READING THE LAST PAGES of The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer, I was surprised to encounter the phrase, “Hang in there!” spoken by one of Gary Gilmore’s attorneys to Gary on the day he was executed. It must have been more than a coincidence, with Hang In There lying on the couch next to me, waiting to be read. Both books struggle to come to terms with the human condition, whether the fate of a death row inmate or the plight of school children in Jamaica and Sierra Leone.
Hang In There is a book that anyone over the age of 50 who is considering the Peace Corps should read. As Elizabeth wrote in a letter home from Sierra Leone, “All younger Volunteers have gained weight. All over 50 looking quite tired, drained, and very thin.” Elizabeth served close to three years in Jamaica but ended her service in Sierra Leone after a year. It is quite effective to read about the two tours back-to-back, one highly successful, the other less so.
Elizabeth served as a business education Volunteer in both countries during the eighties. Typing was a key component of this education, and very few people in either country had a grasp of keyboarding, a skill that is critical in today’s business world because of the advent of personal computers and laptops.
Many of the issues Elizabeth faced in both countries will be familiar to all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers: crowded, dangerous public transportation, difficulty getting enough clean water, little or no electricity, dirt everywhere, poor sanitation. Issues that are perhaps more unfamiliar to many RPCVs were present in Sierra Leone and included public flogging of students in the school where Elizabeth taught, polygamy, and the wife of her school’s principal insistence that their daughters undergo the rite of female circumcision at puberty as part of the initiation to the secret Bundo Society.
Elizabeth felt that she had failed because she did not complete her second Peace Corps assignment, but perhaps in the end it was really the more successful of the two. She confronted her school’s principal with the most serious issues that had hindered her during her work at the school, and during the week she was in-charge as Mistress she demonstrated that it was possible to run the school without resorting to public flogging of students. Additionally, as I read through the memoir, I noted a definite change in Elizabeth herself, from being a somewhat passive traveler in her life, to becoming a much more aggressive leader in it.
I am not sure why the decision was made to capitalize all of the journal entries in Hang In There, but because there were many of these long entries during her stay in Sierra Leone, it added to the more confrontational feel that the second half of the book had. It was somewhat difficult to read the capitalized text, so perhaps it would have been better to indent the text or find some other way to denote journal entries.
Martha Martin is currently an Admissions and Academic Consultant at the School of Management at George Mason University. She is also writing a creative non-fictional account of her own experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Costa Rica, but it is a very slow-going endeavor.