearth-like, to supplement heat from the wood burning furnace in the basement. Mr. Bellm’s words had me simultaneously in his family kitchen and the Hundt family kitchen, enwrapped in the warmth and protection of the family circle, until it was time for bed.
To bed, quickly then, in chilly upstairs bedrooms
We sleep two to a bed under heavy piles of blankets
On winter nights my sister Connie and I, in long flannel nightgowns sewn by our mother, would curl up next to each other, wary of icy toes, shivering from the cold as well as the menacing winds howling around our corner of the house.
I paid particular attention to Mr. Bellm’s poems about the Christian faith, since in recent years my prayer life and service as a diocesan Lay Minister in the Catholic Church have become a central part of my life. I turned with interest to his poem, Jesus Rode a Harley (A friend commented, “Now, there’s a concept.”), but it was too clever and ‘cool’ to satisfy. Jesus the God Man has gravity, however, as does Jesus Is a Miracle Man.
They cry out to him
In their hunger
In their sickness
In their loneliness
Crying out to be fed
To be cured
To be made whole
To be brought back to life again.
In the preface, Mr. Bellm writes that his book represents his effort “to live reflectively and explore all that life has to offer.” He encourages readers to use his poems “as a starting point, a stimulus, to become more deeply aware of their own life experience.” How can we refuse?
M. Susan Hundt-Bergan lives in Madison, WI, with her husband Hal. Susan is retired from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is now a Lay Minister in the Diocese of Madison. She serves her parish and the diocese in various ways, including coordinating the Catholic ministry at the Dane County Jail, a responsibility that takes her to the jail each Thursday night to worship with incarcerated men. She is blessed to be the mother of two and grandmother of three.
by Anne Panning (Philippines 19881990)
University of Georgia Press
Reviewed by Darcy [Munson] Meijer (Gabon 198284)
I READ SUPER AMERICA in two sittings, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. This book is a great collection of ten short stories by Anne Panning, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. What I enjoy most about Panning’s writing is her variety of settings and situations and the way she depicts her characters.
If you like vicarious travel, Super America delivers. Settings of the stories include strawberry fields in upstate New York, a seventeenth-century monastery in Mexico, the coast of Waikiki, and a low-end laundromat on the Oregon coast. Panning has lived in and traveled to many places, including Hawaii, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Idaho, Ohio, New York, Mexico and Canada. Setting, she says, is her favorite aspect of any piece of writing. She tends to “start with setting and work things from there.”
Here are some titles from the collection:
“Hillbillies,” “All-U-Can-Eat,” “What Happened,” “Tidal Wave Wedding,” “Cravings,” “Five Reasons I Miss the Laundromat” and the title story, “Super America.”
The characters and situations in Super America are potentially depressing. Here’s a sample:
- A young woman hooked on a possessive, abusive boyfriend.
- A social climber whose dream house is literally falling apart.
- An older professional couple unable to conceive a baby.
- A threesome who gig frogs and cook up their legs for a living.
- A man who loses his legs in a bicycle accident.
Such set-ups could make a reader sad. These people have problems, and they don’t always deal well with them. They make bad choices; they value the wrong things; they are selfish. However, Panning puts them in the context of lives earnestly lived. Her characters do their best to make their lives jibe with their dreams. These folks don’t depress in the end because they are determined to make things work.
I asked Panning where she got the inspiration for these stories, and she replied that she has always been curious, sometimes asking too many questions or obsessing over something an accident she’s read about in the paper or a tragedy somewhere close by to the point where she cannot get it out of her mind. Though fiction, the stories hold together well. I read only a handful of superfluous lines.
Another aspect I should mention about the stories in Super America is their open-ended nature. Panning doesn’t tell us whether the beach in Waikiki is wiped out in the tsunami or whether the Butters lose their entire investment in the Cherokee Bluff subdivision. We cannot predict whether Ardeth will learn about Tim and her sister or whether Harry will be the more successful brother. In life we see “snapshots” every day whose development and end we cannot guess. The stories in Super America reflect real life in their lack of a final wrap-up.
I recommend that you take a look at Super America. Panning has not only given us entertaining stories, but constructed a collection that could be part of a time capsule. This book depicts American culture, warts and all, in the beginning of the 21st century.
Anne Panning is an English professor at the State University of New York-Brockport. She is the author of The Price of Eggs, and her work has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, Black Warrior Review, and In Short.
Darcy [Munson] Meijer was a TEFL Volunteer in Gabon. Today, she teaches English as a Second Language at Maryville College, in the Appalachian foothills of east Tennessee.
A Memoir of Deafness and Africa
by Josh Swiller (Zambia 199496)
Henry Holt Paperback
Reviewed by Don Beil (Somalia 196466)
“. . . and if it wasn’t your time, it wasn’t your time. This must be how the people in the villages of Africa survive the insatiable plagues of their continent, by knowing the order of things.”
THE UNHEARD OPENS with three attention grabbers that are in order foreboding, curious, and frightening.
First, a photograph opposite the title page; a boy is high in the air, jumping from a trestle into a river. He appears full of self-confidence but also ready to be swallowed by the power of the water below. However the dark river in this black-and-white photo creates apprehension for any reader. (For me it carried even more meaning as I was reminded of the deaths several years ago of two teenagers near my home in upstate New York on a similar trestle.)
The second item that captured my attention was in the “note to the reader” which provided pronunciation help. This is particularly unusual because the author is deaf.
Finally, there is the alarming opening paragraph of the book
We were sitting on Jere’s living room floor in the dark, clutching our handmade weapons two-by-fours with five-inch nails driven all the way through them, so that the business end of the nails emerged like fangs from the mouth of a poisonous snake. … By this time on any other night, the village would have been asleep for hours. But not tonight.
Swiller’s book addresses all three.
The power of Africa, symbolized by the river, to do what it will on its own. It is hard not to be reminded of Isak Dinesen’s “Out of Africa” in which Farah warns Baroness Blixen that a river she is trying to dam will have none of it. “This water lives in Mombasa.” Swiller’s attempts at improving his corner of Africa will ring all too true to many who have served in the Peace Corps, and to all interested in creating change of any kind. His early sense that “community empowerment, sustainability, and personal responsibility” were all that were needed to dig wells was soon replaced by the begrudging acceptance of the realities of time and change in Africa “‘. . . we will start our well soon.’ But it would be almost a year.”
The coming to grips with deafness and the struggle life is for many who are deaf. For Swiller his Peace Corps service provided the environment in which this effort was often simplified (no one expected any foreigner to understand anything anyway), and just as often complex (how can one even try to communicate beyond even simple sign language without the ‘benefit’ of hearing?). But through it all, for Swiller, Zambia became “. . . the only place I’d ever lived where my deafness never mattered.”
The primal fear we have of new places . . . or in this case of old places, and how it crashes down the notions we have that “underneath” all people are the same or are they?
THIS IS A WONDERFULLY WRITTEN, often frightening, story of one Volunteer’s service in Zambia. Not many in the RPCV community will have experienced anything like it how many have seen a man deliberately dragged to his death? This is not a recruiting manual for the Peace Corps; but it is beautifully told with appeal to a wide audience. Some samples:
. . . I caught a pickup that made its way on a dirt road, wracked and cratered like it had been cleared by dinosaurs.
Evening came and filled the sky with such reds and oranges it was like the valley had been slipped inside a sliced papaya.
I’d come to the village to find a place past deafness.
There was nothing in Peace Corps training on . . . navigating an educational system based, apparently, on the principles of unlimited recess.
There are brilliant descriptions of what can be the devastating effects of unnoticed deafness in infants “By then, the fertile years for learning have passed, the mind has hardened around the absence of language, and the child, without ever knowing otherwise, is remaindered to a lesser kind of life.”
There are sharp devastating descriptions of his interactions with students “I could see them recalibrating everything they knew about me.”
There are fundamental life-questions “Why was I here? To learn everything I could, to find a place to gain perspective on my hearing loss, to live and help others to live. Most importantly, perhaps to stop asking that question.”
A Writer Writes
Second Time Around
by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 196567)
I JOINED THE PEACE CORPS at 21 because I was restless for adventure and after two years in Ethiopia, discovered that true adventure lies in the relationships and routines of daily life. I was delighted to live in a tiny mud house with the tin roof, thought the sound of roosters in the morning and the whoop of the hyenas at night exotic, learned to prefer fiery food that made me sweat and cry, but the surprise was my students. I fell in love with them 75 kids in an unlit classroom with mud walls and a tin roof, 75 kids who walked an hour or more to get to school, kids whose parents I never met, whose fourth or fifth language was English. They were my adventure.
After two years I came home, married Chuck also an Ethiopia PCV and embarked on that other adventure, raising children and living on a tree-lined street in a Minneapolis neighborhood. But when we entered that limbo state some call retirement, we got restless again and last year we took a job teaching at Zhejiang College of Media and Communications in Hangzhou, China. We knew it would be interesting, knew we would learn more than we would teach, knew it would be great, but, at first, we didn’t recognize this journey as a second chance.
There is something sweet about a second time around, a second taste, a familiar experience cloaked in new clothes. You are able to savor the taste, to breathe in the pleasure more deeply, to take in the sweetness with all your senses. We found it doing what we did more than forty years ago teaching young people in an ancient country full of challenges, young people who were eager and optimistic about their future and who were also deeply aware of the enormous challenges their beloved country faces. In Ethiopia the challenges were political first, then economic who would succeed Haile Selassie; how would land reform be achieved. In China, it all starts with demographics how to support a population of 1.4 billion people. As one student wrote, quoting an economist: “If we put the Chinese population in the richest country AmericaAmerica can’t afford it either.”
We were nervous that first Monday morning, unsure of who would be waiting for us and what they would expect. We both arrived twenty minutes early and found the students all there, three to a desk, in their jackets, hats, and mittens, warming their hands on bottles of hot water or tea. We introduced ourselves and invited them to do the same, in writing and in English, so we could get their English names for our class list and learn a little bit about each of them: name, hometown, interests and hobbies, hopes for the class. They came from all over China as close as downtown Hangzhou, as far away as Inner Mongolia, but, incredibly, they all said they came from the most beautiful city in China, a city that is famous for . . . something . . . and they felt lucky to come from such a wonderful place. We were charmed by their lack of cynicism, their enthusiasm for their origins and their deep admiration for their parents.
I taught writing and the reward for reading 240 essays every week was the insight I was given into the lives and worries of the students. Our twenty-year-old students with their deep attachment to their families and their physical connection to each other always walking arm in arm, girls with girls, boys with boys seemed younger than their twenty years, innocent, but they were not naive. When they wrote about the serious issues China faces they were fully aware that these problems are their problems. They are the first generation of the one-child policy, and they believe in that policy, yet they wonder how they will care for their parents and grandparents without the help of siblings. According to a China TV news report, seventy-five percent of the average family’s income goes for education. After the government announced that education in rural areas would be compulsory and free through junior school (9th grade), one student wrote, “Our country’s future depends on the next generations with good knowledge. How can we build our country with the junior school level?”
We were the oldest people on campus the average retirement age in China is 50 for women, 55 for men but the students treated us as peers, as fascinating people with something to offer them. They wanted to talk about everything. The movie “Brokeback Mountain” was much on their minds. They also wanted to know what we ate, what we thought about Japan, if children took care of their aging parents in the United States, if we fell in love at first sight, how we disciplined our children, what we thought of Jane Austen, if we watched “Desperate Housewives,” and why we came to China.
Our sense of wonder was rekindled by the simplicity of our life there. We lived in a small apartment on campus, walked or rode our one-speed bicycles everywhere, bought food daily, worked hard, made friends, took the crowded bus into Hangzhou on the weekends to walk along West Lake or drink tea (or coffee yes, there was a Starbucks). We were glad not to own a car, and when students asked if we knew how to drive, we admitted that we could, but didn’t mention the two cars in our garage in Minneapolis.
Doing without no car, few clothes was easier than slowing down. Colleagues talked about spending the day, the whole day, relaxing at a tea house. We tried, but couldn’t figure out what you were supposed to do all day at a tea house. At every establishment we visited the server brought us each a tall glass half full of tea leaves and filled to the brim with hot water then left a tall, pink thermos next to my chair. No spoon to push the leaves down, no sugar, no lemon. If we tried to drink too soon, we burned our fingers on the glass and got a mouthful of tea leaves, so we had to wait for the leaves to sink. Even so we were never able to last more than thirty minutes in such an establishment. We drank our tea, sometimes refilled the glass once from the thermos, and left.
It was a young teacher in our department who taught me how to drink tea. Kevin I never knew his real name, his Chinese name spoke beautiful English but wanted to sound like a native and asked me to help him with his intonation so we practiced rising and falling inflections for a couple of hours a week. For our last meeting he invited me to go to Qing Teng Tea House, the most famous in Hangzhou. It was obviously several steps above the tea establishments Chuck and I had frequented and expensive 60 yuan for a cup of tea. “We must have Hangzhou’s most famous tea, Dragon Well tea,” Kevin said.
The tea came in two tiny white china cups, no handles, but with lids and saucers. After a few minutes, I lifted my lid to drink. “No,” Kevin said. “You don’t drink the first or second water. The leaves are dirty.” He lifted his cup and, using the lid as a shield, poured the water into the tall ceramic bowl on the table. (I’d thought it was a vase.) I did the same, and then he took the teapot of hot water that was on a small brazier near our chairs and refilled our cups. “Do you know what the lid is for?” he asked. Well, that was obvious to keep the tea hot. He smiled, picked up his cup between two fingers and his thumb, raised the lid slightly, and breathed in the aroma of the tea. “The lid holds the flavor, so you take it in just as you sip the tea. Like fine wine,” he said. “The bouquet.”
There was a tray on the table that we took to an adjoining room where there were two long buffet tables with hot and cold delicacies: spring rolls, soups, meats, fruits, tarts. Kevin filled the tray. “You must try this and this and this.” Each was more delicate and wonderful than the one before and every time I said I liked something, he went back for more. After an hour or so, the server appeared to put a bowl of several kinds of fruit on our table, to refill our tea pot with hot water, and to rekindle the fire under the brazier.
Kevin had just bought a book of essays by Washington Irving so we talked about Irving’s place in American literature and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” “What about Whitman?” he said. We also talked about the Hangzhou housing market and whether he should buy the apartment he was looking at near West Lake, half the size of his current apartment, but the location was tugging at him, and whether or not the teachers at our school cared about the students or were they more focused on the expectation to publish an article in a professional journal every year and the Chinese aversion to bad news in any area of public life and how you must know somebody in order to get a job and many, many other things. When I looked at my watch, three hours had slipped by. That’s how you can spend the day in a tea house. How simple. How lovely. How civilized.
He walked me back to my bus stop; I pushed on with the other commuters, clung to the strap as the old bus weaved around cars, bicycles, carts, and pedestrians for the hour-long ride back to Xiasha, the suburb where our college was. It was the last week of the semester and I didn’t have to peer out the windows to know that the boulevard was lined with flowers, that the streets were crowded with people, that there was a woman on a bicycle with two children and the day’s groceries, that a man was riding one-handed with load of lumber in the other hand, that the musical sound on the bus was somebody’s mobile phone, that there were street signs I’d never learned to read, that there was row after row of small shops selling everything, that I was in China China one of the great civilizations of the world, China where people have suffered unimaginable indignities, China where there is so much hope and suspicion and life. It was hard not to wonder how I got so lucky.
An Ethiopian friend once told us that two years is so short in the life of a country, that what we could hope to achieve as Peace Corps Volunteers was fleeting, a tiny wave in an enormous whirlpool. He was right, of course. Five months teaching in a country with an eight-thousand-year history is even less, but for us it was a second chance. A second chance to fall in love with students, to be awed by how deeply connected each of us is on this planet, a chance to see ourselves as others see us, to be shaken out of our daily routine so we can see the power and the beauty of every day, of daily life, wherever we are.
During those two years in Ethiopia I visited every province, saw the Blue Nile and the castles at Gondar, went to Lalibela, but what I remember and what I miss is my little mud house on a dirt road, the family across the way, the little girl who danced in the street, the students, especially the students. It was the same in China. I walked on the Great Wall, saw the Terra Cotta warriors, floated through the three gorges down the Yangtse, saw the lotus raise its huge and holy head at West Lake, but what I remember and what I miss are the people we knew, the students and young teachers who are the hope for the future. Forty years ago I loved my students because it was impossible not to, but I was young too and didn’t know how beautiful we all were. This time around I knew.
ONE MORE THING. We did this together, Chuck and I. We met in Ethiopia, but didn’t live in the same town and in 38 years of marriage never had the same job, or taught the same kids, or were irate at the same mindless bureaucracy. But in Hangzhou we understood what each other’s day was like. We were colleagues as well as lifelong partners. I loved the sight of him coming up the sidewalk after class, notebook and papers in hand, looking professorial or sitting surrounded by “his” kids in the library. It was a gift, this second time around, to see each other in new light, to teach in China, to be renewed together.
Kathleen Coskran’s short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Her collection of short stories, The High Price of Everything, won a Minnesota Book Award as did Tanzania on Tuesday: Writing by American Women Abroad which she co-edited. She is the recipient of numerous artists' fellowships and residencies including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Bush Artist's Fellowship, and two grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Chuck Coskran (Ethiopia 196567, Kenya staff, 196971). Last year they returned from teaching in China.
A Writer Writes
What I Learned by Visiting Our Daughter’s Peace Corps Site . . .
And Other Tales of Motherhood
by Ruthmarie Mitsch
SHE WAS the difficult daughter. The one who stormed from the dinner table, slammed doors, reduced me to tears of frustration on a daily basis, proclaimed the most often how she could hardly wait to leave home. She did leave home first for college, next for summer service projects in the States and in the Philippines. Then after college graduation, she left for a Peace Corps assignment in Senegal.
Seeing that same daughter earlier this year in her remote fishing village of Sokone, in the Sine-Saloum delta on the Atlantic coast of Africa, was an awesome experience. Literally. I had always thought that we, her parents, should be an inspiration to her and that she should want to follow in our footsteps. It turned out to be the other way around. When my husband and I and college-student daughter had the opportunity to visit Jane at her Peace Corps home for three weeks during Christmas break, that experience changed forever my relationship with this daughter. It was during that brief trip that she became my teacher, my role model.
Her house is a separate small building in a compound enclosed by a cement wall. There are two electric outlets in the house that work when there is electricity, but there is no landline for a telephone and no internet connection for her laptop that sits upon a handmade desk. There is a small stove and a tiny, nearly empty refrigerator. There is a toilet a hole in the floor. There is a shower rigged nearby. There is no hot water and no drop of water, whether dish water or shower water, goes to waste. There are no windows, just a door. There is a mattress on the floor, and there is a mosquito net, an absolute necessity. There are lots of books brought and sent from home, and some Senegalese drums next to the guitar she brought with her. There are many photos of friends and family taped on the walls. There is a world map that fills the entire wall above her desk. In this life, Jane is Astou Diop.
Astou Diop has shown me many things in particular, how to be patient and flexible. Western time is not Sokone’s time. The flow of daily life is different, set by the chants of the muezzin, and on Sundays by the addition of bells from the Catholic Church two streets over. Things happen in slow motion in her new world; they happen inshallah (God willing). Much discussion must take place to set in motion any activity. Astou Diop has been frustrated that what she sees as simple plans are still not implemented after repeated rounds of talks, that so much time is given to the ritual of discussion but not to action. Priorities? A mayor, who promised equipment for an area clean-up but then sent it elsewhere, refused to be disturbed from his involvement in judging a local beauty contest. Astou Diop hopes, inshallah, that the mayor will reschedule delivery of the equipment before the stinking goat carcass and other garbage strewn in the street rot even more. The amount of time devoted to daily living tasks is similarly significant. In the homes, much time is given to meal preparation, as dishes are all made from scratch. Water must be boiled so that dishes can be washed by hand. Clothes are washed by hand and laid out to dry in the sun. The nightly ritual of tea is one that punctuates her schedule, a time that Astou Diop has come to love. After dinner, tea is prepared outdoors, on a brazier, by her host brother. The tea, served in very small glasses, is poured at least three times, increasing in strength and sweetness with each decoction. This “ceremony” is a social event, not about drinking tea so much as it is about sharing time, thought, laughter with family and friends under starry skies. Astou Diop has come to see that it is these rituals that bring families and neighbors together, and she has become more accepting of the meetings, understanding that each voice added to the pepper pot of discussion increases its flavor and that the patience required for daily activities leads to an appreciation of the work of life, and the life of work. She has learned patience.
Still, she has shown determination to effect change, and that has inspired me in my own workaday world. If the village authorities will not implement clean-ups, she will so she gathers her girls group and mobilizes a donkey cart and together they do what they can. Every day she is reminded that she is an outsider and a toubab (white person). Astou Diop has learned to disregard those constant calls of toubab that greet her whenever she walks the village paths. She has also learned to respond to children’s and adults’ demands for goods and gifts by saying Ba beneen yoon (another time), because they do not believe that, being a toubab, she is not rich. She does, however, respect the Quranic teachings on charity by finding food or small coins to give to the little talibés (students of marabouts). She has learned to avoid or reject misogynistic comments from men, although she is constantly wary and makes certain to travel with a partner or group when she must use the alham (minibus) or sept-places (seven-seater). Indeed, travel throughout Senegal can be a metaphor for Astou Diop’s experiences as an outsider: slow and bumpy. Yet she has responded to all these bumps on her road with determination.
Astou Diop is clearly a toubab. She had studied several classical and modern languages, but she knew from past experience that classroom success doesn’t always translate on to the real-world streets. Yet necessity is the mother of invention, and needing to get to a specific location before dark or not overpay for a purchase can lubricate the tongue. French is the lingua franca throughout the cities and urban regions of West Africa, but Astou Diop lives in a Wolof community. It has not been easy, but she laughs at her mistakes and presses on. She has taught me the value of persistence. By now, her French is good enough that she can teach classes in her village as well as in Dakar, and her Wolof impresses her villagers. Each time she steps from her compound into the village paths and streets, she participates in the ritual conversation that can last up to twenty minutes, inquiring about individuals, families, even countries. Furthermore, Astou Diop has made a practice of learning the taglines that accompany scores of Senegalese names. Curious as to why, when she was introduced as a Diop, people would respond with “Joop Jouba,” she discovered that these taglines to names are essentially praises or mottoes of the ancestors. Astou Diop soon realized that like most Westerners of this digital age, she would never truly master the art of oral tradition, so she started cataloging these last-name sayings. Their meanings are probably lost even to many present-day Senegalese “Diop, you went to the field and forgot your tuft of hair;” “Sene, you have no teeth on top like a chicken, but you have gums.” But like the constant repetition of names when entering a room or joining a group, recognition of presence and being is signaled. The individual is acknowledged as part of a group, a history; the ancestors are alive and honored. Astou Diop’s desire to understand the language thus the people of her community has earned her respect and honor in her community, and our admiration.
There is a flashing moment in all parents’ lives when we grasp that our sons and daughters are no longer ours. It is a hard moment, for after we swell with the pride of our accomplishment for bringing our children to adulthood, our hearts tense at the recognition of loss. I fully understand that Jane Astou Diop is our child. But the young woman we saw as a Peace Corps worker in Senegal is more than the sum of all the parts we her parents have given her. And now she has given us so much more. The calls from college were few and far between, but there has been a fairly steady stream of communications coming from coastal Senegal: we know when she is on the move from her village when we receive e-mails or Skype messages. Occasionally, we receive telephone calls, and in the early days, villagers wanting to practice their English or French would beg her to let them speak to us. Used to lecturing university students, I had become used to tracking eyeballs as they rolled to the ceiling when I lectured my daughters at home about friends, behavior, duties. It is, in fact, true that I talked too much, dispensing too much advice (that was most often disregarded in any case). Now I have seen that Astou Diop is asked by villagers and colleagues to make decisions, and I have seen that she is quite capable of doing so, and without lecturing like a professor. And now, I check my tongue and do not offer opinions so freely there is no need: it is clear that Astou Diop has opinions, and her opinions are the results of actual experience, not from textbooks, newspapers, or hearsay.
Astou Diop’s older sister had spent a year of service in Los Angeles and can relate to her concerns about any long-term effect she might have upon a community and fears about how to reintegrate into the American lifestyle. The oldest is a great support. The youngest sister, then, has two models of service. Of course the plumbing, the housing, and the roads were eye-openers for her when she visited Astou Diop, and of course she was relieved to return to her university dorm and all its electrical and plumbing features, but we had wanted her to see for herself the distance between her middle-class Midwestern lifestyle and that of a large part of the world. (I joked that this lesson would be worth the price of her airplane ticket.)
And Astou Diop always reminds us that her Peace Corps friends like to make detours to her village because she has a comfortable home and a friendly host family and because her host mother is an excellent cook. Although our family has traveled widely on several continents and have tried to adapt to different customs, we were a bit flustered to have to remember at each meal in a home to remove our shoes on the porch, dip our hands into the bowl of water set at the entrance to the house, and then enter. We had never sat on the ground for a meal other than a picnic, eating with our hands from a common pot. Imagine: so used to having or securing the best, we embarrassed Astou Diop at first by reaching across the pot for fish or chicken from someone else’s “territory” and by vainly looking for a beverage. We did not remember Astou Diop’s advice to say Jerejef, surna! and then stand up and leave when we had had enough. At home, I always chastised family members for wanting to leave before the entire group had finished the meal. In Sokone, we visitors liked the new way. But it took getting used to, and we were humbled that something as simple as eating a meal would make us have to stop and think so much about how to act.
Likewise, accompanying Astou Diop through the village and experiencing the greeting procedures humbled us. Here, I was at the mercy Astou Diop’s experience and language skills. But I was impressed (and grateful) that she felt at ease in the language and gestural habits. Do we parents always think we know more than our children that we’ve had more experience and are thus wiser? Our visit to Astou Diop’s village reminded me that experience is not a matter of chronology. Here I had to turn to Astou Diop to ask, “How do I say . . . ?” or “What do I do next?” or “Why are they doing that”? or “Is that a good price?” These are the kinds of questions that as a parent I had been used to getting and answering. Now the tables have been turned and my child is my teacher.
Astou Diop has always been musical, with twelve years of piano lessons, perhaps eight with the saxophone, marching in high school and university bands. It has been a joy to have her pass along recommendations: “I love the new Youssou N’Dour album!” she writes, and I search for it at iTunes. I smile to myself when she says that she and the seven-year-old visiting niece of her host family laugh together singing the latest songs by Vivian. My musical horizons have expanded.
Yes, we pay more attention to the politics and popular news of West Africa these days; we have our daughter who can interpret these for us. From politics to PCV lingo, we have grown through our daughter’s Peace Corps experience. She was the difficult daughter, yes, but now instead of thinking of her as difficult, I think instead of how she has overcome difficulties. Visiting Astou Diop in Senegal made me realize how wonderful it is when parents can learn from their children.
Ruthmarie Mitsch lives in Columbus, Ohio, and is managing editor of a scholarly journal on oral and written literatures of Africa and teaches African literature at The Ohio State University. She and her husband are the parents of three daughters.