The Adventurous Journeys of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa
by Floyd R. Sandford (Nigeria 196466)
Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964-66)
SINCE 1961 NEARLY two hundred thousand volunteers have served in the Peace Corps. And each one has a story to tell. Unfortunately, the tiny market for these stories discourages editors in the traditional publishing industry from considering most of these manuscripts. Even without a wide reading audience, PCV stories are worth publishing, however, because they provide first-hand narratives of contemporary American history.
Such is the case with African Odyssey: The Adventurous Journeys of a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, by Floyd Sandford. This memoir reveals Sandford’s discovery of and adjustment to the complexities and ambiguities of life in Nigeria. He tells his story with restrained, dry humor. And the twenty-five chapters are short, with precise titles that allow readers to move back and forth without losing much context.
Like many Volunteers, Sandford was an independent spirit who wanted to help the less advantaged and to study the African environment. When returning to mainstream American life, Sandford passed through the “re-entry” shock of returning to a rich, ethnocentric nation that wasted its own plentiful resources. Already so inclined, he dedicated his life to educating Americans about the importance of cultural and bio diversity and conservation.
Like most of us who served in Nigeria in the sixties, Sandford identifies Nigeria’s potential as a regional model for African progress. And like many of us, he is disillusioned by Nigeria’s deteriorating educational system and government corruption.
The vast majority of RPCVs, such as Floyd Sandford, Ph. D., work in non-literary fields. Sandford, who retired in 2005 after thirty five years of teaching at Coe College in Cedar Rapid, Iowa, specialized in hermit crab sponges. He published extensively in the field, conducted dozens of marine biology field trips to locations around the globe, and is building a biodiverse “haven for all things wild and free” on thirty acres of land in northeast Iowa.
To get his book published, Sandford contacted an agent, who recommended that he try iUniverse, a popular print-on-demand vanity press. In the end, Sandford paid $800 for the first run, according to Rob Cine of The Iowa Source. The result is a professional-looking product, with a glossy cover and sidebars in each chapter. The major shortcoming is that many of the black and white photos are so dark it is difficult to identify faces and objects.
My criticisms of the book are minor. Sandford’s use of scientific jargon encouraged me to scan parts of some chapters. And his colorful descriptions of Yoruba people, their dress, and activities seem only to fill space, rather than to advance the narrative.
Non-fiction is difficult to write for a broad audience. There are a few former Volunteers who have excelled: Paul Cowan, Peter Hessler, Mike Tidwell, P. F. Kluge, Bob Shacochis, or Moritz Thomsen, to name just a few RPCV non-fiction writers.
For me, Sandford's account demonstrates why fiction is probably the best way to present the PC experience. But his book is certainly a valuable addition to the growing collection of Peace Corps memoirs that deserve to be collected in a central library for future researchers.
Perhaps the most important theme in Sandford’s book is his passage on understanding other cultures:
I found that restructuring one’s cultural cognitive universe requires time, and direct immersion in another cultural matrix rarely results in immediate acceptance or understanding. There is no cultural “quick fix.” True understanding comes slowly, often painfully so. For myself, my African immersion was too superficial, the time not enough.
Tony Zurlo has ten poems appearing in the anthology In These Latitudes: Ten Contemporary Poets. Edited by Robert Bonazzi. San Antonio: Wings Press, 2008 and a short story, “Marco’s Marcoroni.” in the anthology, Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian Americana. NY: Fordham University Press, 2008.
He has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, Algeria, Syria, and on the American Congress. And his Op-eds and reviews have appeared in many newspapers and journals.