Review

    To Africa With Spatula
         A Peace Corps Mom in Malawi 1965–1967
    by Jane Baker Lotter (Staff spouse: Malawi 1965–67)
    293 pages
    Lotter Press, $15.95
         P.0. Box 73234
         Davis, CA 95617
    May 2002

    Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 1996–98)

    ANY RETURNED PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER with two years worth of letters home might want to take a look at To Africa With Spatula by Jane Baker Lotter. Tidy up the letters, put them in chronological order, add photos and accolades, and self-publish. What could be easier or more satisfying?
         But a closer look at Lotter’s project will reveal two truths.
         The first is that such a project is a tremendously complicated and time-consuming undertaking — one that I believe Lotter herself will say was well worth the effort. It put her in touch with old friends, allowed her to re-experience those transforming years of her life, and caused her to organize her memories into a concrete package: a book. It is a treasure for all who knew her and for all who shared some of those experiences with her, as well as for anyone who is interested in the early years of Peace Corps in Africa.
         The second truth is oh, what a book it might have been! All the ingredients are there — life, death, tragedy, humor, compelling characters, conflict, a vivid sense of place and purpose.
         Lotter’s letters are the delightful ramblings of a sunny optimist making the best of things in a very challenging setting. Here is a woman with four small sons and a nice life in Davis, California, whose husband wants to take two years out from his university career to work for the Peace Corps.
         “The truth is that Will had ‘itchy feet,’ and I guess I must have had some sense of adventure too,” she writes.
         Lotter spends much of her time in Malawi working at an orphanage, holding tiny abandoned babies desperately in need of cuddling. She also shapes her family’s experience, her sons’ adjustment to rigid British-style schooling, their attitude toward the Malawi children they play with, their reaction to the illnesses and traumas that they would never have confronted back home in Davis.
         And about that spatula. One of the Lotter family’s favorite activities was their pancake open house on Sunday mornings for any and all Peace Corps Volunteers who showed up, to give them “a little touch of home.” What a wonderful woman!
         And there were not only African orphans and American children and Peace Corps Volunteers – there were also pets: a baby antelope (“so adorable that he’s worth it”), a chameleon (“named Willie Mays because he catches so many flies”), two guinea pigs, a turtle, puppies, “a frantic monkey, a squawking hen and a hungry baby goat.”
         Lotter’s letters mention the now-famous travel writer Paul Theroux as a Volunteer who “allegedly became involved” with a rebel group, and the resulting furor that caused the Peace Corps’ country director to be called back to Washington and then transferred away from Malawi. There were other concerns about Volunteers “living with African girls,” Lotter writes. She notes, kindly, “Some PCVs have admittedly carried their relationships a little too far.” (Read Theroux’s My Secret History for his story about Peace Corps service in Malawi.)
    Lotter has an enthusiastic, optimistic, warmhearted voice. She does not inflict her fears on the recipients of her letters. She mentions just enough about the grief and hardship to let the reader know that these things do exist.
         And indeed, she writes, “Wanting to share our experiences in Africa and the Peace Corps has given me the mission and drive to write this book, and perhaps to encourage others to be open to opportunities for new life experiences.”
         Sometimes Lotter gives fine descriptive detail, such as in her note about the dreaded putzi fly that lays its eggs in wet laundry hanging on the line. “You can’t see the eggs or the larvae, but heat kills them. Therefore, unless you have a clothes dryer, everything needs to be ironed.” Otherwise, the eggs get under your skin, hatch into little worms, which grow into bigger worms . . . . “Once you figure it out, you actually have to dig out the worm,” Lotter writes. “But you never forget to iron anything after that.”

    Sharon Dirlam, journalist, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Two Years Beyond Siberia, a a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.