May 26, 2003 - Awakened Woman magazine : How Life in an African Village Let Me Be In My Skin by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Cameroon: Peace Corps Cameroon: The Peace Corps in Cameroon: May 26, 2003 - Awakened Woman magazine : How Life in an African Village Let Me Be In My Skin by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera

By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, May 26, 2003 - 8:56 pm: Edit Post

How Life in an African Village Let Me Be In My Skin by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera

How Life in an African Village Let Me Be In My Skin by Cameroon RPCV Susana Herrera

Book Review Mango Elephants in the Sun

How Life in an African Village
Let Me Be In My Skin

"Jam bah doo nah?"

"Are you in your skin?"

"Jam core doo may."

"I am in my skin."

This exchange between the Africans that Susana Herrera stays with sets the tone of her book, Mango Elephants in the Sun. The questions that some of us do not even know to ask are asked of Susana during her Peace Corps stay in Cameroon, West Africa. Susana narrates her experience of being an American woman teaching English to the children of the financially impoverished village in Africa. As a woman who is seen as intrinsically Other than the African people around her, Susana starts out as the outcast in their community. As she learns to fit in, she realizes that to these people fitting in does not have to do with one's skin color, one's financial affluence, or one's gender; what fitting in is about to the people who become an extended family to Susana, is whether one is present, which means being in one's skin.

Susana's story reminds me that so many of us in America walk around too busy to truly be present in body, yet this experience is crucial to happiness and self-realization. Through narration of the fascinating events that take place during her stay, letters home, and the visionary words of a lizard, Susana shares her experience of arriving in Cameroon not having a clue who she is beyond a Peace Corps participant. Then slowly she reveals her learning through the relationships that develop and the experiences that arise.

A couple of experiences that Susana has in Cameroon really stick out as markers of her growth. One of these happens toward the beginning of her stay. She watches from a distance the local women from the village doing the washing, but feels intimidated because she does not know how to carry the full buckets of water back from the water pump on her head. As she stands at a distance, contemplating her next move, she sees the women of Cameroon:

I hear the women laughing, and they don't hold anything back. Their shoulders rise and fall like wings of birds. One woman playfully whacks another on the shoulder with a wet, twisted cloth, and they burst out laughing. They are the most beautiful and graceful women I have ever seen. In their sarongs and matching blouses, their lovely skin is the darkest black, and my hand aches to touch their velvet cheeks. (10)

Although it takes her a while to become accustomed to carrying water on her head, the experience of incorporating oneself into another group of people's culture with respect is conveyed through Susana's experience. The longing to be a part of a group that is not yours, the fear of being denied, and the warmth of being accepted is present in this scene. It is on this day that Susana is first asked if she is in her skin, and by the time that she has managed to get the water, she realizes that she is indeed!

Susana's relationship with Doc, the village doctor, children whom she adopts, and of course the children to whom she teaches English is really what Mango Elephants in the Sun is all about. Although she knows a very small amount of the language that is spoken in Cameroon, her responsibility there is to teach English. Through this process, Susana realizes that there is more to language barriers than simply words. The way that words are put together and are spoken offer insight into the philosophy of any group of people. In the classroom with the children of Cameroon, Susana learns about what that philosophy is and how it differs from her own American ways of thinking.

Every time that someone asks Susana, "Jam bah doo nah?" she has to think about whether she is in her skin. This is something that becomes a source of wisdom for her. What does it mean to be in one's skin? What do each of us have to do to allow our souls to be in our body? While in America we have technology that may provide certain comforts, the people that Susana lives with in Africa are present in their skin. They know who they are and what their purpose is in their community. All of these things are lacking in modern American culture.

Susana's book reminds the reader that there is more to life than the busy, technologically advanced world that so-called "civilized" people live. I felt like even if I tried the smallest amount, I could readily imagine the experience of going on a journey to find out what it entails to live wholly in my body. It reminds us that there is so much to learn from people whose lives are different from ours; people whom we condescendingly forget are wise in ways that have become dormant in many of us. If one takes the time to read Mango Elephants in the Sun, one will, at the very least, come away with a sense of the importance of the question "Jam bah doo nah?" And even more, the value of being able to respond with a certain surety, "Jam core doo may!"

Reviewed by Carla Boyd

Herrera, Susana. Mango Elephants in the Sun. Boston: Shambala, 1999.

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Story Source: Awakened Woman magazine

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Cameroon; Writing; Minority Volunteers



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