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Two Years in an African Town

by Sarah Erdman

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-7381-7
Publisher: Henry Holt

A thoughtful memoir of Peace Corps service in West Africa, with all the hallmarks of the subgenre.

First-time author Erdman brings a large heart and a sense of humor to her account of her two-year stint in the interior of the Ivory Coast, providing healthcare in a market town in which nothing is quite as it seems. Though Islamic, for instance, the residents of the town were not inclined to take their religion with the grim determination of some of their fellow faithful: “For a small minority of Nambonkaha residents,” Erdman writes, “Ramadan is a time of fasting and atonement. For the rest it means a month of talking about fasting that ends in a big party.” Like many another Peace Corps memoir, Erdman’s tale follows a trajectory that begins with cultural misunderstandings, with an appropriate level of self-pity (“Too much is foreign; too much is missing. I’m all alone surrounded by people”), and that arcs into understanding, acceptance, and friendship. Erdman steers away from the usual pieties, though, and delivers some sharp observations on rural life in Africa while poking fun at herself, e.g., as she confronts a plate of bushrat stew prepared by a local trickster who enjoys her squeamishness: “Ahhhh! La tête! My favorite part! Look, there are its little teeth!” There are plenty of serious moments, though, as when Erdman ponders the astonishing corruption that keeps the Côte d’Ivoire, with an economy that is the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa, impoverished and struggling; the upper class has plenty of money, she notes, but it “never seems to seep through to the rest.” By the end of her memoir, Erdman has taken to a more or less relativistic view of such things, and even if they continue to bother her, she is fierce in defending the people of the Ivoirian interior from Western misperceptions and stereotypes.

Sometimes treacly, but mostly charming. A worthy debut.