Peace Corps Writers

Things Are Different in Africa

Things Are Different in Africa
A Memoir of Dangers and Adventures in the Congo

by Frederick Edward Pitts (Congo/Mali 1992–93)
iUniverse Press
220 pages

Reviewed by John Rex (Ethiopia 1962–64; Namibia 2003–04)

IN 1992, HAVING REACHED MIDDLE AGE and needing a change in his life, Frederick Edward Pitts joined the Peace Corps and was sent toPrinter friendly version Makoua in the Republic of Congo. His job as a Volunteer was to supervise construction of fish ponds, part of the Congo fish project.
     His memoir of that time is almost the prototypical Peace Corps account: arrival on site, culture shock, settling in, significant people, and adventures, with the added twist of evacuation from his post due to political upheaval and then his early termination from the Peace Corps.
     Pitts’ story differs from the usual RPCV stories in its ongoing ambiguity and negativity. For example, he writes that he “survived several months of language training,” plus another “sixty-days” of “language . . . immersion” — without once mentioning what language he was studying.
     As a Peace Corps trainee — first in 1962, and again in 2003 — I received at the most ten weeks of language training. Were the 90s so different?
     As a reviewer — and reader! — of Things Are Different in Africa, I would like to know some specifics about what Pitts experienced as a Volunteer — all the who, where, when, and for how long of his tour to gain some perspective on what he went through, but this book does not give us a coherent narrative. Instead, Pitts dwells on fragments of experience and observations, most of which are unfavorable depictions of the Peace Corps bureaucracy, the Congo, and the Congolese.
     For a start, Pitts had what we all know in the Peace Corps world — a “counterpart,” whom he identifies repeatedly as his “homologue.” The counterpart’s name is Herve, and Pitts describes him as a “tall, pudgy coal-black man.” Pitts appears to have taken an immediate dislike to his Congolese counterpart.
     Pitts also gives us brief descriptions of other people he meets overseas. Most of these individuals are presented as being deficient in their actions and attitudes. Their culture doesn’t measure up according to Fred Pitts, or as he puts it, “things are different in Africa.” Being different in Africa for Pitts means not being good enough.
     I have lived in Ethiopia, India, and Namibia — as well as New York, Maine, California, Virginia, and Florida — and I have learned that many things are very different wherever I go. Some differences are good and some are bad, but all have provided me opportunities to grow through new perspectives and alternate understandings of what it means to live in this world. Cultural immersion means “being with” others, experiencing compassion. Different “things” have changed me. That kind of personal change or growth seems not to have affected Pitts. Instead, he remains judgmental, most often critical, of what others are doing “differently.”
     In his writing Pitts is extremely idiosyncratic, and often incomprehensible. He delights in dangling modifiers: “. . . while brushing my teeth in the yard, the familiar white truck came toward me . . .” He favors the passive over the active voice. He speaks of “serpents” and “carnivores” and “creatures” and “denizens” without letting us know what he means. He describes ordinary cultural matters in the past tense, as if they were historical. Events happen “momentarily.” And so he goes on. What an editorial challenge this book would have been if someone had edited it.
     Things Are Different in Africa includes a number of fuzzy black and white photographs which are not meaningfully integrated into the text. The book also lacks a map, which would have been helpful.
     Pitts also takes some things for granted in the Peace Corps and he shouldn’t. For example, he refers to Newsweek magazine as something “routinely distributed by the Peace Corps.” Not so in 2004 when we PCVs seldom received a copy due to budget cuts. And there is his wonderful new red motorcycle on which he rode freely and crashed terribly. In my recent experience in Peace Corps/Namibia Volunteers were sent home if caught riding a motorcycle. And this is in a country without public transportation in many locations. But that is another story. My story.
     Frederick Edward Pitts has told his story with the expressed objective, he states, that the reader will gain “understanding of life in an obscure part of the planet Earth.” I respect that effort and his goal, although for this reviewer, the telling is seriously flawed.
John Rex taught school in Western New York for 27 years before moving on to seminary and ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. After serving congregations in Virginia and Florida, and extended work with groups in India, he retired and rejoined the Peace Corps. He now resides in Buffalo, NY.
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