Letters to the editor —

Remembering Africa

    Upon reading the moving description of the many meanings of women carrying 40 pounds of water on their heads several times a day, [“Water” by Rachel Schneller (Mali 1998–98)], I thought back to the time I traveled overland from Buea in Cameroon, to Lagos, Nigeria.
         At the slave-trading town of Calabar, I had to get from the ferry dock to the train station. I didn’t know the distance was fifteen miles. My suitcase was full of books, naturally, and I got about ten yards when I admitted to myself I had trouble. I took a shirt out of the suitcase, made a doughnut with it, put it on my head and then hefted the suitcase and dropped it on the doughnut. I balanced it with two hands and started walking — half drunken sailor, half woman-with-broken-neck.
         On the road were several people: women carrying pots of water, baskets of produce, a baby goat, legs dangling to either side, and one man with one of those four-foot long saws with handles on both ends which bounced and twanged with each step he took. They all revolved their bodies carefully so as not to disturb the balance of their loads to stare at me. First they smiled, then they used their free hands to cover their mouths which was only polite since they didn’t want me to see them laughing. When my suitcase slid off my head and fell to the ground, they couldn’t help themselves — they had to put down their loads so they could let loose great peals of laughter.
         And then I was surrounded by volunteers all offering to carry my suitcase to the train station. Instead (being in no hurry since I didn’t even know if there really was a train station), I said, “Teach me.” The attempt was half-hearted at best since we were all in stitches. I kept asking them about the neck pain and they kept saying I hadn’t found the correct balance. We all could see I would never find the correct balance.
         Finally, a woman came to me who was going to the train station to meet her sister. She had nothing to carry since she’d be helping her sister
    carry her stuff on the way back. The woman didn’t count the baby on her back as something to carry. So I insisted on a trade — I would carry the baby in my arms if she carried my suitcase on her head. She protested. She said, “But he will urinate on you.” What’s a little urine among friends?
         So she carried my suitcase on her head, I carried sweet baby Acquinas in my arms and the people on the road dried their tears, rubbed their
    laugh-ached ribs and put their loads back on their heads. We all went on
    our way.
         Acquinas’ soft hair, shining with a vaseline rub, smelled the way the
    breeze does when the honey harvest arrives at market.

    Thank you with all the gratitude a recovered memory elicits.

Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)


John Taylor wrote: I found your site by accident, putting my former wife Ginger’s unique name into a search engine, pretty much on a whim. [“For Love of Ankara” by Ginger Taylor Saclioglu (Turkey 1968–70)]. I have found your site very interesting and have now a short list of books I want to read. I will be looking at it from time to time.
     I am enclosing my reflections on Turkey. I hope you will post it on the site. You are free to attach my Email address (tayjohn@telstra.easymail.com.au) or to provide it if there are any enquiries from old Peace Corps acquaintances.

Remembering Turkey

    I wasn’t, actually, a conscientious objector. I was strongly opposed to our government’s involvement in the Vietnam War, but where I should be as an individual was a more difficult question. The Peace Corps was partly a way of delaying a difficult decision. I also shared some of the idealism, and, more than anything, a sense of adventure, of wanting to see the World without joining the Navy, and without leaving my wife behind.
         So we arrived in Ankara, and were met with the sight of the women lining the second story window of the airport building, rode the whining busses, overtaking each other around the uphill curves into the city, to find the damp, coarse sheets in the concrete student hostel on the dusty street where there was a shooting the night of our arrival. I, too, remember the peaches, the black goat hair in Ginger’s first glass of ayran, the city lights seen from the hilltop in Cankaya, and the sea of red roof tiles from the citadel. I remember the sour dough bread. I also remember catching the share cabs from the city center to the leafy quiet streets where we had our digs in the district of Bachelievler (Houses with Gardens). And we could afford on our allowances to eat in restaurants almost as often as we wanted. I remember the smells and the call from the mosque one street away, and — after twenty-five years — I almost still remember the voices. The adventure was sumptuous.

    Life with Ginger
    In all this my wife was my companion and my very good friend. It was just the marriage that wasn’t working.
         Ginger’s only serious complaint at the time was that she didn’t get to use her Turkish. She loved and studied and learned her Turkish as well as I did, probably better, but I was the husband. According to the Turkish custom the conversations we picked up travelling across the city or across the country were addressed mostly to me. Ginger was not allowed to interrupt.
         For instance, the frosty morning in the huge tin shed which was the bus station in Erzurum when I spoke to an old man and insisted he take my seat, and that small Turkish courtesy earned us courtesies in return and treats of food and conversation all the way to Kars. The next day we climbed over the mountains in a minibus, stopped for a lunch of hot, rich chicken soup and bread at a long wooden table in a mountain village surrounded by forests of fir and oak trees, and on over and down the one-lane mountain road without guardrails to Hopa and the Black Sea just at dusk. We waited for the three a.m. departure of the ship we had booked for Istanbul in an upstairs tea house, the night watchman stopped in, men sat smoking, drinking tea and talking, the only place open late, where Ginger was allowed because she was with me, her husband, and because she was a foreigner. The news came through on the radio that night that the first man, an American, had walked on the moon. I had a conversation with the local school teacher who wanted me to help him convince the others it was true. They couldn’t believe it.
         Ginger sat quietly and listened. I had the conversation. It wasn’t fair. That isn’t why she left me, though.
         She would have preferred first class tickets on the ship, but I booked second. The cockroaches were too many and too big. That isn’t why she left me either. We got off at Rize and took another minibus along the coast, through the hazelnut fields where the driver stopped and begged the pickers for nuts for us, for the guests, and got enough for the whole bus.

    Two visions of myself
    Goethe, the German scientist, poet, philosopher, said that you don’t really know your own language until you know another. Turkish is not an Indo-European language. Not only its vocabulary, but its grammar and even its logic, it seemed, was different from the English. There is a suffix which attaches to any verb, meaning “or so it is said!” It is used for rumors and gossip, and sometimes for passing on official explanations. Like, “were we really ‘peace-helpers?’-mish.
         I even dreamed in Turkish for a while. And until I knew another culture, another country, I didn’t really know my own. Before I left the Midwest, Time Magazine was pretty much my window on the world. In Turkey I read an article in Time Magazine about Turkey, and it seemed that the writer hadn’t been in Turkey. I discovered that the Turkish press had better coverage of international news than I had found in America. I noticed that back home if I’d seen a black person down the street, my first thought was “a black,” and now in Turkey when I saw a black person down the street, my first thought was, “an American.” I came to see America with two visions at once — I saw it as an American, and I saw it as an outsider.
         That never went away. A couple of years ago I was back in the States for three months, with my two sons, after twenty years away. I still felt I was American, and I felt joy in seeing and touching the land and seeing some of the faces, and joy in some of the changes. I was back in the fairly racist Midwest city where I went to high school, where all the blacks’ school lockers had been together at one end of the building and where the only blacks’ names I knew were those of the basketball stars and where I never saw a black man touch a white woman, not even in the movies. I was back there after twenty years, and I went to the ice skating rink, and I saw a five-year-old white girl fall on the ice in front of a speeding black teenager, and he scooped her up with his hands and held her until he had slowed and set her on her feet, and everyone thought it was cool. In Chicago I took the same bus ride down the South Side that I’d used to take in tolerated silence, and this time I had conversations. No doubt I had changed, but America has been changing too.

    The changing conditions
    While we were in Turkey, from 1968 to 1970, things were happening and changing in America. The Vietnam War protests and demonstrations, Woodstock, the whole thing. But I was better off in Turkey. I was a child of a rigidly Protestant Midwest 50’s, and one of those revolutions would take longer to move me. Me — and Ginger too. I think that had something to with her leaving me, but we never talked about it in the end.
         In Turkey, too, there were protests and demonstrations. I saw the American Ambassador’s limo burned by Turkish students while the Ambassador visited Middle East Technical University where we were assigned to teach. Some of the Volunteers in our contingent were released early after they joined a protest against the War in front of the American Embassy. I kept in my drawer under my socks a pistol and a hand grenade given to me for safe keeping by a student from Palestine. They were better in my hands than his, and if I had taken them to the police or to the American Embassy without an explanation, I would have been going home. With the protests, the University was closed for a while, and when we returned, we saw the marks of machine gun fire on the concrete walls of the dormitories. Some of those Volunteers who left early were those I liked best, but I don’t remember their names now. We saw them later where they were living in Beirut. That other War hadn’t come yet to Beirut. Eventually, we were all sent home early, in case the protests might have turned against us.

    Gifts from Turkey
    Turkey gave me a second life, a second vision, a second knowledge of myself and of the world. It also gave me a vocation. A job where I can hang on to a measure of the old idealism. I would have accepted any assignment the Peace Corps offered. They put me in a university to teach English. Some of our students had only one year of English before they began their university studies, and since the curriculum was mostly in English, their success in English was crucial. The students were motivated and hard working, but as the course progressed a few would fall behind, further behind, and drop out. You could sometimes sense when someone had reached the point of no return. While I led a drill in class one morning, a student seemed to reach that point. He did not take his turn, and I thought that if he didn’t take this turn he would not take the next, and that would be the beginning of the end. So I backed up a step and told him quietly that he must respond. The class went completely silent, and now it was all or nothing, because his erkeklik, his honor, was on the line. He did respond, and then I put him through the entire drill on his own, in front of the class, and when he finished, the whole class breathed a great sigh of relief and of congratulations for both of us. He finished the course, and though I have left teaching a couple of times, I am still doing it.
         Now I’m in Australia, and I see the occasional Turkish film on Australia’s multi-cultural TV station. Australia has given me another life — again. Once in a while I feel this echo inside, this feeling that Ginger was my first wife, and Turkey was my second home.

John Taylor (Turkey 1968–70)