Peace Corps Writers — January 2007



Peace Corps Writers

Then Sarge Said to Me!
Kristen Gislason Callow was a part of Peace Corps’ Office for Volunteer Recruitment & Selection (VRS) from 1994–1998, serving as Special Assistant to the Associate Director. Kristen and her Aussie husband, Sean, live with their 16-month-old daughter, Juliet, in Singapore. She hopes that Juliet will one day serve as a PCV.

WHEN I FIRST MET SARGENT SHRIVER in the spring of 1994, I was a star struck new employee at Peace Corps Headquarters. On my first day of work, instead of sitting through one of those painfully dull HR overviews, I had the opportunity to hear the amazing Sargent Shriver speak to our team, as great fortune would have it. I was beyond excited because he had long been my personal hero.
     During the course of his speech, he mentioned how proud he was of his children, particularly his son, Mark, who was making his first run for the Maryland House of Delegates.
     I was a veteran of licking envelopes for the Clinton-Gore campaign while I was in law school, so I immediately sensed a “hook” by which I could meet my hero.
     I worked my way to the front of the crowd after Sarge had finished speaking, and as he was the shaking hands of my equally star-struck colleagues, I blurted out that I would be honored to volunteer for his son’s campaign . . . every weekend until the election. Sarge smiled, took my newly minted Peace Corps business card and said that his son would be thrilled to have such a zealous volunteer on board.
     Imagine my surprise when that Saturday, as I was mopping my kitchen floor in sweat pants, my phone rang. Sargent Shriver — Peace Corps founder, Ambassador, head of Special Olympics, father-in-law of The Terminator (!) — was calling for me. I nearly fainted! By the next weekend, I was wearing my “Mark K. Shriver for Maryland House of Delegates” t-shirt and canvassing the greater Montgomery County area with some college students from Mark’s alma mater, Holy Cross.
     Fast forward to October 1994. The Shrivers were hosting a wonderful family day event at their Potomac home in honor of Mark’s campaign and as a way of thanking all of the people who had given their support.
     There were probably a few hundred people at the event — friends of the candidate, volunteers and interested voters from the community. Because Sarge is a bit larger than life, some guests were a little bit star-struck, just as I had been upon meeting him for the first time. Most people would quietly edge up to him, quickly shake his hand (if that) and then excitedly scurry away.
But by the time this October event rolled around, I was at ease around the man I called “Mr. Shriver.” I had logged hundreds of miles of pounding the pavement in support of his son’s candidacy. I had escorted the Shrivers on some of their neighborhoods canvassing efforts. I had eaten hot dogs in their kitchen. I had been Sarge’s official escort at a number of Peace Corps headquarters events. Though certainly no insider, I had endeared myself to Sarge because I showed loyalty to two things that meant very much to him: his family & the Peace Corps.
     So on that fall day in 2004, I was pretty comfortable chatting Sarge up as hundreds of people milled around on the Shriver’s sprawling lawn.
     Just then, a band started playing that Glenn Miller classic “In The Mood.” My feet started tapping. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I asked Sarge if he would like to dance with me. As no one was on the dance floor yet, he politely stalled.
     “I don’t want to be the first one on an empty dance floor. I’m not a very good dancer.”
     “Oh, c’mon, Mr. Shriver,” I pleaded.
     No luck.
     “C’mon, Mr. Shriver,” I pleaded some more. “Come show everyone some of those great moves you used when you were courting Mrs. Shriver.”
     Then Sarge said to me, with a big twinkle in his eye: “My dear, she will tell you that all of my best moves came OFF of the dance floor.”
     (It turns out that he is a marvelous dancer, to boot!)

Sad news
Beryl Brinkman (Afghanistan 1967–69), editor of the second edition of The Funniest Job You’ll Ever Love: An Anthology of Peace Corps Humor, died suddenly on February 1, 2007. Beryl was a great friend and supporter of Peace Corps Writers, and a reviewer for our publication. She was also a great supporter of the Peace Corps, and of her Peace Corps country, Afghanistan. Beryl co-chaired the RPCV conference in Eugene, Oregon the summer of 1990 — one of the really great ones!
     Many of Beryl’s family and friends gathered in Eugene the weekend of February 3, 2007 to honor her. At her death Beryl was raising funds for the non-profit Kids4AfghanKids — funds she planned to take to Afghanistan later this year. If you would like to make a donation in her memory, go to www.kids4afghankids.com and click on: Support>Get Involved.
     We will miss her smile.

In This Issue
How often have you turned on your computer to see that you can, with a little information, i.e., your bank code, SS#, etc., receive several million dollars in hard U.S. currency that is frozen in Lagos, Nigeria, or some other African country? You needs only give the sender your bank account # to transfer all that money to you! These scams are one of the topics I discussed with RPCV anthropologist and Brown University professor, Dan Smith (Sierra Leone 1984–87), whose new book, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria, has just been published by Princeton University Press. Smith looks at fraud in Nigeria, the largest source of foreign income after oil for the nation, and what it all means to the future of Nigeria and West Africa.

Three writers write
Remember the 1950 film Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa? It became the cinematic archetype by telling the “facts” surrounding a rape and murder from four different and contradictory points of view, suggesting the nature of truth is something less than absolute. Well, we are trying to do something of the same by publishing different accounts of the same Peace Corps event. In “Pursuing Love, I Discovered the Peace Corps” John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67) recalls his impressions of the night [October 14, 1960] when John Kennedy introduced the idea of a Peace Corps to students on the steps of the University of Michigan Student Union.
     Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66) has sent us some of his recent and wonderful poems. Also out of Africa is “Monsoon Time in Tanga, Tanzania, October 2006” by Mark Hankins (Kenya 1983–87) who lives and works in East Africa and it seems as though he will never come home.

And more
Since we began doing this site in July of 1999, we have published reviews of 213 books thanks to our many generous reviewers, and in this issue we are adding a record breaking nine more to that number. In addition we have a list of 16 new books published by Peace Corps writers, and 17 Peace Corps writers have been added to our Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers, bringing the total number of Peace Corps writers in the Bibliography to 896!
     Enjoy the wealth of talent.

John Coyne
Editor


Recent books

Greasers and Gringos
The Historical Roots of Anglo-Hispanic Prejudice

by Jerome R. Adams (Colombia 1963–65)
McFarland & Company,
September, 2006
243 pages
$35.00

Impressions of Arvo Laurila
(A Novel)
by Lauri Anderson (Nigeria 1965–67)
North Star Press,
2005
232 pages
$16.95

Thinking Through the Children's Sermon
by William H. Armstrong (Staff: Ethiopia 1966–68; Swaziland 1968–71)
Pilgrim Press
November 2006
142 pages
$16.00

Mambila Remembered
by John Bishop, Steve Clapp, Lowell Fewster, Harvey Flad and Roger Leed (all Nigeria 1963–65)
Self Published
2006
48 pages
$11.73

Lao Close Encounters
(photographs)
by John J.S. Burton (Thailand 1965–67)
Bangkok: Orchid Press,
January 2007
228 pages
$36.00

Tetonka Tales
by John R. Eggers (Uruguay 1965–67)
November 2006
$29.95

The Christmas Pig
A Fable
by Kinky Friedman (Borneo 1967–69)
Simon & Schuster
November 2006
176 pages
$15.95

I Am The Grand Canyon
The Story of the Havasupai People

by Stephen Hirst (Liberia 1962–64)
Grand Canyon Association
2006
274 pages
$18.95

Grains of Golden Sand
Adventures in War-Torn Africa
by Delfi Messinger (Zaire (DRC) 1984–87)
The Fine Print Press
October 2006
389 pages
$15.95

Assumptions and Misunderstandings
Memoir of an Unwitting Spy

by Anne Bates Linden (Ukraine 1992–95)
www.ukraineworks.org
Self Published,
2006
215 pages
$14.95

A Year of Absence
Six Women's Stories of Courage, Hope and Love
by Jessica (Rosen) Redmond (Slovakia 2000 – 02)
Elva Resa Publishing,
2005
232 pages
$24.95

The Telemachia
A History by Antimenes of Argos

Michael Barnes Selvin (Ghana 1966–68)
www.telemachia.com
Lulu.com
2006
538 pages
$28.50

A Voice for My Grandmother
(chapbook)
by Ron Singer (Nigeria 1964–67)
Ten Penny Players/Bardpress
November 2006
24 pages
$12.00

Black Man’s Grave
Letters from Sierra Leone

by Guy Stewart (Sierra Leone 1968–70) and John Amman (Sierra Leone 1979–82)
Berkeley WV: Cold Run Books
January 2007
224 pages
$14.95

A Chameleon’s Tale
True Stories of a Global Refugee
by Mo Tejani (Thailand 1978-1980)
Paiboon Publishing
2006
257 pages
$13.95

The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture
Life Beneath the Level of the Marketplace

by Tony Waters (Thailand 1980–82)
Lexington Books
August 2006
272 pages
$85.00


Literary Type

    The National Book Festival on the Smithsonian Mall held in October of 2006, was the largest since its inception with approximately 100,000 people attending. Laura Bush, a former librarian, started this festival six years ago. Lucia St. Clair Robson (Venezuela 1964–66) was asked by her publicist at Tor/Forge to interview another of their authors, Elmer Kelton at this popular event). Elmer Kelton, according to Lucia, has been called the best Western writer of all time.

    Tony D’Souza (Cote D’Ivoire 2000–02, Madagascar 2002–03) author of last year’s fine novel, Whiteman, has had his short story, “The Man Who Married a Tree” selected for the 2007 Best American Fantasy anthology. The story appeared in McSweeney’s. Prime Books will publish the Best American Fantasy anthology.

    Susan Rich’s (Niger 1984–86) second book, Cures Include Travel, has been nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. It was number seven on the bestseller list at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle this fall, and the poem “The Women of Kismayo” from the book was chosen by Poetry Daily. The poems span three continents and focus primarily on Somalia, Bosnia, and South Africa. There are also several pieces contemplating the nature of home and its relation to travel.

    Nita Noveno (Cameroon 1988–90), a New York-based writer originally from Alaska, mines her memories for stories about family and identity. In her piece "Mindanao", she weaves together personal and political history.
    You can read it at: www.ducts.org/12_06/html/essays/noveno.html.

    Mo Tejani (Thailand 1979–80) — an Indian Shia Muslim by ancestry — was expelled from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972. Torn apart from his family and exiled from his continent of birth, Mo has spent three decades on the road, and has just published his globetrotting memoir, a story of his travels through five continents in search of a “home” for himself. He now lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His book is entitled A Chameleon’s Tale: True Stories of a Global Refugee.

    The December 2006 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, the magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs carried an exchange of letters between John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64) and Sybil Baker regarding her essay in Volume 39, Number 1, of The Writer’s Chronicle, entitled “Lost Generation: The American Expatriate Writer.” Coyne objected to the fact that Ms. Baker did not list any RPCV writers in her long article. Ms. Baker agreed with the editor of www.PeaceCorpsWriters.org that it was an oversight.

    Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s (Cameroon 1963-65) memoir, Girls of Tender Age, was selected by NPR’s “Fresh Air” as the top nonfiction book of 2006. The memoir also made the best books list at The Washington Post Book World. The memoir has been selected by a dozen communities across the country for “One Town, One Read” events. The community read she looks forward to most of all is “One Book, One School” — Hartford Public High School’s students, teachers and parents will be reading and discussing the memoir led by students taking the “Urban Lit” English elective. (Mary-Ann grew up in Hartford).
         The memoir was published in January in the UK and has already received glowing reviews.
         Mary-Ann will hold a master class at Trinity College in March in connection with a three-day event: “Giving Voice: A Symposium on the Art of the Memoir.”

    Stephen Handelman (Guatemala 1971–73) a former Time writer and author is now managing editor of a new quarterly magazine put out by the Americas Society in New York, called Americas Quarterly (the premier issue will be out in April 2007). The magazine aims at getting new, provocative ideas and information from around the Americas, stretching from the proverbial Arctic to Tierra del Fuego. Any PCV in the region, or RPCV who has ideas, suggestions, stories — and most significant of all — or who can point to new voices worth spotlighting in the magazine should contact Steve at shandel@ix.netcom.com

    Peter Chilson (Niger 1985-87) has won the Katherine Bakeless Nason Fiction Prize, sponsored by Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, for his collection of stories entitled Disturbance-Loving Species: A Novella and Stories. It will be published by Mariner Books (a Houghton Mifflin imprint) in August 2007. The stories are about cultural displacement, specifically Americans in Africa, struggling to cope and survive, and Africans who are living in America and coping with their own problems. Peter writes, “Naturally, some of what I learned through my Peace Corps experiences comes into play in these stories.”

    The University of Georgia has announced the three winners of the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and Anne Panning (Philippines 1988–90) has won one of the prizes for her short story collection Super America. Her book will be published in October 2007 by the University of George Press. Besides publication, the three winners receive $1000 cash awards.
         Anne is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York/Brockport and is from Minnesota. Her first short-story collection, The Price of Eggs, was published in 1992. In January, Anne and her husband, Mark, and their two young children (2 and 5 years old) left for Vietnam for six months. Mark received a Fulbright and Anne is on sabbatical and will be working on her next novel, and — as she writes — “chasing after the kids.”

    Kris Holloway (Mali 1989–91), author of the recently published Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years With a Midwife in Mali, had a short essay, “Obedience Training,” in the November 5, 2006 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Her story is one that many PCVs experienced when adopting a dog in the developing world and have to leave their pet behind. Kris, however, had a tougher goodbye than most Volunteers.
         Kris ran up against a feticheur, the leader of the traditional religious community that scarified animals to bring honor, luck and rain to the village. Kris knew this man ate dogs and her pet was especially valuable because it belonged to an American.
         Saying goodbye in Africa meant more to Kris than leaving her village and her host family. And what it meant she detailed in this short touching essay.

    Haworth Press has just announced that the entire series of the critically acclaimed Donald Strachey gay mystery novels will be re-released in conjunction with the Here! Television network’s Donald Strachey Mystery productions in which Chad Allen plays private eye Strachey. The first of the TV series, Third Man Out is available on DVD. The next production, from the novel Ice Blues, will air early in 2007. The author of the series is Richard Stevenson, better known as Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64).
         Lipez and his partner, Joe Wheaton, are now traveling, and bogging, from Asia. You can follow their adventures at
    jdsoutheastasia.blogspot.com

    The annual fiction issue of The New Yorker that appeared on December 25, 2006 carried a long short story, “Monkey Hill” written by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963–65) and set in the foothills of the Himalayas.
         In an op-ed piece entitled, “America the Overfull” in The New York Times on Sunday, December 31, 2006, Paul wrote about the fact that the U.S. had reached a population of 300 million, saying, in part:

    A longing for a simpler world, for a glimpse of the past, is one of the motives in travel. But the rest of the world has fared no better in terms of population pressure, and in many places it is much worse, even catastrophic. The population of Malawi 40 years ago was small and sustainable. None of us Peace Corps Volunteers there at that time thought in terms of rescuing the country but only of helping to improve it. Now Malawi can’t feed itself; it’s one of the many countries that people wish to flee, renowned for being hopeless, unjustly publicized as the enormous orphanage of desperate tots, needing to be saved, devoid of pride, lost without us (back then it would have been Elvis) would breeze through and scoop up a child in a condescending gesture of rescue was unthinkable then.


Talking with . . .

. . . Daniel Jordan Smith

an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    ONE THING THE PEACE CORPS HAS produced (besides writers) is a good many academics, especially RPCVs who have come home to earn additional degrees and become professors of international studies, medicine, or anthropology. Dan Smith (Sierra Leone 1984–87) has done that and more. His book, A Culture of Corruption: Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria published by Princeton University Press looks at fraud in Nigeria, the largest source, after oil, of foreign revenue. Having lived and worked in Nigeria, and being married to a Nigerian, Dan draws on his firsthand experiences to give us an insightful and well written account of “the Nigerian factor” as Nigerians call corruption in their country. As Dan points out, “they [Nigerians] are painfully aware of the damage corruption does to their country and see themselves as their own worst enemies.” This book, as the jacket says, “is a profound and sympathetic attempt to understand the dilemmas average Nigerians face every day as they try to get ahead — or just survive — in a society riddled with corruption.”
         Over the last few months I have interviewed Dan (who is on the faculty at Brown University) about his work in the Peace Corps, his book on Nigeria, and what he sees for the future of Africa.

    Where are you from in the States, Dan?

    I grew up in northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., but I went to high school in New Hampshire, and to Harvard for college.

    What was your Peace Corps assignment in Sierra Leone?

    I was a health Volunteer assigned to assist in extending and improving the primary health care program in the chiefdom where I was posted. I spent a lot of time working with primary health care staff and Village Health Workers. I also worked with another Volunteer to upgrade local water wells and provide complementary health and sanitation education.

    I presume you went on to graduate school after the Peace Corps.
    Yes, that’s right. I first got a master’s degree in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, and later a Ph.D. in Anthropology at Emory University.

    How did the Peace Corps experience influence what you studied?
    The Peace Corps had a profound impact on what I decided to study and on my career path. I first chose to do an MPH because I had been a health Volunteer and wanted to continue to work in international health and development, especially in Africa. After the MPH program I got my first public health job working as a Project Advisor on a Child Survival Program in Nigeria run by an American non-governmental organization called Africare. I spent three years in Nigeria with Africare, and in many ways Peace Corps both predisposed me and prepared me for this kind of work.
         But along the way I had certain questions and frustrations with public health and development work and I thought that Anthropology might offer a useful and illuminating perspective about the kinds of things I was worrying about while also allowing me to continue to pursue my interests in and commitment to Africa. In retrospect, three and a half years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone prepared me very well for doing anthropological research, because many of the challenges of adapting to and understanding another society while in the Peace Corps are akin to what one faces doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I’ve done all my anthropological research in and writing about Nigeria, but I feel like I owe a great deal to my Peace Corps experience. Indeed, I hope that in the future I will do research in Sierra Leone.

    You've talked about many of the challenges of adapting to and understanding another society being akin to what one faces doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. Tell us a little more about how the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone prepared you for doing anthropological research.

    In my experience in the Peace Corps it quickly became apparent that being an effective Volunteer required a great effort to acquire a kind of cultural competence — epitomized by language fluency and eating and enjoying local cuisine, but encompassing a wide range of familiarity with and empathy regarding local traditions, practices and understandings. In addition, just getting to know people and becoming an accepted person in the community turned out to be simultaneously the most treasured aspect of my Peace Corps experience and the crucial factor in being able to do some effective work. All of this translates wonderfully into what it takes to do good research as a cultural anthropologist. The challenges — but also the joys — are very similar.

    What was your PHD study?

    I did my dissertation research in southeastern Nigeria among the Igbo-speaking ethnic group looking at the relationship between social change and family and demographic processes. Specifically, I was interested in a seeming paradox: why was it that Igbo people, who by many measures (education, mobility, urban exposure, women’s autonomy, etc.) are among the most “modern” of Africans still value high fertility and have so many children. This seemed to go against the conventional wisdom that modernization (whatever, exactly, that means) is associated with low fertility. My research addressed this question and I came to the conclusion that relatively high fertility remains important for Igbos (and indeed for many Africans) because ties of kinship continue to be necessary for access to social resources, even when those resources are modern ones, like education, state services, opportunities for urban migration, employment, and so on. Essentially, I argued that in a clientelistic political economy like Nigeria’s, people navigate social, economic and political life through kinship ties, and in such an environment having relatively large families still makes sense — even though one must acknowledge, and Igbo people certainly experience, many countervailing pressures.

    Is your book A Culture of Corruption the result of your Ph.D. work?

    My book is not directly the result of my Ph.D. research, though in retrospect I have been collecting ethnographic “data” about corruption in Nigeria ever since I started working there in 1989. As I decided what to write my first book about I felt almost obliged to write about and try to explain corruption in Nigeria. I took on the topic in part because it so dominates Nigeria’s global reputation, in part because it is in many ways misunderstood, and in part because for Nigerians themselves corruption — and the discontents it generates — is a primary lens through which they experience, understand and criticize contemporary life.

    Where have you taught besides Brown?

    Brown has been my only full-time teaching position, but I also taught at Emory University while I was doing my Ph.D. and I taught several courses at Abia State University in Nigeria when I had a Fulbright Fellowship.

    What do you teach in Brown?
    I teach mainly in the areas of medical anthropology and the anthropology of development, but also more broadly in cultural anthropology. I teach courses such as “Culture and Health,” “International Health: Anthropological Perspectives,” “Anthropology and International Development: Ethnographic Perspectives on Poverty and Progress,” and “Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.” I also plan to teach courses specifically on Africa.

    As an academic, would you think the study of “the Peace Corps” would make a good academic study at Brown or any other colleges or universities?
    Yes, I think someone could do a fascinating study of the Peace Corps. I’d be surprised if there hasn’t been some stuff already done, though I am unaware of any anthropological study — taking the Peace Corps as a kind of ethnographic object. I know that there are many RPCVs who have gone on to become anthropologists. We have had several just in our Ph.D. program at Brown.

    Let’s go back to your book and its topic of corruption. Does Africa, particularly Nigeria, have a future that will not be limited by such widespread corruption that those of us who served in Africa know from first hand experience?
    Let me say that I think corruption is a feature of every society, not just African societies. But I also think it is fair to say that Africa, and Nigeria, has been especially hampered by corruption. I argue in the book that to understand corruption in Nigeria one must recognize and unravel the paradox that ordinary Nigerians are simultaneously participants in corruption even as they are also its primary victims and its loudest critics. The scope of corruption and the degree to which it creates a sort of vicious cycle contribute to its intractability. But I am somewhat optimistic because I see that ordinary Nigerians (and Africans more generally) are extremely self-conscious about the pernicious effects of corruption. Half my book focuses on explaining major social trends (like burgeoning Pentecostal Christianity, resurgent ethnic nationalism, and vigilantism) in terms of being responses to popular discontents with corruption. I see a tide of popular expectation for change and argue that even when elites use the facades of democracy and development to facilitate corruption and maintain inequality, they are stoking popular aspirations that they will not necessarily be able to control. So I am hopeful, but also worried about some of the paths to change that could unfold.

    Many of our readers are interested in publishing books. Explain the process for an academic like yourself to have a book published by a major university press, such as Princeton. For example, did you write the book first and submit it? Did the press come to you and ask for such a book? What is the usual way [if any] for someone to get a scholarly work published?

    It’s a long process, but I suspect publishing any book is. The process differs a bit depending on the stage in one’s career. For relatively senior and more famous academics it’s possible to get a book contract before one has actually written the book. This was my first book, and I wrote the whole manuscript before I solicited a press. I sent a book prospectus, my CV, and a sample chapter around to the major presses I was interested in. I had several good options because various university presses expressed a desire to review the book. In the end — again, at least for a first book — you have to choose one press to review the book. I chose Princeton. They then sent the manuscript out to (anonymous) peer reviewers in my field (in this case, anthropology and Africa), and based on the reviews the press decided to proceed with a contract.

    How long did it take you to research and write A Culture of Corruption?

    I was doing “research” for the book even before I knew it, in the sense that I use material from when I first started working in Nigeria in 1989. But I began consciously thinking about and studying corruption around 2001 and spent several summers and six months in 2004 in Nigeria collecting more material — though I was also working on other projects at the same time. I wrote most of the book in an intensive five-month stretch between January and May 2005, during a semester-long sabbatical.

    Recently on the television program 60 Minutes there was another example of this fraud in Africa. Most Americans have such a distorted view of Africa, from Tarzan on one hand to hustlers selling fake watches on the streets of New York City, to emails in their computer mail. Those of us who have lived in Africa have a different view of the continent. What can we do as RPCVs to correct this view of Africa?

    I think it’s incredibly important to represent Africa accurately and no doubt most of the images circulating in America are far too negative and stereotypical. I guess one of the most important things RPCVs can do is share their stories of the real Africans they know. Real people’s lives aren’t easily reducible to negative stereotypes. For me it was the connection to people that was so powerful in the Peace Corps, and it has shaped not only my career in research and teaching, but also my politics and the ethical choices I make in everyday life. I think in the end it’s those connections to real people and the stories we can tell to make Africa and Africans accessible to others that can make some difference.

    From your recent trips to Africa, your family connections, etc., what do you see for the future of Africa, or just Nigeria?

    I am at once hopeful and fearful about the future in Africa and in Nigeria particularly. I am fearful because inequality remains so entrenched even as ordinary people increasingly realize that they deserve better. This breeds a lot of discontent, and the pathways forward are uncharted. Often these unfulfilled expectations contribute to anger and violence. I am hopeful because in my experience most Nigerians — and I suspect most Africans — genuinely want a more just, equal and peaceful world, and even though they have experienced many of the promises of democracy and development as facades for corruption rather than real progress, in the process aspirations for change have been strengthened.

    Thank you for your time and for this interview.
    My pleasure.


Review

Assumptions and Misunderstandings
Memoir of an Unwitting Spy

by Anne Bates Linden (Ukraine 1992–95)
Self Published,
2006
215 pages
$14.95

Reviewed by Denis Nolan (Ethiopia 1964–66)

    THE TITLE FASCINATED ME , Assumptions and Misunderstandings, Memoir of an Unwitting Spy. Had the Peace Corps changed so much since I was in it that the CIA was now using PCVs as sources of information? Was I about to find out the truth behind the Bush administration? To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out why the book has such a title. The only spying going on was not by the author, Anne Bates Linden, but by her interpreter who was in the employ of the Ukraine government as the Peace Corps first enters the former Communist nation.
         Unfortunately, the title is the most intriguing part of this book. Though Linden stayed in Ukraine for almost three years, this book covers only from Thanksgiving of 1992 to Christmas of 1993, a mere thirteen months. By the end of the book, you would love to know why she stayed so long since all she does is tell the reader how bad things are and how much she hates the weather, the long lines, and the general incompetence.
         The book begins with nine pages devoted to the great effort the author put into helping to fix a Thanksgiving dinner for the Peace Corps Volunteers who had just arrived for in country training. I thought this was a rather strange beginning until I realized that at least three more times her only feelings of accomplishment during this first year were concerned with fixing food for others. Remembering my own first impressions of Ethiopia in 1964, I was rather startled by her constant criticism of everything Ukraine as she receives her “in country” training.
         The reader quickly becomes aware that this is one situation that the Peace Corps did not accurately assess. As the USSR broke into separate states and turned from socialism to private enterprise, Ukraine and other newly independent nations asked for assistance from the business community. Congress had agreed to fund the project provided the Volunteers were in place by Christmas of 1992. Thus Linden, and many of the others with her, has a background in business, but no sense of the Peace Corps. They have been whisked off to a nation about which they know nothing and put into a haphazard training program that is totally inadequate to the situation.
         Anyone interested in learning how bad things were as these nations moved from a state controlled economy to one with private enterprise may find this book fascinating. The author gives one example after another of how hard it is to find things, how bad the public facilities are, how dangerous it is, and how long the lines are. I assume from the introduction by Sheila Kowal that there is an attempt at humor here, but I must admit that I missed it. I look back on my memories of getting to know a culture, a people, and my fellow Volunteers with fondness. Linden does it with anger and frustration. In addition, the book does not flow particularly well as she wanders from place to place without giving the reader an overview to make it all sensible.
         Finally, after two hundred pages, she crosses the border (after waiting in line for fifteen hours again) on the way to Christmas in Vienna. You have the feeling that this is the end of the story, a final joyful moment of leaving a desolate and discouraging experience, never to return. Except that there is one more page, an “Afterward” that describes a return in January. She has no office, no workable stove, no job, and her letters for the next three months never arrive at their destinations. That is the end of her story except for an appendix with letters praising what a wonderful job she did. I guess those letters got through.

    Denis Nolan is a former engineer who was a teacher at the secondary school level in Ethiopia. After working in Washington for CBS and VISTA, he became a teacher and has worked with learning disabled children for the past thirty years. He is on the Advisory Board of Parents’ Education Network, an organization to help the parents of children with learning problems and does some writing on the side. He lives in California.


Review

A Chameleon’s Tale
True Stories of a Global Refugee
by Mo Tejani (Thailand 1978-1980)
Paiboon Publishing
2006
257 pages
$13.95

Reviewed by John Bidwell (Mali 1989–91)

    MY YOUNGEST BOY IS A TALKER, a characteristic accentuated by caffeine. We made this discovery one August afternoon at a party when he fell upon an unattended Mountain Dew, but that is straying from my point. My point is that reading Mo’s book is like listening to my son on caffeine.
         The book jumps a lot. Mo ricochets through his experiences in Thailand, the US, Vietnam, Belize, and Mexico — to name a few — as easily as my son jams Pokemon, Legos, and Yu-gi-oh into one sentence. This guy has been around, and he is out to share all his Kodak moments.
         The problem is that these snapshots are erratic. No prepared slideshow. Not even the same roll stored in the same flimsy envelope. It’s as if Mo invited us to his apartment for a drink and weed (trust me, its chez Mo) and dumped out a shoebox of photos on the shag rug. “Oh yeah, here’s a good one,” Mo would say, and launch into a tale that may or may not be interesting, but will probably have little to do with, unless serendipitously, the next picture.
         Which is exactly as Mo wants it. I carried this image of Mo and me picking through his memories from the first chapter, and lo and behold on the second to last page he writes:

    . . . I have my own talismans’: the Outward Bound badge from Kilimanjaro; my Buddha amulet from Nguyen; a T-shirt with the flags of all countries; Hendrix’s “Little Wings” inside my head; a world calendar marked with holidays from all cultures; photo albums of friends and places, jumbled up purposefully to keep reminding me of the whole world and not just a particular place or person. (reviewer’s italics)

         I find this A.D.D. timeline jarring, though it is tempered a bit by the fact that we are not attached to his characters. There is no character development. Everybody, regardless of importance, is given equal billing. I assume Mo is closer to his family and girlfriends, but they are scarcely more developed than a taxi driver, roommates, and concert drug buddies. I assume that Mo wants us to care; he just doesn’t set us up to care. He tells us that he was “nearly inseparable” from Nguyen — a boy in a refugee camp — and refers to him as his figurative “son,” yet we spend only a couple of pages with him. I want to know more about Nguyen, just as later I’m left wanting to know more about Mo’s girlfriend Pranee and her heroic efforts in the wake of the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand.
         What is supposed to link most of these characters is their “chameleon hearts.” They are all lost souls in one sense or another. Mo, of course, is the lead chameleon. Will Mo ever find happiness? Will he ever find a place to call home? Or will he shed all those confining labels, and find he belongs to the world? Well, this was written by an RPCV, so you know the answer. It is an apt analogy, if over done. The book stumbles into other clichés, most of which need to be thrown away like an over-exposed photograph. I will spare you the sordid details of his sexploit with the German love goddess Uta, except to quote Mo: “We made different musical sounds that night.” Ouch. And later, “I became the clown, generating laughs as a ploy to hide my pain” then, in Bangkok, along came educated Pranee, ”the best of all nurses, to mend this wounded chameleon’s heart.”
         What frustrates me most is the book’s potential. Mo has had fascinating experiences. He lived under Idi Amin’s rule and was made a refugee by the tyrant, and he survived the tsunamis in Thailand by heaving himself onto a passing log. His work in refugee camps is gripping. This is great stuff and I am left wanting more.
         Without a doubt, the fourth chapter is the best, for the very reason that Mo stays focused. We are permitted to get to know a place (Uganda) and people (his family) to a greater degree than any other chapter. I wish he had started the book here. This is where Mo is at his best:

    Only when you have suddenly lost the everyday world you live in, do you truly appreciate what you loved about it so much. Once gone forever, memories come back in sudden flashes or fragments that haunt you. So it was with Uganda and me.

    How much stronger the tale if he had used this chapter as a template throughout. How much better the book if Mo had picked through his photos and put his best Kodak moments into labeled albums. Or better yet, if Mo had examined why these photos mean so much to him, delved into the best he had, and permitted us to feel in depth the places and persons that have been so profound to him.

    John Bidwell is founder and principal of Bidwell ID (www.bidwellid.com), a strategic branding and visual communications firm. He is also the editor of Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali, written by his wife Kris Holloway. Outdoors, he runs and hikes. Indoors, he writes and tidies up. He lives in Western Massachusetts with Kris and their two boys.


Review

A Culture of Corruption
Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria
by Daniel Jordan Smith (Sierra Leone 1984–87)
Princeton University Press
November 2006
260 pages
$27.95

Reviewed by David Strain (Nigeria 1963–65)

    THIS BOOK’S TITLE, given its lively use in our latest Congressional elections, reminds us that corruption is a worldwide phenomenon. That being agreed, when dealing with any transaction, says author Daniel Jordan Smith, Nigerians always consider “the Nigerian factor,” and the Nigerian factor is corruption. Corruption is also the number one topic of conversation.
         Smith was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone. He returned to Africa to work for an NGO in Igboland, where he met and married his wife. Her Igbo community welcomed him both for his marriage and for speaking Igbo. Smith is now a professor of anthropology at Brown University. His research takes him to Igboland where he has taught at Imo State University. Smith is as close to a fly on the wall as any white American could be.
         As the subtitle “Everyday Deception and Popular Discontent in Nigeria” indicates, the volume is not about Nigerian generals and Swiss bank accounts; it is an anthropological study of corruption at local levels, and of how Igbo citizens perceive it. Smith begins with a 419 scam, told as a joke with relish by one Nigerian to a group of friends. The tale is of the sophisticated taking in of a Texas oilman who, promised millions, is stripped of substantial “advance money” when he arrives in Nigeria. This kind of delicious “Mission Impossible” story, however, when Smith observes it locally, becomes the tale of unemployed school graduates in Owerri who for a pittance type out in email cafés, and late at night for economy, the come-ons which blanket the Internet. When a fish bites, higher ups unknown to them take over. Not much Mission Impossible there.
         Nigerians use the phrase “419" broadly (419 refers to a Nigerian Criminal Code section which makes a felony of using false pretenses to defraud). Smith’s definition of corruption is even broader. It pulls in acts which Nigerians do not view as corrupt: an example, contacting a community higher-up whose position lets him get a daughter into a prestigious secondary school when her test scores do not qualify her automatically. Many Americans would agree with Smith, although in his example the official receives a dash, while in the US a college might get a substantial pre-acceptance gift.
         In Nigeria the corruption issue often arises out of the patron/client relationship that orders Igbo society. A village’s big man or high placed individual has often arrived through the village’s efforts, and is entitled to his wealth or power, earned or ill gotten, so long as he shares sufficiently with his community. This feudal-like mutuality of obligation is appropriate and effective in a village setting. It is troublesome when the patron’s job responsibilities should be to a group broader than his own. Nevertheless, as one state commissioner of agriculture says:
    “Even if I wanted to avoid the practice of awarding contracts on the basis of favoritism, I could not. My people would say that I am selfish and foolish. Who gets to such a position of power and then refuses to help his people? Only the worst kind of person.”
         The patron/client relationship seems right to Nigerians when the guy is your guy, corrupt when not.
         Smith examines various petty corruptions: the “settlement” you pay to the official to register your car, the cash you pay extra to obtain school transcripts, the bribes to police at checkpoints, the monetization of grades. Smith points out that officials are often not paid, their salaries are low, or they have fifteen children; that is, corruption is the response of poor people to a world that treats them unfairly.
         The book’s many interesting explorations include corruption in local elections, government support of vigilante groups, and the use of indigenous religion against political opponents. The Nigerian factor does seem to pop up everywhere, as do forces to confront corruption, such as Pentecostal religions and renewed talk of Igbo secession. But Smith answers “No” to the implication of his “Culture of Corruption” title, and agrees with Achebe that the fault lies with corrupt leadership elites, not Nigerian culture.
         The examples however suggest that many Nigerians, imbued with the culture of patron/clientism, are concerned less with its corruption than with its not benefiting them in contemporary Nigeria. Since the Biafran War Igbos feel politically marginalized, and in this context, deprived of Igbo higher ups in the federal oil administration to distribute slices of “the Nigerian cake.” Nigerians also think that many who do control jobs, contracts, and wealth are “eating alone,” not sharing sufficiently. Here there may be a tension with individual values absorbed from the west. I recall even in the 1960s professors hesitating to return home on holidays because of the drain of gifts expected by their communities.
         Like the exaggerated Igbo personality a Northerner remarks upon, excess characterizes Nigerian corruption. The government contract is an opportunity to plunder with no regard for fulfilling the contract. Smith gives no cultural explanation for this quality of excess. Perhaps, as a recent National Geographic article suggested, because Nigerian oil revenue comes from the federal government, politicians and government contractors have no need of help from their local communities and so feel no obligation to share.
         Smith also lays blame for corruption on the Western world, whose meeting with Africa at the juncture of oil and foreign aid contracts he says corrupts the African world. Smith agonizes over what he claims was the inherent corruption in his job with the NGO, which provided children’s health services. Paid a salary (modest, he assures us, by US standards) five times that of his Nigerian counterpart, he felt responsible to weed out petty corruption by Nigerian staff. Smith describes himself as:

    . . . a culpable and complicit actor in the whole enterprise of development-related corruption . . .. Part of the context of understanding Western culpability, and in this case my complicity, in sustaining Nigeria’s notorious corruption is recognizing the peculiarity of a system that legitimizes my privilege [his salary, housing and other perks], but is on the lookout for a local staff person who awards a contract to provide office stationery to any in-law to help a struggling business, or might terminate a driver who carries passengers for a fee in the office vehicle on his way back from an assignment in order to raise some extra cash for his children’s school fees. These actions are viewed by Westerners as forms of corruption. Yet the larger system of inequality is taken for granted, at least by most of us who are its principal beneficiaries.

         He may be right, but I am sorry that A Culture of Corruption does not explore the ramifications of these thought provoking conclusions nor define how aid organizations (and oil companies) could avoid the “corrupt” inequality that Smith condemns.
         Smith’s tells how corruption creeps into daily life with variety, pace and clarity. With his emphasis on what Nigerians feel, there is the question: are Nigerians responding to facts, or to rumors and disinformation from a less than fastidious press? And where patron/client rules dictate, as Smith says, social obligation trumps “a notion of civic duty.” I wonder whether Western ideas of corruption or civic duty are relevant or useful where groups, artificially forced together as in Nigeria, follow a local culture that rewards other competing values.
         Smith believes Nigerians’ full time victimization by corruption dressed in the clothing of democracy is an impetus to real development and democracy. But with tribal groups at odds, and the patron/client relationship prevailing as the standard for right behavior, there is a chasm to span before actual development and democracy can occur. Add the idea that Nigeria’s oil riches are “cake” to consume rather than assets to invest in education, infrastructure and development, and you get “the Nigerian factor” which makes progress difficult in that “geographical expression” called Nigeria.

    David Strain, a lawyer, served in Enugu, Nigeria where he did law reporting for the Eastern Region Ministry of Justice. He taught at the University of Lagos Law School in his second year of service. Retired now from private practice in San Francisco, he is the Book Editor of Friends of Nigeria newsletter.


Review

Cures Include Travel
by Susan Rich (Niger 1984–86)
White Pine Press
September 2006
106 pages
$14.00

Reviewed by Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978–79)

    CURES INCLUDE TRAVEL makes for a provocative title for Susan Rich’s new collection of poems, her second. As traveler, Rich compares favorably with Ibn Battuta, who, in the 14th century, having set his heart on Mecca, took off at the age of 21 from Tangier, Morocco, where he had been born. As it turned out, Mecca morphed into another starting point, as did the next destination and the next, and, amazingly, Battuta eventually found himself on the road for 29 years and 75,000 miles. Similarly, in following her heart to Niger as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Rich unwittingly set off on an epic journey which has led her to South Africa as a Fulbright professor, Bosnia as an electoral supervisor, Gaza as a human rights worker, etc.
         It is evident, too, that Rich’s years on the road have taught her something about negative capability. In poems such as “Sand Women,” “The Women of Kismayo,” “In Transit,” “Special Reports,” “Day 7: In the Beginning” and “Iska’s Story” — all inspired by outside reports — the speaker demonstrates her respectful attentiveness to strangers from around the world. The best international poems in the book, though, to pick up on my Keatsian reference point, do no irritable reaching after fact and reason via the New York Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or the South African Broadcasting System. In them, the poetical character truly “enjoys lights and shade” and “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” For example, in “Everyone in Bosnia Loves Begonias,” Rich risks the potential silliness of nursery-rhyme-intensive alliteration (“budding begonias bursting”) and a co-opted advertising jingle (“like a strong neighbor, Rex begonia is there”) to resurrect the life force amid bullet-worn apartments. In “Fissure,” the speaker, who has herself just been summarily unhoused by a fiancé, blasts through the usual empathetic space (there but for the grace of God go I) to a haunted oneness with a beggar child collapsed on a cement roundabout in Capetown. In “Ghazal for Everyone,” set in the fifth day of the War in Iraq, the word world gets lit like a candle at the end of every other line, thanks to an ancient Arabic poetic form.
         If cures include travel, they also include staying home. Ironically, given the world-ranging nature of the book, many of its strongest poems manifest something close to a reverence for domestic detail. In some poems, as in “To My Mother, Dead Eight Years,” domesticity becomes a trope for the poet’s mother, whose death is very much at the heart of the book: “And if there was little love to spare/ we had crisp sheets, clean underwear.”
         In others, domestic details give testimony on the single life: its vicissitudes (“After You’re Gone, the House”) and its gifts (“Scriptorium”). Rich’s allegiance to Elizabeth Bishop as mentor is especially clear in these poems. I also very much liked “What She Leaves Unspoken,” an oblique self-portrait, which, in its use of surreal blue in collage reminded me of the Joseph Cornell boxes Bishop so admired.
         The story is that at one point in his peregrinations, Ibn Battuta offended the sultan in Delhi, who took out a contract on him. Battuta, aware the royal assassins would not kill him while at prayer, launched the equivalent of a prayer filibuster. After nine days, the cut-throats finally threw in the towel. Indeed “prayer” and “blessing” are words that appear often in Cures Include Travel. Unusually frequent stanza breaks in the substantial number of poems with one- and two-line stanzas give readers a further sense of silence and sacred space. Despite or perhaps because of Rich’s assiduousness in focusing her lens on those in the crossfire on television news, her poetry serves as a sanctuary from terrorism, exactly what all of us could use.

    Ann Neelon was recently invited to lecture on Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska in the “Europe in Transition Seminars” in Regensburg, Germany, with sidetrips to Prague and Krakow. She edits New Madrid, a magazine associated with the new Low-Residency M.F.A. Program at Murray State University, where she is Professor of English.


Review

Grains of Golden Sand
Adventures in War-Torn Africa
by Delfi Messinger (Zaire (DRC) 1984–87)
The Fine Print Press
October 2006
389 pages
$15.95

Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976–78)

    IN THE FIRST SCENE of Delphi Messinger’s big and ambitious memoir, it is September 24th, 1991. In the streets of Kinshasa, Zaire, machine guns ack-ack on the streets as soldiers mutinying against the corrupt Mobutu Sese Seko, Zaire’s “president for life,” rampage from door to store, hundreds of others joining them in a frenzy of looting, vandalism and murder.
         Messinger, stranded within the compound of the National Institute of Biomedical Research where she both works and lives, is terrified. With the Institute and its multi-million-dollar stock of equipment and supplies “abandoned to fate,” she makes a desperate decision. Still in her white lab coat, she grabs a pistol and rushes to the Institute’s sheep pasture. There she singles out and chases down one animal. She ropes its legs, and she shoots it. Then she uses the animal’s blood to paint the word “SIDA” (AIDS) on the compound’s wall.
         It’s the only way she knows to keep the plundering hordes away, and it works. The bloody warning soaks into the concrete and stays for months thereafter, until embarrassed bureaucrats finally decree it whitewashed.
         What we learn about Messinger’s fierce and intrepid character in this opening is just the beginning of a story which ultimately settles down to describe how she took on the mission of saving the Institute’s eleven bonobo apes, a rare and endangered species. Ultimately, after literally years of encountering bureaucratic resistance, getting caught up in life-threatening politics of conservation, and even once being kidnapped and interrogated for hours, Messinger succeeds — sort of.
         It’s a riveting account, yet Messinger’s delivery presents some difficulties to a reader. Beginning with three years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, her fourteen years in Zaire (renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997) obviously were extravagantly intense, and back in the U.S., a reader senses, she wants to tell it all. As any Peace Corps Volunteer can attest, living and working overseas, especially in “war torn Africa,” is an earthshakingly powerful experience, but even understanding that, Messinger’s telling somewhat overwhelms. Swatches of events come at a reader in a narrative zigzag, like the patchworks of fabric design with which she begins each chapter. There are many characters to keep track of and some of the interwoven stories are hard to follow. For example, a staffer named Leo places a key role in the opening scene, yet we don’t get to know him in the overall story, and he’s only briefly mentioned again much later. Perhaps this narrative method reflects the frightening, infuriating and shifting complexity of the Africa to which Messinger devoted a quarter of her life. As she puts it, “Living in Zaire had always given me the feeling that I was permanently lashed to a rickety car on a runaway roller coaster.” In parts the book’s structure reflects that nightmare.
         Nonetheless, when Messinger gets to her beloved bonobos, the writing and momentum of the story clarify and electrify. Caught in the midst of human violence and deep corruption, they are a species, Messinger explains, that show “a remarkable pattern of peacemaking based on sexual reconciliation,” evolving “a marvelous strategy” for achieving harmony. They do it by soliciting sexual favors from one another — the only species, other than humans, she notes, to have sex outside the species’ procreative needs.
         As Messinger tries to save the bonobos, she lays bare her own vulnerabilities, confronting her fears and doubts with humor and self-deprecation. “What had I learned in the last ten years?” she writes in the book’s conclusion. “What had I accomplished for bonobos? Not a whole hallelujah lot . . . Zaire, Zaire, I’d loved you so! And oh, how I’d hated you. You taught me a lifetime of lessons . . . you gave me the human side of myself.”
         But she did save six of the bonobos. There’s something poignant about the survival of this little band of peacemakers, and when Messinger finally flies out of the country with what must be one of the sweetest tribes of creatures on earth, the reader is hugely relieved. Yet one also worries on their behalf, hoping that humans and bonobos alike will stay around long enough to learn to keep their world intact.

    Jan Worth-Nelson recently published a Peace Corps novel, Night Blind. Her poems, essays, short fiction and reviews have been widely published, and she teaches writing at the University of Michigan – Flint. She and her RPCV husband, Ted Nelson, commute between Michigan and Los Angeles.


Review

Innocents Abroad
American Teachers in the American Century

by Jonathan Zimmerman (Nepal 1983–85)
Harvard University Press
October 2006
300 pages
$45.00

Reviewed by David Espey (Morocco 1962–64)

    TAKING HIS TITLE FROM Mark Twain’s nineteenth-century account of American tourists in Europe and the Mediterranean, Jonathan Zimmerman surveys the experience of American teachers abroad in the 20th century.
         The title is both apt and misleading: American teachers abroad were, as Zimmerman shows, quite innocent (or ignorant) of the world — especially the Third World, as the former lands of European empires came to be called. And yet, unlike Twain’s innocents, American teachers had to live and work in the kinds of places that tourists briefly and casually passed through. Teachers’ encounters with foreign cultures changed them; their developing realization of what the word “culture” means, in the anthropological sense, is a major focus of Zimmerman’s book.
         A century, especially one like the twentieth, is a long time. It has been called the “American Century” — Zimmerman borrows the phrase coined by Henry Luce, indefatigable American booster and guiding spirit of Time Magazine. The book begins with a group of American teachers embarking for the Philippines in 1901, after the American takeover of the islands from the Spanish. It criss-crosses the century, sampling the experiences of American teachers (most of them missionaries and later Peace Corps Volunteers) as World Wars I and II, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Soviet Union come and go. The book also turns like a kaleidoscope, visiting and revisiting teachers’ experiences in Hawaii, China, India, Korea, Iran, Tanzania, Nigeria, the Congo, Kenya, Chile, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Puerto Rico, Poland, the Virgin Islands, and Somalia, to name just a few. There is even a brief mention of Morocco, where I was a Peace Corps teacher in the early 1960s.
         What enables Zimmerman, a Professor of Education and History at New York University, to control such a large canvas of time and space is his focus on the classroom and the experience of teaching — from philosophy to methods to discipline. What makes the prose so readable is his use of primary sources — teachers’ letters and memoirs primarily, but also quotes from educational administrators, both American and foreign, as well as historians, social scientists, and occasionally celebrities like Teddy Roosevelt.
         The book is organized thematically rather than chronologically; a quote from a missionary teacher in Korea of the 1920s may be paired with a line from a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s. In Zimmerman’s words, the first part of the book, American Dilemmas, “describes how the teachers grappled with . . . instructional methods, school curriculum, and educational equality.” In the second half of the book, American Critiques, he explains “how teachers came to distrust or even reject popular American conceptions of teachers, of church-state relations, and of American foreign influence itself.”
         Returned Peace Corps Volunteers may react to the book as I did. I was uneasy at being compared implicitly to missionaries. “All Americans are missionaries,” says one of the historians quoted in the book. But the Peace Corps Volunteer — especially in the early days — might be considered a kind of secular missionary. Zimmerman notes how Peace Corps/Washington would send visitors to training sites, to argue with Volunteers about capitalism vs. communism. (I remember our visiting “communist,” who pretended to be a true believer, in order to sharpen our skills at debating the virtues of capitalism and democracy.)
         The book’s discussion of teaching abroad elicited my own memories of teaching [in Moroccan secondary school] come flooding back. The condescension of French administrators (“How can he teach English? He can’t even speak proper French!”) The struggle to teach without books. (“Repeat after me. ‘This is a desk.’ ”) The insistence by the Peace Corps that besides teaching — or doing whatever job we were trained to do — we keep busy in every way possible: “Dig latrines! Start a film club! Learn Arabic as well as French! Coach a team! Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a 24-hour-a-day job!” (I remember a British volunteer teacher, responsible only for his job of teaching, being both puzzled and amused by the frenetic expectations the Peace Corps imposed on its volunteers.)
         Zimmerman evokes these kinds of memories as he treats the issues of professionalism and teacher education, the American penchant for including sports and health education in the curriculum, the debate about the value of academic vs. vocational education, and the naïve assumptions about America as the exemplary culture. One accomplishment of the book is to put the phenomenon of the Peace Corps into the larger historical context of 20th-century empires and the exportation of American education.
         Missionaries, as characters in colonial and postcolonial literature, are rather sad, ineffectual figures — often failures whether they are arrogant or meek. Zimmerman ignores fiction and documents the experiences of actual teachers in the classroom. His voluminous research shows in the 64 pages of single-spaced notes that follow the 223-page text. He relates the homegrown educational controversies in America to those experienced by American teachers abroad. Should mission schools accept government funding or observe the American tradition of Church-State separation? What constitutes professional preparation for teachers? Should black and white students — or even males and females — be educated together?
         Zimmerman also comments ironically on the competition between Protestant and Catholics for heathen souls. (When I was teaching in the Congo in the 1960s, after my time in the Peace Corps, I could see the effects of this competition among my students. They were Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic, depending on which denomination had gotten to their tribes first, and their religious affiliation seemed as important to them as their tribal identities.)
         Zimmerman shows how in the course of the 20th century, the erosion of Christian certainty among the more intelligent and sensitive of the missionary teachers parallels the erosion of confidence about asserting American values in traditional cultures. Many of those teachers returned to the U.S. with misgivings about their own cultural superiority. That’s another change many Peace Corps Volunteers could identify with.
         Zimmerman closes by returning to later work by Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897), an account of his journeys to East Asia, India, and South Africa. The book appeared “on the eve of American’s own imperial war in the Philippines, which Twain would condemn for its duplicity and brutality.“ By that time, Twain had shed much of the innocence of Innocents Abroad.
         My generation of volunteers, for example, left the U.S. when segregation was legal in many states, Vietnam was a vaguely distant ex-French colony, and President Kennedy was still charming the press corps. We came back in the wake of the assassination, Civil Rights demonstrations in front of the White House, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War. ( I remember witnessing the first stirrings of anti-war protest in a conference of returned Volunteers organized by Peace Corps/Washington in early 1965.)
         Zimmerman was in New York on September 11, 2001, and he concludes his book with some reflections on these lines from a speech by President Bush. “As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world. (Applause.)”
         For many of us who returned from the Peace Corps in the 1960s and watched the war in Vietnam unfold, the sense of déjà vu in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is inescapable. (For me that sense of déjà vu was particularly intense, since I got back from a year of teaching and lecturing in East Asia just a few days before 9/11). We remember another provincial Texan, President Johnson, making similar speeches while leading the country into a military venture that became a debacle in part because we didn’t understand the enemy whom we were fighting.
         Zimmerman sees a similar kind of innocence in the speech of President Bush quoted above, an ignorance that can become a dangerous kind of arrogance.
         The danger, Zimmerman explains, lies in presuming that “certain universal concepts--especially the basic equality of all human beings — [is] distinctly or even uniquely American. We mock and constrict this common human identity by linking it to our own narrow national aspirations.” Teaching abroad, his book shows, often led Americans to a deeper understanding of cultural relativity and the imperfections of their own society.
         The book presumably went to press before the ignorance and arrogance of the Bush administration turned the Iraq adventure into the fiasco we are witnessing. Perhaps working abroad, preferably in developing countries, would have been an instructive experience for our current leader and those of his advisors who have led us innocently into another unwinnable war.

    David Espey teaches in the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has been a Fulbright Lecturer in Morocco, Turkey, and Japan.


Review

Night Blind
by Jan Worth (Kingdom of Tonga 1976–78)
iUniverse
September 2006
278 pages
$17.95

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

    IN 1976, A BEAUTIFUL YOUNG Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga was brutally murdered, stabbed 22 times, apparently by someone in a jealous rage.
         Another Peace Corps Volunteer turned himself in to the Tongan police hours later.
         How the story was suppressed, and the murderer walked away free was the subject of American Taboo, a gripping nonfiction narrative by Philip Weiss written nearly three decades later.
         A few weeks before the murder, Jan Worth arrived in Tonga with a new Peace Corps group. She was shaken to the core by this horrible crime.
         Now Worth has come forth with Night Blind, her own story of those years, living in the ghostly shadow of the young woman whose life ended so violently. This work of fiction is not the murder victim’s story, although the murder and subsequent trial play an important part in the narrative. Names have been changed, and events are told from the point of view of Worth’s heroine, Charlotte.
         Charlotte and the other Volunteers in Tonga try to cope with the facts of the murder itself, and with the loss they feel, the reactions of their Tongan colleagues, and their own confusion, which only increases as the trial wears on.
         It seems their government cares more about the murderer than about the victim, and more about controlling news coverage of the crime than about the crime itself. Charlotte and the other Volunteers, troubled and shaken, receive very little help in dealing with these issues.
         All this occurs while the young Volunteers are exploring their own views of the world, their own sexuality, and their own values.
         Charlotte is a minister’s daughter, so proud of her growing list of sexual partners that she keeps a list of their names. One of them says, “I still say you’re the best lay in Peace Corps,” and she replies, “What an honor, and please keep that delightful secret between us.”
         Charlotte has other qualities besides being “easy” — she’s articulate, funny and self-deprecating. She’s friendly and warmhearted. She’s a good pal to have around.
         It’s not easy to be a sexually liberated foreigner in an island community with its own strict sense of standards, murder or no murder, and Charlotte explores the various complications of her own behavior, while seeing parallels between herself and the fun-loving murder victim.
         Yet for all of Charlotte’s experience with various men, she’s never had an orgasm with one of them, until she takes as her lover Gabriel Bonner, who’s been brought to Tonga by the U.S. government to be a witness in the trial. Bonner, a psychologist, has come to testify as to the legal sanity of the defendant.
         This man manages not only to obfuscate the jurors’ perceptions about the murderer’s state of mind, he plays with Charlotte’s mind (and body) in a number of ways as well.
         In her determination to move out from under the constraints of her churchy childhood, Charlotte makes a refreshingly nonjudgmental first-person narrator. Her story is compelling and her observations are witty and perceptive, although she does not touch upon the possibility that her own promiscuity might be as devastating to a sexual partner as Bonner’s turns out to be.
         Charlotte is a celebrant of life. She wants to be happy. She’s a party girl and a jokester, trying to have fun, taking things as they come. But events beyond her control demand more from her than she may ever have intended. Whether she learns from them is unclear. She survives them. She mulls them over, and appreciates being alive.
         Fact or fiction or a mixture of both, this is a very readable book.
         Jan Worth, a writing teacher at the University of Michigan/Flint, is a poet, essayist and fiction writer, and has also been a newspaper reporter and social worker. Her work has appeared widely, including in Blaze, Contemporary Michigan Poetry, Controlled Burn, Detroit Free Press, Los Angeles Times and Marlboro Review.

    Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer and book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia: Two Years in a Forgotten Place, a nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in the best-selling anthology, Travelers’ Tales: A Woman’s World.


Review

San Miguel de Allende
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966–71)
Swan Books
2005
91 pages
$15.00

African Stiltdancer
by Andrew H. Oerke (PC Staff: Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Jamaica 1966–71)
Swan Books
2006
91 pages
$15.00

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66)

    ANDREW OERKE’S San Miguel de Allende and African Stiltdancer won the 2006 Peace Corps Writers Award for Best Poetry Books published in 2005. They are a dazzling combination of philosophical musings on history and human culture presented through a bombardment of visual images and colors.
         Judging the quality of poetry is an impossible task. Subjectivity and personal tastes are unavoidable. Many of Oerke’s poems, in my opinion, are too convoluted with constant use of personification, rapid shifts in images, and frequent mixing of sensory experiences. An example is the poem “Moonlight,” in which he writes, “Moments . . . / teeter their columns on cliffs of time, / then whiff off through the smoky, / hazy arches of our climate,” and “Your champagne eyes fizz away / like seconds uncorking the clock / to hive in the moon’s Rosetta rock.”
         The word “hive” contains the clue to understanding much of Oerke’s poetry. It is commonly used in science fiction to mean “group minds with (almost) complete loss (or lack) of individuality, identity, and personhood,” according to The Free Dictionary on line.
         At his best, Oerke is as good as any American poet writing today. His concrete images and extended metaphors guide us through the shadowy past of the collective unconscious.
         Two good examples in San Miguel de Allende are “Tres Arcos, San Miguel de Allende” and “Buildings, San Miguel de Allende.” In “Tres Arcos” Oerke explains the construction of native Mexican, Spanish, and Roman arches as “Ways to express our values in limestone.” Arches “stand akimbo like film directors / Cropping our looking out or someone’s looking in.”
         Oerke uses Spanish and Indian architecture to illustrate how space is the essence of design in the poem “Buildings.” He writes, “All our buildings box in bits of the void, / All our buildings girdle an emptiness. / The secret is in the way the vacancy / Is divided into more expensive units.”
         Many of Oerke’s poems remind readers that we are unable to verbalize the deep mysteries of life. The appeal of music is one of these mysteries. In “Gregorian Chant” he explores the attraction of the haunting sounds that “echo in the listener’s / Inner drums, whose chambers worship the monastery / Acoustics resonating to an insight.”
         Oerke’s poems often explore the idea that reality is the experience, but that we too often confuse our memory of the experience with the real thing. In “Reflections on Monet’s Reflections, Giverney,” Oerke demonstrates how difficult it is for us to see the difference: “Coated with squashed-flower paint-juice, the water’s / Coated also with viewpoints that spoof the senses / Into thinking what we see is what we are, / Into thinking reflections are primal matter.”
         In the African Stiltdancer, Oerke continues exploring the process of recording and communicating culture. His poems in the third section, “In the Village,” stand out from the rest. In the poem “The African Woman,” words and emotion blend to create a sublime tribute to the mysterious attraction of African women. This is one of those rare poems we understand but are unable to summarize. The first stanza reads: “The night has polished your face like an apple. / I love that night is loitering in your arms, / that your eyes are birthday candles that light / back up after night winds blow them out, / and that your throat’s cave is where darkness sings, / though you project a moving around / your body’s magic lantern silhouette.”
         Oerke captures the highs and lows of human experience in his Africa poems. The poem “Refugees” presents a haunting scene of forgotten people: “Weather erodes their backs / and mind gives no reflection / as they vanish in their tracks. / Refugees just fade away . . . / Whited out, pressed too thin, / their number’s unsensed by the census. / Their time has no more tenses.”
         Poets can only be as good as their life experiences lead them. And Oerke has enough of this to cover two or three life times. According to his bio, Oerke has been a “Golden Gloves champ,” “football player,” “Korean War veteran,” “Peace Corps Director in Africa and the Caribbean,” “university professor,” “president of a private and voluntary organization,” “dean of administration at one of the largest community colleges,” “World Bank consultant,” and “consultant to the United Nations on the Gulf War, on financial services, and on the environment.”
         In addition, Oerke “studied at many universities in the US and abroad, including a Fulbright scholarship at the Freie Universitat in Berlin.” He also studied poetry at Baylor University and the University of Iowa writers’ workshop.
         I haven’t seen the movie Superman Returns yet, but I think the model lives somewhere in Florida, passing himself off as Andrew Oerke practicing “his first love” — writing poetry full time.

    Tony Zurlo’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, Humdinger, The Cynic, and Peace Corps Writers. He also has stories and poems appearing in future issues of Armageddon Buffet and Long Story Short.
         Tony has also published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats US, Democracy Means You, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews.


A Writer Writes

Monsoon Time
in Tanga, Tanzania
October 2006

by Mark Hankins (Kenya 1983–87)

    IN THE MKONGE, a refurnished colonial hotel with grounds overlooking an old tropical harbor, rain falls in torrents each night. Mombasa, a hundred kilometers to the north, is almost under water, and Kaloleni town is completely cut off by flooding rivers. The roar of night rain is broken each morning in a humid still, and I walk out of my room as poisonous vapors waft out of swamped gardens. Clouds of winged termites rise from the ground like snowflakes. The breakfast patio overlooks dhows on their way to sea; vervets watch us from perches on perimeter fence posts, and pied crows sit in the baobabs near the water. Water drips everywhere.
         The turn of each day encompasses whole seasons. After the relative cool of morning, the equatorial sun blares through broken clouds, turning the green city into a hellish quagmire of red mud and bright reflected light. Inhabitants, dressed in skullcaps and hijab, seek shade, fans or air-conditioning. In the white glare of the streets, nothing moves. Lizards on walls flick their tongues, flies buzz, hidden birds caw. In the still heat, you can sense the growth of the underbrush, the naked tension of photosynthesis.

    GASPAR AND I DRIVE across town each morning to the Vocational Education Training Authority (VETA) to teach a solar installation course. Through the neatly laid out town of 200,000, we pass the port, gardens, roundabouts and tree-lined streets on the way. There are old factories and warehouses — erected by Indian and Arab traders in the ’30s, nationalized by Nyerere in the ’60s, and privatized again in the ’90s — now working steadily. Billboards sell cell phones, toothpaste and hair gel. The railway passes the VETA and the cement factory on its way out of town.
         We are teaching nine PV technicians from all over Tanga District. We start each morning at 8:30 and go until 5. We’ve been teaching this course for 15 years now, and it’s a routine: blackboard discussions of watt hours, in the sun with multimeters and solar modules. Battery acid, charge regulators, incident solar radiation. Tea breaks, PV prices. Etc. Etc.
         Late in the afternoon, back at the hotel. If you’re lucky, a breeze from the ocean kicks up and the miasma blows off. The city wakes up, breathes. Shaded spaces open. Bicycles and hand carts appear, women in buibuis & kangas walk to the market, men sit on stools in doorways talking. Muezzins amp up the mosque speakers, tuning in for prayer time.
         Lushness cloaks everything. Massive trees are everywhere – twisting vine-clad figs, ancient tamarind, medicinal neem, towering mangos, coconut palms, flame trees, citrus groves, cycads, albizzia, euphorbias. Thick growths of elephant grass. Here and there, ominous baobabs silhouette the skyline, bare of leaves, hanging bulbous seed cases. Invasive lantana thickets on the roadsides. The mkuyu, a tall white barked deciduous. Stately old msufi, bare of leaves and dangling cucumber-shaped pods that explode into puffs of cotton.

    THE MKONGE HOTEL, named after the Swahili word for sisal, is out of town, towards the ocean. I take my run in the evening along the coast road leading out of the Pangani harbour, curving along the steaming mangroves. I pass the Lions Club bathing site, the yacht club, Indian drinking spots. Puddles from recent rain stand in potholes on the broken asphalt. The road turns south along the coast and passes sprawling walled compounds. Inland, baobabs loom out of the coastal forest — witchdoctors standing in the ocre sandy soils. Huge banks of cumulus ride in from the ocean. To the west, the setting sun shoots ripples of light against a bloodshot gelatin sky. I turn and run back the way I came. A stray cat crosses the road, turned to dirt on the outskirts. Near the signal lighthouse peninsula at the entrance to the harbor, a sunset wedding is being celebrated complete with blue-clad bride’s maids, brass band and taarab percussionists.
         Tanga is a sleepy mix of African, Indian, European and Arab cultures. This year Dawali, the Indian festival of lights, falls a few days before the end of the Ramadan fast, and Indians shoot roman candles from a cliff over the harbor. Things have temporary cleared up this evening — lights from signal lights, boats and residences shimmer off the water. Shrouds of the one big tanker in port are lit up, as if the ship is joining the festival. Firecrackers boom like artillery.

    Mark Hankins, aka Markus Kamau, was a Peace Corps Volunteer science teacher near Mt. Kenya. His “secondary project”, training solar technicians to install and sell small solar electric systems, spawned the development of Kenya’s thriving solar energy industry. Hankins turned the secondary project into a career, and has since been working all over Africa to promote the use of solar energy. He has published three books on solar energy in Africa, and now consults for the World Bank, the United Nations and solar companies from his base in Nairobi. In his alternate career as a singer-songwriter, he has recorded three albums with African musicians. 


A Writer Writes

Pursing Love, I Discovered the Peace Corps

by John Krauskopf (Iran 1965–67)

    JOHN F. KENNEDY first mentioned the concept of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Student Union at the University of Michigan in the middle of a chilly October night in 1960. Kennedy’s brief speech was only a small but unexpected twist in a spirited political campaign, but it sparked surprising support for an idea that later became the Peace Corps. Earlier that night in New York, JFK and Richard Nixon had participated in the third televised presidential candidates’ debate. Normally, that confrontation would have dominated the news.
         Right after the TV debate, Kennedy flew to Willow Run, in 1960 still Detroit’s main airport but actually only four miles from Yipsilanti and ten miles from Ann Arbor. His campaign staff was too optimistic about the travel logistics so the candidate arrived late. He delivered a short but set campaign speech at the airport that the bored reporters had heard many times. But the crowd was larger than expected and slowed down the motorcade that took the candidate to Yipsilanti where Kennedy gave the same standard speech at Eastern Michigan University. Most of the large crowd of students waiting there were too young to vote so his usual speech didn’t fit the audience very well. Nevertheless, the swarm of students stayed excited by his appearance and slowed him even more.
         JFK was supposed to arrive around midnight at the University of Michigan Union where he and his entourage were scheduled to spend the night prior to several planned campaign stops the next day. He didn’t actually appear until after 2:00 am. The approach to the university-gothic style Union building includes a broad plaza with a few steps leading to the front door. Despite the late hour of the chilly October night, the plaza was packed with students who spilled over onto the lawn and out into State Street. The atmosphere among the heavily female crowd of expectant students was upbeat, like waiting for a pop star to appear. The female I was interested in at the time was a fellow freshman named Marsha McCann. While I’m sure much of the attraction for her was sincerely political, she was starry-eyed about JFK and was determined to see and hear him in person no matter how late.
         In addition to people enduring the cold weather and late hour, the size of the crowd waiting for Kennedy was significant for another reason: The university required all undergraduate women to be in their dorms by 11:00 pm on weeknights. More than 1,500 eager young women (all of them except some married graduate students, and a few adult Democratic loyalists) were subject to punishment for breaking curfew but had decided to damn the consequences and stay out in the cold and wait. There were so many curfew violators that Marsha speculated the University couldn’t punish them all.
         I came from an Eisenhower Republican family. Being a little distrustful of JFK, I would not have chosen to hang around for his speech if it had not been for Marsha’s persuasion.
         A local organizer made some occasional announcements to keep the crowd apprised of Kennedy’s progress. (e.g. “The senator’s car has just left Yipsilanti and will be here in a few minutes.”) However, no local politicians were vamping at the microphone to fill the time because this was supposed to be a little event involving a few remarks before the senator retired rather than a full-fledged campaign stop. When Kennedy’s car finally arrived, he and some aides had to push their way through the crowd to a spot to the left of the Union’s main entrance. Because the audience was quite impatient to hear their candidate, the introduction was very short. Despite the very late arrival, he got a warm reception. Standing at the microphone in a topcoat, he began with an attempt at humor, a double entendre along the lines of, “I didn’t come to the University of Michigan to make a speech, I came here to go to bed, and I hope you will all join me.” The line was more nuanced than I report it here and played well with the friendly college audience.
         JFK started to repeat the standard speech he had already given twice since arriving in Michigan but fairly quickly interrupted himself. He looked over the enthusiastic crowd and noted the hour and the cold that underlined the eagerness and commitment of the young people who had waited so long. He began an unscripted talk about harnessing the energy and dedication of youth like us in the service of the country. Marsha and I were standing on top of a low brick wall across the plaza from the microphone to get a good view, and it seemed as if Kennedy were speaking directly to us.
         For the reporters who were barely awake and expecting the same old political speech, this was news! A bold headline across the top of the Detroit paper the next morning declared something like “Kennedy Proposes Youth Service Corps.” I am not sure the story about the TV debate with Nixon even made the front page. Those of us who had been present the night before were somewhat surprised in the morning to see the impact this deviation from the usual campaign rhetoric had created.
         On the campus, the “Peace Corps” was a main topic of discussion for days, and it pushed other political issues to the side. We students, the audience for JFK’s remarks that night, were annoyed by certain Republican politicians and some of the pundits who reacted by making fun of the youth service idea. Some people were inspired into action and organized support through petitions and by spreading the word to other campuses. For me, on the other hand, the idea simmered quietly and was a topic of many late night conversations with Tom Robinson, my roommate, another person who was present that night and who responded to Kennedy’s idea.
         I later read that the concept for a “Peace Corps” came from some young strategists in Senator Humphrey’s office, but the original plan had been to wait until after the election before revealing it as one of the incoming administration’s new action programs. So “youth service” was not exactly JFK’s spontaneous idea of the moment. However, the patient eager young audience on that frosty night in Ann Arbor, apparently ripe to hear this politician call on their latent altruism, influenced Kennedy’s timing for making the proposal public.
         I don’t remember the specific words of the challenges issued by JFK that night, but he wanted to know if we were prepared to give two years of our lives to help people in other countries and serve our own country at the same time. I had come to the gathering with an ulterior motive and had not expected to be impressed by a politician, but I was. The appeal to altruism and call for service resonated with me and many of my fellow U of M students.
    I don’t know if starry-eyed Marsha ever took JFK’s message to heart and joined the Peace Corps because, over time, a sequence of other women became the objects of my affections, and I lost track of her before graduation. But my roommate Tom, a landscape architecture major, became a Volunteer in Tanzania in 1964 followed by a stint with USAID in Viet Nam and a career with the State Department. An economics major, I joined the Peace Corps after graduation in 1965 and spent two years teaching high school English in Iran. This led to a thirty-five-year career in intercultural education with the Experiment in International Living and later at an intensive English as a Second language Institute.
         Just think of the confluence of contingencies: If I hadn’t chosen to attend the U of M and met Marsha in my freshman composition class, and if she hadn’t been so persuasive, I would not have heard JFK’s challenge to idealistic young Americans in person and taken it as my personal call to service. That random and fragile chain of circumstances has profoundly shaped my life.
         While I have lost track of Marsha, my erstwhile companion on that frosty but historic evening, it turns out that Linda Malila, my wife of thirty-four years, was also among the students present and listening to JFK’s words. Although Linda and I overlapped for more than two years at the U of M, (and JFK’s speech is one of several events in Ann Arbor where we are certain we both were present,) we didn’t know each other then and didn’t meet until eleven years later in San Francisco.
         As things worked out, Linda never joined the Peace Corps, but JFK spoke to her keen interest in international service. In 1961, she went to Berlin and helped resettle refugees from the East Zone and the GDR as they fled to West Berlin and West Germany. Working for Lutheran World Federation / Volunteer Services, Linda was present when the Berlin wall went up. Kennedy’s message inspired her to action and cemented her strong belief in promoting international and cross-cultural understanding.
         On that October evening, I was a lad of rather parochial interests from the small town of Athens, Ohio. If my Peace Corps experience had not globalized my worldview and led to my employment by an international NGO, I am certain I would have had little romantic appeal to Linda when a second confluence of contingencies led to our actual meeting, an event that took place many years and 2000 miles from that chilly but inspiring night in Ann Arbor.

    As a Peace Corps Volunteer John Krauskopf taught English in the boys’ secondary schools in Ahwaz, the provincial capital of Khuzistan Province in Iran. In 1969, he returned to Iran for the in-country portion of that year’s Peace Corps training where he supervised a teacher-training summer school. After ten years of involvement in international student exchange with Experiment for International Living, he spent more than two decades as the foreign student adviser and director of the English as a Second Language Institute in Millbrae, California before retiring. He is now writing a book about his international experiences. Earlier this year John was appointed corporate secretary of the Western Railway Museum in Solano County, California.
         He authored the article “Christmas on the Mekong” that appeared in the November 2004 issue of Peace Corps Writers as part of our ongoing series “War and Peace Corps.”


A Writer Writes

Poems

by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)

Negotiating Culture

As predictable as the muezzin’s call to prayer,
I jog past arthritic skeletons silhouetted against
craggy cliffs on the horizon — Fulani tending
their boney cattle. Into a stiff north wind
I turn to face grains of sand blowing in
from dunes on the outskirts of town.

Stacked with food baskets, bicycles pass me
bouncing along the laterite road to market.
Pestles pound from compounds like muffled drums.
A festival of colors dip and nod before my eyes —
bright blues, yellows, greens, and reds;
blending in stripes, spirals, and polka dots.

A tiny girl blushes and smiles, then waves,
costume jewelry jingling on her chocolate arm.
Her powdered face and deep-brown eyes
break my stride. I want to sweep her up
into my arms and race her to a safe haven,
to carry her far away from her destiny.

Boys run along side of me, their fists raised
in greeting: “Sannu Batuuree” they chime
in harmony. “Lafiya lau” I reply out of tune.
Sun-baked, mud-gray walls straight ahead
mark the limit for Westerners who dream.
I must focus on the moment, not history.

In this race, victory is measured in inches,
by a pivot or a kick in the sand, gestures
that silently negotiate culture. I bend down
to tie my shoe and somersault forward
to the foot of the medieval Muslim façade.
Children’s laughter welcomes me.

One Night in Africa

twilight fades
to terra cotta
savanna shadows
slip into corners

two indistinguishable
black and white silhouettes
moving to essential rhythms

lying down together
on cool sheets

touching

igniting —

village drumming
sky flushing

night people
clinging to life

African Woman

I offer greetings in secret
from my window each morning
as you walk to market,
arms and hips swinging
in counterpoint rhythm,
an Africa I yearn to know.

Your willowy silhouette shifts
and we exchange a look that ignites
the eastern sky in carnation pink
laced with lavender.

Let the gods grumble
and mumble in their beards.
They dare not interfere
with black and white
at last together dancing
on the petals of the sky

The Bent People

I: “Peace Be Unto You”

Across knife-edged gravel they drag
their scabs and stumps and scars,
and pull themselves crab-like
along the scorched concrete to my porch
and groan: “Salamu alaikum.”

II: “Allah is the Greatest”

Blind adults prodded along
by chattering skeletons, tiny children
whose every joint and rib protrudes.
From faces, stretched tight like drum skin,
the chant: “Allahu Akbar.”

III: “If Allah Wills”

Medicine might have revived some
and raised them from the ground,
surgery might have unbent a leg or two,
with prayer a miracle might even save a few.
I whisper: “In Sha’ Allah.”

IV: “May the Blessings of Allah (be upon you)”

I begin my lecture, “Why can’t you . . .
we . . . ” then history intervenes.
I retrieve some coins and fling them
and turn to escape the bent people,
who cry out: “Baraka Allah.”

The Man Most Admired

Stooped and wrinkled, this father
of tribal fathers sits all day
strumming a finger harp
and greeting villagers.

Calabashes filled with juju
hang inside his cone-shaped hut
from white washed mud-straw walls.
A son's son sweeps the loose dirt
from his floor and airs his mat.

Each day he faces Mecca to pray,
but he retreats each week
to a family shrine and scatters
a broken kola on the ground
to guarantee harmony in both worlds.

For a half century this unread man
made a fool of the land, transforming
sand into food for his extended family.
This father who knows no encyclopedias
knows secrets only spirits will reveal.

On market day, they still walk in
from miles of bush to hear his tales
of Fulani princesses and princes.
His memory is endless, linking families
to clans to tribe — He is the legend.

The Fallen Man

The Volunteer kneels on the hot sand
and feels for the pulse of a fallen man.
A wind gust carries the stench of dead
fish and flesh from the river.
He sponges blood from a deep gash
beneath the man’s gray hair.

A tall, lanky man — black hair tangled
with strands snaking from his skull,
his eyes deep cavities, a ragged shirt
hanging from his washboard torso —
raises a machete and advances,
his companions urging him on.

The Volunteer cradles the fallen man
and stares as thick crimson oozes
down his charcoal face like lava trails.
The eyes glaze slowly and close,
and he squeezes the Volunteer’s hand.
The grip loosens — the arms fall limp.

Peering far beyond the shriveled river,
across the parched savanna into a land
of mirages, the Volunteer barely hears
the Machete Man: “Do not interfere,
Batuuree. This is not your business.”
From spectators nearby only vacant stares.

Machete Man leaps and twirls in dance,
and the mob breaks out in frenzied cheers
when he slashes his weapon in the air,
the sun flashing off steel. He points
the tip of the blade straight ahead and says,
“You wish to join your brother?”

A car engine shifts gears, observers scurry
into stores, a highlife record blares
from across the street and vultures hover
above the dusty river bank, waiting,
while cattle with skin stretched tightly
over their bones, drink in slow motion.

The Sahara sandblasts the Volunteer’s face,
but he blocks the wind from the fallen man.
The Machete Man gathers his group together
and leads them down the road.The faint call
of a muezzin is carried away on the hot breeze.
The world pauses for a moment of silence.

African Tragedy

The Northland

Clumps of trees,
dwarfs with bony limbs
unable to hold up the vultures
circling in the pale blue sky,
dot the brown, flat dusty plain.
Beige haze from the Sahara
dulls the sunlight on the horizon.
Heat waves undulate into the air.
A cobra hides beneath a rock.
Men in mud huts plot.

The Son

A small-boned man,
several coats darker than the sand,
with a goatee that never grew,
wears pleated trousers
a size too large
and a white dress shirt,
the collar starched and frayed.
The young carpenter donates
his weekends to the Mission
teaching younger men his trade.

The Southland

I arrive in the twilight
on a muddy rain forest road.
Streaks from the setting sun
play hide-and-seek
with mahogany and iroko giants.
The forest calls to me:
birds cry out from tree tops
blending with sounds,
distinct — sounds
suspicious to untrained ears.

The Father

Dressed in green and blue oba
over his right shoulder,
he sits on a folding chair
next to the chest he built
when his son was his apprentice.
Traces of the son’s eyes
in the old man, large ovals
with heavy, drooping lids;
but eyes stripped naked
by a father’s fear.

The Night

In the small clearing
voices from around a fire,
a silhouette preparing food
by the light of a hurricane lamp.
Trees block the rising moon.
Orange light from fires
seeps into the darkening sky.
Directly overhead stars
begin to glow like
dull gaslights.

The Return

I carry the father’s message
for his son to come home.
But the compound is deserted —
broken furniture, scattered papers —
an overturned tool box —
shutters flapping casually
with a rare gust of wind —
stray mongrels picking at trash —
The stillness raises questions.
The absence answers.

Mallam Ibrahim

The Man

He stands at the brink,
coal-black eyes surveying.
In his beard, iron gray
streaks betray his years.
His skin suggests Mediterranean
rather than his sub-Saharan home.
From his thin lips come
rhythms rounded by Harvard
and Oxford degrees.

The Land

Mallam Ibrahim recalls
water wells, deep beneath
the creepy sands, a land
airborne on winter winds,
long months of naked earth,
its skin cracked by lack
of nourishment from the
sand-screened sky, dried
by the Saharan sun.

The Teacher

He begins at the brink of time,
with stories of the Olduvai Gorge
and the Koi-San Eve of DNA. He
pushes ahead into the mainstream
with Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca,
and punctures the artery with tales
of Goree, Calabar, and Elmira.
He soars to the break of tomorrow,
to prophesy and restoration.

The Mind

A mind is indeed an enchanting thing
that can stir up debris from Plato
and integrate Locke and Nkrumah,
that can pick apart Jefferson’s credo
and splinter the theories of Marx.
Then, like a trapeze artist the Mallam
defies gravity and flings himself
into Picasso’s debt to African art
and music as the universal heart.

Tony Zurlo’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including recent issues of Red River Review, November 3rd Club, Open Window, All Info About Poetry, VerbSap, Humdinger, The Cynic, and Peace Corps Writers. He also has stories and poems appearing in future issues of Armageddon Buffet and Long Story Short.
     Tony has also published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, and Syria. His Op-eds and reviews have appeared in the
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Democrats US, Democracy Means You, Peace Corps Writers, Online Journal, Writers Against the War, Dissident Voice, and OpEdNews.
     His newest book, The Legislative Branch: Creating America's Laws will be published in the spring 2007 by Enslow Publishers.

Credits for the published poems:

“One Night in Africa”
New Texas, 2002

“African Woman”
2000: Here’s to Humanity, People’s Press, 1999

“The Bent People”
Identity Theory, Winter 2005–06
Open Windows, 2006

“The Man Most Admired”
New Texas, 1998

“African Tragedy”
Cincinnati Poetry Review 19, Spring 1989


Opportunities for writers

    Fellowships for Writers — and thinkers — at UNLV
    This is new opportunity for RPCV writers (and thinkers) was set up by Richard Wiley (Korea 1967–69) and others at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — check it out.
         Founded in 2006, the Black Mountain Institute (BMI) is an international center dedicated to advancing literary and cross-cultural dialogue. Named after the long-defunct Black Mountain College in North Carolina and Las Vegas’ own Black Mountain, it is composed of the Forum on Contemporary Cultures (The Forum), the North American Network of Cities of Asylum (NANCA), and the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML). A center of excellence in modern letters, BMI provides an environment where thinkers and writers from all segments of global society can fight against entrenched perspectives, whatever their political or cultural source.
         Beginning with the academic year 2007–2008, The Forum at the BMI will offer from two to five nine-month fellowships to published writers and public intellectuals. Fellowships will be awarded to candidates whose work ranges from the American experience and to international terrain, and who have an ongoing project that would benefit from a period of sustained immersion. The program accepts applications from novelists, poets, playwrights, historians, political scientists, independent scholars, and anyone else whose work is meant for a general, intelligent lay audience.
         Fellows will receive a $50,000 stipend, an office, a computer, and full access to the UNLV Lied Library. The residency will be from August 27, 2007 – May 16, 2008. The application deadline: February 28, 2007. See their website for full details.

    Fulbright Scholar Program
    From Gary Garrison (Tunisia 1966-69):
    I’m writing to let you know of opportunities in countries in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia for international teaching and research available with the Fulbright Scholar Program during the 2008-09 academic year. Open to college and university faculty and independent professionals, the program seeks qualified candidates to contribute to educational development in countries worldwide. We value the experience and expertise of former Peace Corps Volunteers who wish to participate in another great international program, the Fulbright Program. Writers and journalists have held teaching or research awards in past years in many of the countries of this region. I hope you’ll consider joining them as Fulbright Scholars.
         The full announcement of available awards in 2008-09 and the application will be posted at www.cies.org/us_scholars/ on March 1.