WOULD IT BE TOO MUCH to say forty-five years after the first Peace Corps Volunteers ventured into the lesser known worlds of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that the time is past due especially for those of us who were “there” to make records for posterity? I have diaries and photos from my Peace Corps years in Sierra Leone, from a country-wide trek around Nigeria in 1962, with Sierra Leone Volunteers Jim Sheahan and Gary Schulze, and from later extended studies in West Africa, and in East Africa and the Horn, but have not found time to share them.
Unlike the British who appear to do a better job at publishing (thus honoring) such records (after all, they had their vast Empire to celebrate even in its final phase) we Americans had only our idiosyncratic tracks upon uncharted paths, or perhaps following the well-trod trails of missionaries who had gone before on a distinctly different mission.
For this reason I recommend this small book of travel and photos from long ago, framing a trek into northeastern Nigeria, exploring on foot and on horseback the remote Mambila plateau for 16 days late in 1963 and early in 1964. On its surface the book appeals within the well-trod travelogue canvas of exotic places, of the kind extending from Sir Walter Raleigh to the RPCV Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365). On the other hand, though the contributors do not challenge the symbolic conventions that frame travel writing, they never set themselves up as intrepid explorers among the “other” (those classic wild and intractable “natives” who become objects of wonder). Rather they allow their letters and diaries (backed by vivid color photos) to speak from the past. The collection has an immediacy of experience conveyed across decades. It succeeds because the reality of their shared adventure (which has no cliff hangers, but challenges aplenty) speaks for itself.
Inevitably some readers might wish for more. The tantalizing fact that the Mambila people had not been the subject of serious anthropological scrutiny (though under study even as these six young men arrived on the plateau) is the sort of thing that prompts questions. What was published about them, and when? The lack of a bibliography is an obvious shortcoming. But this book is about a trek, not an expedition. It is the record of an almost whimsical jaunt during “holidays” from their normal Peace Corps duties, not a planned twelve month field study carried out in pursuance of a Ph.D. Nor was the fact that they hired bearers evidence that they were exploring new ground or entering the unknown, like James Bruce in Abyssinia or Denham at Bornu. The booklet’s lack of pretension is a large part of its charm.
The freshness of perspective, uncensored by even more powerful conventions (which require a post-’80s-something correctness that our rather naive first impressions could never have imagined) stays with the reader. This booklet is the sort that returned Volunteers and their families, indeed anyone who has lived or served for a few years in remote places far from home, will enjoy.
A writer living in Leelanau County, Michigan, Kenneth C. Wylie has published articles in Africana and other specialized journals, and was founder and editor of the African Studies Association “Review of Books,” 1974-77. In addition to essays on kayaking and other outdoor activitiesm, Wylie has written widely on natural history, pseudo-science, popular culture, and birds. He writes fiction and poetry; particularly Haiku and the lesser-known Kanshi and Tanka styles. He has written a novel set in East Africa during the First World War based in part on diaries and documents of that place and time. A volume of poetry set mostly in Leelanau County is expected in late 2007.