Review

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha
Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

by Sarah Erdman (Cote D'Ivoire 1998–2000)
Henry Holt & Co.
September 2003
336 pages
$23.00

Reviewed by Mike Tidwell (Zaire/Congo 1985–87)

AS A FISHERIES VOLUNTEER in Zaire/Congo in the mid 1980s, I attended more than 200 funerals in two years, three quarters of them for children under the age of two. I was a tough and determined Volunteer, sufficiently innocent and inexperienced in life to be able to adapt quickly to most of the village hardships around me. But I never got over all those funerals for all those little kids: angelic eyes closed on malnourished faces, some of them named after me just months before by proud, all-giving parents.
     Nearly 20 years later, I have my own child — a six-year-old boy who is my north, south, east, and west — and I’ve come to realize something: I could never do it again. I could never be a PCV in a poor African village again. In that way that only parents can understand, it would be like watching my own son die 200 times in two years.
     Thus, it was with trepidation that I picked up Sarah Erdman’s new Peace Corps memoir Nine Hills to Nambonkaha. From 1998 to 2000, Erdman served in a small town in Cote D’Ivoire’s impoverished, hot, and dusty Muslim north. As a health worker and midwife, she took me — kicking and screaming — back to the reality of malnourished bodies and worm-swollen bellies, to miscarriages and stillbirths and funerals for two-year-olds with 80-year-old skin falling off their bones.
     But it is a tribute to Erdman’s great skill as a writer — and we can now add a new voice to the hallowed school of Thomsen, Packer, and Hessler — that she somehow turns all the death and sorrow into an eloquent, dignified, and at times strangely beautiful story.
     Halfway through this universal Peace Corps story — one of a village taking halting steps toward modernity while hanging onto “watertight” traditions of superstition, corruption and fatalism — Erdman describes a village woman lying prostrate on a cot in a dim infirmary as rains drizzles across the tin roof. The legs of a dead baby protrude from the woman’s body and it’s Erdman’s job to complete the complicated, harrowing breech birth. She rotates the body and pulls just a bit and the head inches out.
     Then, “helping out the placenta, my gloved hand — just for a second — smothers (the boy’s) squeezed-shut face. It makes me feel terrible, as if I just suffocated him myself. How must it feel to give birth to death? In my own culture, we grow so attached to the creature in the womb, painting bedrooms in pastels, toying with names, stocking the house with all the infant must-haves. A miscarriage or stillbirth will seep into dreams and haunt us for years.”
     There’s plenty of haunting of African parents, too, but the strength must come — hard, steely strength — to move on quickly. Erdman’s assistant wraps the baby in a pagne and places him headfirst in a bucket — the only thing to carry him in — and quickly helps the hobbling mother out the infirmary door.
     “There will be no bed rest,” Erdman writes, “no time to heal. She’ll just get up again. His feet protrude grimly from the cloth. She balances the bucket on her head, turns out the infirmary gate, and walks a ways behind the brick wall that rings the property. Atop her head, where there has been firewood and water and corn — signs of everything alive — there are tiny gray feet, death in a bucket bobbling along above the wall as she walks.”
     To reduce suffering like this, it is Erdman’s job to provide pre- and post-natal education and vaccines. But the roadblocks seem innumerable. She’s the first PCV in Nambonkaha, a place where people have “never considered health trouble something they could tackle.” The locals firmly believe that children who eat eggs will grow up to be thieves, and the children of uncircumcised women will always die. And in a country where 2,000 people die each week of AIDS, Erdman’s closest health assistant — a man named Bakary — won’t use condoms. “You can’t eat a banana with the peel on it,” the local saying goes.
     So the battle begins — to organize education meetings, weigh babies, build a new midwife clinic, and stage an AIDS awareness day. And like most Peace Corps experiences, it’s one gigantic mixed bag: grim defeat interspersed with deep joys and unshakable friendships and the satisfaction of small triumphs hard-earned along the way.
     Humor restores sanity at critical moments. When a vulgar, pushy gendarme insists on visiting Erdman’s small house, eager for romance, she writes: “I bring my most uncomfortable chair outside and shut the door firmly. Nick (Erdman’s mongrel dog) greets the gendarme with his typical crazed hyperactivity, which I usually try to quell with sharp words. Tonight, I smile apologetically and say, ‘he really likes strangers’ as the dog mounts the gendarme’s leg relentlessly.”
     But Erdman’s greatest strength — and it’s a big one — is her descriptive power. Page after page, her uncommonly sharp eye lasers in on the small, revealing details that make Africa, in my mind, the most fascinating continent on the planet.
     Erdman on the bad teeth of poor villagers: “A few mouths look like old graveyards — some teeth bent forward, some backward, some crumbled and chipped.”
     Erdman on fat government officials at a fete: “. . . the grandes types are lined up in chairs in the courtyard, stuffed and stretched out, shifting occasionally like a row of sunbathing walruses.”
     Erdman on the dry-season landscape of grass on fire at sunset: “Bracelets of fire flicker and dwindle and spout. The noise is like a tank coming through the bush, or the sky falling on the trees, brittle snapping against a roar. The sun sets as I stand there — white, flat, the unblooded, unloving harmattan sun, behind a curtain of dirty smoke. It trembles as it falls.”
     This book takes me back!
     As for her work, in the end Erdman can only do so much in a country where local nurses haven’t had a raise in 18 years and health clinics routinely run out of medicine three quarters through each month and pre-natal education competes with magical, curative strings sold by nomads from Niger. Construction of the new midwife facility is completed just days before Erdman leaves and a modest group of dedicated village mothers makes great strides in improving their families’ health. Erdman organizes a party to honor the women. To the thump of drums, “I dance for them (past midnight); circling the mothers, whose winning babies bob sleepily on their backs. They dance for me, hold up my arms to honor me, crouch at my knees when I sit . . . . The women keep on till morning, elbows pumping, shoulders switching, feet hammering the ground. Their babies dance in their sleep.”
     This is not the best Peace Corps memoir ever written. That distinction is held — and probably will always be held — by Moritz Thomsen’s Living Poor. But this is an outstanding effort, told by a star Volunteer who has now succeeded in all of Peace Corps’ goals. On the final pages she writes, “I can feel myself retreating from the heart of village life to a more neutral spot. Something clicks — I’m one of a few who can tell (these villagers) about America in words they’ll understand; I’m one of a few who can explain them to America.”
     Hear, hear.

Mike Tidwell’s own Peace Corps memoir, The Ponds of Kalambayi (Lyons Press, 1990), is widely considered a classic of the genre. His most recent book, Bayou Farewell (Pantheon, 2003) details his odyssey hitchhiking on Cajun fishing boats through the bayou country of Louisiana.