Review

    Seeing Through Africa
    by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 1965–67)
    Cross-Cultural Communications
    May 2004
    254 pages
    $20.00

    Reviewed by Wayne Handlos (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    I VOLUNTEERED TO REVIEW this book because I was curious about the stories told by someone whose life appeared to parallel mine. The parallels expanded — from Peace Corps Volunteer in East Africa (he, Kenya; I, Ethiopia), to life back in the U.S. (he, New York; I, upstate New York and New Jersey), to life back in Africa (he, Kenya; I, Zambia, Botswana, Malawi), to life back in the U.S. (he, New York; I, Minnesota). His bamboo reminded him of the tropics; my bougainvillea did the same and provided respite from winters in Minnesota. His first child was a biological son; ours was a daughter; his second child was adopted — interracial with an African name — and so was ours (his, a daughter; ours, a son). His granddaughter is like his adopted daughter; our grandson so reminds us of our son. We’ve both had career changes later in life. We’ve both dealt with racist missionaries. We’ve even both had squirrels in our walls. These are some of the parallels.
         How many books have you read where the beginning is catchy, the middle is so much filler and the end is clearly the author’s need to finish off a project? This book is not like that at all. The beginning is good, the middle is better and the end is the best. In fact, the last text page is excellent. There are no numbered chapters, there is no table of contents, and there is no index. Proofreading would have benefited this book a lot. There are missing prepositions and articles, periods that should be commas, and many lines are not justified to the right margin. That said, the book is still a good read.
         Arthur Dobrin has written a memoir – “This is my life as I think I lived it.” I am not a fan of biographies or autobiographies but this has enough resonance to my own life that I really connected with and liked what I read. It is not chronological; recollections are grouped under headings like Children, Volunteers, Food, Race, Guns, Memory, Misunderstandings, Names, etc. Sometimes there seems little logic for the inclusion of a memory under a given heading. I might have placed them elsewhere. As the author writes “ . . . there are pieces that don’t fit just right, my fingerprints are all over, and there are parts left over.” Dobrin has published seven books of poetry and has interspersed his text with original poems. That works. I’d like to read more of them.
         I especially like the stories about his mother’s bad cooking. “Let’s eat and get it over with,” his father repeatedly said. Luckily we have no similarities there, my mother being of the Food Is Love School of Human Relations. Much of the writing is tinged by the New Yorker’s view of the world (“There is nothing more beautiful than the Manhattan skyline on a clear, cold night.”). “Write what you know” Dobrin was advised, but his New York background is quaintly naïve in places. Like my classmate at Cornell who came from the Bronx with a suitcase full of shaving crème and deodorant lest such things not be available in rural Ithaca, New York.
         The author’s years as a Leader of the Ethical Humanist Society touch on the confidences and confessions on both sides — parishioner and “minister.” He makes us aware of life’s many trials, injustices and ironies. His activism is admirable and covers varied causes. As a plant lover, his elaboration of the concept of volunteers brought a new insight about weeds to me. We all need to be aware of the subtleties and complexities of “race.”

    Wayne Handlos earned a Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell, taught at the university level in New Jersey, Zambia, Botswana and Malawi, and owned a florist shop and nursery in Minnesota. He is now retired and gardening in California.