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A Conversation with Ivory coast RPCV Sarah Erdman, author of Nine Hills to Nambonkana
A Conversation with Ivory coast RPCV Sarah Erdman, author of Nine Hills to Nambonkana
A Conversation with Sarah Erdman, author of NINE HILLS TO NAMBONKAHA
How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?
My father served as an English teacher in the Peace Corps in Turkey in 1967-69, so I grew up with his stories. Also, having spent a lot of my childhood abroad, it just seemed like the most natural thing for me to do. But I did think hard before applying. I joined a year and a half after graduating from college, and before I did, I fully researched other ways to do aid work overseas. What appealed to me about Peace Corps was the idea that I'd be living at the level of the community-it was important to me to see how well I could do living at a basic level, but I also believe in a grassroots approach to development. I appreciated the fact that once at a site, it was up to me and the community-and not a distant development agency-to figure out what kinds of projects to start. The Peace Corps puts a lot of faith in their volunteers by supporting them instead of managing them, and I sought a situation where I had to take full responsibility for my own work and actions. The two year contract was another reason I chose Peace Corps. I didn't feel that I could learn and do enough in just one year.
What expectations did you have when you arrived in Nambonkaha? Was the village different than you had anticipated?
I tried to avoid any expectations before I went to Africa. I felt pretty confident about my ability to battle culture shock-growing up I was always taught to withhold judgment and respect other cultures, so I tend to take things as they come. Nonetheless, I spent hours in bookstores scanning coffee table books and essay collections and histories of Africa for any mention of Côte d'Ivoire. I was living in Chicago at the time and could find only scraps. It's funny now to think of the images I hung onto-one photograph in particular of a lush, forested coastline and bamboo houses built on stilts. About as far from my reality in the savanna village of Nambonkaha as you can get.
The closest I'd been to sub-Saharan Africa was Egypt, and that was nothing like the Africa I found. Nambonkaha was a whole new planet. As much as I'd read about it, I still couldn't completely fathom certain truths about West Africa: that everything is done outside for instance, from cooking and cleaning to washing children and sleeping. It was always more important that the courtyard was swept than the house. Probably the most different and difficult thing I dealt with at the beginning was the food: nothing was recognizable once it got to the table. Vegetables that I loved fresh somehow disappeared into a thin, oily broth that accompanied every meal. I could never trust what meat I was eating, since people caught on early that I was leery and started calling everything "beef" or "chicken" just so I'd eat it. (I had my first taste of the exotic, endangered serval under the heading of rabbit.) And the pounded starches that made up the bulk of every meal went down like play-dough. But I got used to it. And now what I wouldn't do for a good plate of pounded manioc and groundnut stew…
You write about the "spirit" of Nambonkaha. Can you describe the personality of the village, what makes it tick?
The Niarafolo are a hardworking, diligent people, and their energy resonated throughout the village. What made them stand out from other nearby communities is that they wanted to help themselves, improve their lots. They had the village infrastructure to do it, and they would take the initiative to get projects started instead of waiting around for handouts.
There are always politics of course, but Nambonkaha was surprisingly cohesive. I realize I was there as a development worker, but I do believe that tradition made it tick. The lack of amenities made people rely more on each other and on the ways that their forefathers had done. The community was out to help one another out, whether delivering babies in a mud hut, reaping the harvests with bare hands, or taking care of children and elders. I think that's something that characterizes much of West Africa: the work of one is accomplished by many. And the best way to accomplish it is by singing through it, chatting through it, and laughing. Nambonkaha--before the war-- was full of laughter.
What goals did you have for your time in Nambonkaha? What were your greatest challenges in achieving them?
I had very general goals before I got there; I just didn't know what I would find. I was a so-called health worker with just several months as a doctor's front office assistant, some candystriping experience, and CPR certification. Peace Corps taught me well for three months, but apart from the general issues like AIDS and a lack of hygiene or nutrition, I did not know what to expect. So my main goals were to assimilate well into the community, do lasting good there, and learn a lot about the culture. But while the village was extremely generous and welcoming to me from the first day, I did encounter challenges in areas I wouldn't have expected. It was difficult to reconcile my work with the culture-getting used to "African time" and village protocol, knowing whom to address first, and whom not to address at all, when in a conversation to bring up the real issues, how to talk about subjects that were taboo…The list goes on.
Probably the most complex and insurmountable challenge was sorcery. It was intriguing, beguiling, horrifying to learn about, but it was just plain frustrating to work with. No matter how much of a cynic you are, there is something to be said for belief. If everyone around you believes that the reason this baby died or that man got AIDS is because a witch cast a curse, then it's useless to dismiss it. Sorcery made its way into every bit of health work I did, so subtly I often didn't realize it was there. But I gradually learned different techniques for dealing with it. I had to figure out ways to make sorcery seem like the lesser issue, to make curses seem reversible, to have people see that they could actually treat the illness or prevent it altogether, without upsetting the witches and spirits that they assumed were the culprits.
You describe your work in the village as "a two-way journey from ignorance to understanding." What lessons did you take away from your time there?
Oh, so many. First the obvious ones-I encountered a way of life that in no way resembled what I had previously known, and I found I could thrive in it. Being on my own, immersed in a tiny Muslim village, taught me a lot about my values, my attitude, my quirks, and my resilience. At first, the differences between me and the villagers seemed unbridgeable. Towards the end of my stay, I couldn't get over how similar we were. I began to understand the villagers' thought processes and motives to some extent, and that gave me insight into what the world might look like from their point of view. By accident, it seemed, I became an expert on this one small group of fascinating yet humble people-I think that's the beauty of Peace Corps. So many volunteers leave with an intimate knowledge of an unsung people.
In terms of lessons, though, there were many of those. I learned to laugh at myself. I learned that time is not money. I learned to walk slower, to read time by the sun. I learned the art of just sitting with other people without saying much. I learned the importance of respecting the elders. I was also struck by certain sharp contrasts between their culture and ours: kids are not given much supervision there, but they are given real responsibilities, and because of this, I think, they tend to respect their place in the machinery of the community. They were not indulged, but they were given the freedom to explore the world. The children of Nambonkaha were some of the most creative, best behaved, most free-spirited children I have ever met.
In hindsight, are there things that you would do differently if you had the chance? What sorts of early mistakes did you make?
In the early days I was constantly tripping over myself-sticking out the wrong hand to accept gifts, insulting people in the indigenous language when I meant to praise them, peering too close at masked funeral dancers to satisfy my own curiosity. I think my mistakes were part of the learning process. I realized quickly that the only thing to do was to laugh at them, because everyone else seemed to. I'm not sure I would change them if I could. Of course, in hindsight, I can think of hundreds of ways my work there could have been more efficient, or helped more people: if only I had been fully aware of the customs and the protocol, if only I had understood the village dynamic faster… Having spent over a year writing about the community there, I've unearthed dozens more questions I would like to have asked. But I have few regrets.
You left Nambonkaha just as civil war began. Were there changes that you noticed? How did the villagers feel about the war?
There were changes in the country over the course of my two years. Skirmishes and riots occurred every few months during my last year there. Crime rates increased. Immigrants in the south, especially, felt the repercussions of growing xenophobia. Several families were killed, many fled. There was general discontent with former President Bedié's government, which was known to have farmed out a generous EU loan to its own ministers' pockets. Students everywhere went on strike to protest a cut in education funding. I rarely felt unsafe, but these minor boiling points throughout the country were certainly a harbinger of what was to come.
When the Christmas coup happened in 1999, the country seemed surprisingly reinvigorated by it. Everyone was sick of Bedié, and real change was needed. The political dramas that unfolded while I was there, however, barely registered in Nambonkaha. Those who bothered to listen to the radio were divided on the new military leadership, but most everyone else was more concerned about getting the cotton harvested. And nothing about life in the village changed. Since the war began in September 2002, I've not heard much from the village, as communication lines have been cut. Judging from the way it has affected much of the rest of the country, I imagine they feel deceived and strangled. Nambonkaha was on a positive trajectory, but the recent events have set it back decades, and ruined many, many lives.
What would you say was most rewarding about your experience in Nambonkaha?
The fact that, to some extent, I did it. The last Peace Corps volunteer to serve in Nambonkaha was evacuated four months after he got there because of the war. But he returned a few months later to tie up loose ends. With the country in turmoil, and the infrastructure crumbling, the schools shut down, the clinics running out of medicine, he told me that the women of Nambonkaha were still weighing their babies. They had so much potential, and so little opportunity. So many of those mothers just wanted a chance to do right, to raise healthy children, to understand. The health workers I trained sought a way to be more than just farmers. I feel that I was able to give them a bit of that opportunity, to empower them, to make them feel as worthy as they are. And that is the most rewarding thing I've done in my life.
The last chapter of the book describes your final night in Nambonkaha. Was it hard to leave?
One of the hardest things I've ever done. It was so final, because even if I returned in a few years for a month or two, I knew I'd never be able to recapture the precious momentum we had going there. My work was going so well, people were motivated, I had learned to communicate, I had found great friends, and of course just as it all clicked, it was time to go. And it was wrenching to leave my children, who were with me so much of the time. I knew that I'd be missing their childhoods, would come back to find them grown. I miss those first rains after the long dry season-how ecstatic they were! I miss the rhythms of the village. I miss knowing my neighbor grew the food I'm eating. I miss participating in the basics of life: creating my own light, pulling my own water, thrashing my own clothes till they're clean. I miss full moon nights when the little girls would dance. I miss leaf sauce and millet beer. I miss laughing all the time. I miss conversations about life and music and God with my Muslim nurse. And I think every day of the villagers, the sense of belonging they gave me.
Do you keep in touch with the people that you met there?
For the first two years following my return, I wrote to several villagers and my nurse. A few of the kids sent me drawings, and one tried to send me peanuts. But since the trouble broke out in September 2002, all communication lines have been cut. I've recently heard that letters have made it through to the States from Northern Côte d'Ivoire, so I'll try again. There is so much to say.
Do you think you will ever return to Nambonkaha?
As soon as I possibly can. I want my relationship with Nambonkaha to be lifelong. I had planned to go back this summer, but the political turmoil has made travel to the region difficult and has made me ache to go back even more. Since the trade routes have been cut, this year's cotton harvest is just stacked in huts. And without cotton, Nambonkaha farmers become subsistence farmers and there is no money for medicine or meat or schooling. I will go back, for certain, but when I do, I want to be able to offer them help, because they always offered it to me.
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