There are seventy-six essays in the book, all of them first-rate. They cover the Peace Corps experience in Africa from its earliest days. What pleases me most is that they don’t seem like a jumbled collection of different thoughts, but something closer to a continuous narrative. Though I had to work hard to pare things down to the point where I could fit all the stories I wanted into the volume but two (which are both long and rather too complex to withstand the type of cutting that would have been necessary–and which will both appear on the website, I hope, as will stories that have come in since we closed the volume and as will additional stories by many of the writers represented), I think the book is actually better as a result. There is no single volume, at least not one I have seen, that encapsulates as much of the Peace Corps experience in Africa as this one does.
Because this project is not connected with Peace Corps itself, we’ve also had the freedom to present aspects of the experience that the organization might prefer remain in the background. No organization, after all, likes to see its failures pointed out. But failure is part of success, and the success of Peace Corps cannot be understood without examination of what went wrong along the way.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about while editing this volume is the side not seen here–the African perspective on Peace Corps. Given limitations of space and time (not to mention money), that would not be possible in this book–which, after all, is about the experiences of the volunteers themselves. Having finished this, however, I would love to be able to return to Africa for a year and collect stories from Africans about their experiences with Peace Corps Volunteers. Then we’d really have a complete picture of the Peace Corps experience in Africa.
In the meantime, this book adds something to our American lore about Peace Corps, the stories like many that Americans have heard from the returned Volunteers amongst their friends and families, but stories never before collected in a single volume for a single, comprehensive picture of the experience.
The buzz about the book, so far, is good. I hope it will be even better as people get a chance to read it.
And here I am as a Peace Corps Volunteer in northern Togo (Tambaong), working on my primary task of training farmers to use oxen for plowing, working with them on caring for the animals and the tools and–as in the picture–actually plowing the fields. This was probably in 1989:
On a day just like this, plowing this very demonstration field, the oxen were startled by two elephants fighting in the Fosse aux lions (its boundary being off to the right from this picture, a road with woods beyond). They panicked and ran. I tried to keep hold of the plow, but eventually had to let go. The blade continued to dig for a bit, creating a long, arced furrow away from the field until it lifted from the dirt and bounced behind the team until the oxen calmed and stopped, some several-hundred meters away. I’ve never seen oxen run like those two did. I don’t blame them: the noise from the elephants, including the snapping of branches as they crashed into trees, was spectacular.
That elephant story is not in the book, but another, which took place within sight of this field, makes up my own contribution to the volume.