- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

NINE HILLS TO NAMBONKAHA: TWO YEARS IN AN AFRICAN TOWN

By Sarah Erdman

Henry Holt, $23, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY JUDITH CHETTLE



It sometimes seems when reading about Africa that the continent is everyone’s personal Rorschach blob: Everyone sees what he or she wants to see. The religious see souls in need of saving, the sentimentalists see a prelapsarian Eden, and the environmentalists see charismatic fauna threatened by the indigenous people trying to survive. And those without special interests tend to see endemic war, famine and disease. It is the rare person who actually sees Africa not as she wants it to be, nor what it should be, but, warts and all, what it actually is.

Sarah Erdman, a member of the Peace Corps, is one such person, and her account of the two years she spent in a remote Ivory Coast village is a notably balanced, even guardedly hopeful — considering the recent turmoil in that country — account of the time she spent, the ills she saw, the cures she tried to effect, and the small but potentially far-reaching improvements she witnessed. It is also a vivid portrait of a “traditional West African village on the cusp of change.”

The daughter of a Foreign Service family, the author has spent much of her life abroad, and this naturally gives her a greater awareness of the realities of life outside the United States, and of Africa itself. Unlike those westerners, who leave either in despair or intoxicated with what they understand to be Africa, the sweeping landscape, intriguing tribes, and a relaxed way of life, Ms. Erdman is acutely aware of the realties.

She doesn’t scant the enormous destruction wrought by kleptocratic leaders, weather — drought is endemic in most of Africa — and disease – AIDS is rapidly undoing the encouraging gains in life expectancy and education. She also understands the ambitions most Africans, especially African women, cherish, not the “Western clichs: happiness, love, adventure, fulfillment”, but “stability, reliability, community, and enough money to have nice clothes made and buy meat for the sauce, maybe some new pots.”

Ms. Erdman was posted to the Ivory Coast in 1998, and left before the war broke out that divided the country. She suggests that the northern-based rebels have legitimate grievances that the more affluent southerners have ignored. And, though the northerners are mostly Muslim, she sees the conflict between north and south as a geopolitical rather than religious clash.

Stationed in Nambonkaha, a small Muslim village in the northern savanna, where she lived in two small concrete rooms in the village, Ms. Erdman rapidly adjusted to the rhythms of a village life dominated by the planting seasons. The water came from pumps, there was no electricity, and the only source of health care was Sidibe, a male nurse. Conscientious but overworked and underpaid, Sidibe had only a high school diploma and three years of nursing school.

Ms. Erdman’s mission as she saw it, was with Sidibe’s help, to improve the villagers’ health care. Sensitive to local traditions and constrained by limited resources, she set up a clinic that weighed babies and offered health and nutritional advice. She also enlisted village women to be educators, to talk to other women about family planning and the value of breast feeding. Eventually when AIDS cases appeared, with local input, she established AIDS awareness programs.

By the end of her two years the clinic was functioning, her women educators teaching, and the babies weighed. The village also now had electricity but the author is ambivalent about this change. She admits to missing the moonlit nights, but also worries that with electricity “a happy village (is) much closer to the estrangement of tradition and modernity that perplexes the rest of the country.” The villagers, she notes, are ecstatic.

For Ms. Erdman this estrangement is at the heart of her concern. Like many westerners and educated Africans, she recognizes the need for change, but also the place of tradition in African society. So while she vividly describes the local festivals, the market and the individuals she came to know, she ponders how to achieve this complicated and emotionally fraught objective. Traditional ways, she notes, help villagers deal with death, offer joyous communal celebrations, and secure everyone a recognized position in village life.

The new ways offer much needed education, women’s rights, and better health care, but often at the risk of causing cultural alienation and anomie.

And to complicate matters further, there are specific traditional customs that frequently do more harm than good. She cites pervasive animistic beliefs, the emphasis on conformity, fatalism, female circumcision, and the widespread corruption, which in Ivory Coast has become an accepted cultural norm The locals call it “bouffer”, lining ones pockets with whatever funds are handy.

Animism, Ms. Erdman believes, is “entrenched in the African belief system —Islam in West Africa is a brittle shell — understood tacitly and rarely addressed with candor.” Like the equally pervasive fatalism, it is a way of coping with their lack of control over so much in their lives, from famine to disease, but it often leads to witch hunts and persecution of the innocent. Observing the villagers, she understands that their readiness to conform, from childhood on, is a way of sustaining their place in the community, where being independent would risk alienation, and that would be “the worst curse of all.”

Female circumcision, according to the author, is not on the wane but instead an accepted modern rite of passage. Women who fail to be circumcised are believed to be cursed, unable to bear children that survive infancy.

Ms. Erdman’s aims and achievements are modest, the proverbial small steps that actually do change lives. Steps that will probably be more beneficial and long-lasting than so many of the grand but failed projects, the fabled Tanzanian groundnut scheme, and countless silted-up dams and inoperative steel factories, that litter the African landscape.

And she records her experiences with affection and insight in a book that is a clear-eyed, and often wise, appreciation of the continent, that is too often misunderstood.

Judith Chettle is a South African born writer now permanently living in the United States who reviews frequently for The Washington Times.

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