Sunday, June 12, 2011

One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo - 50 year of amazing Peace Corps stories

Following is my review of One Hand Does Not Catch A Buffalo – 50 years of amazing Peace Corps stories, edited by Aaron Barlow, Travelers’ Tales, Solas House, Inc., Palo Alto

Just in time for the Peace Corps fiftieth anniversary, a superb collection of anecdotes, reminisces, recollections and heartfelt stories of the Peace Corps experience in Africa. Sixty former volunteers (disclaimer - myself included) contributed essays about their memories of Africa to this book. We write about how we got there: waiting on the letter, odd training in preparation, struggling with language; our motivations: escape from home, exploring the bigger world, draft dodging, saving the world, adventure; what we did: teaching, engineering, agricultural extension, health work, community development, very little; the memorable people we met: chiefs and elders, strong village women, inquisitive friendly children, colleagues and friends made. The book details lots of our confusing and enlightening cross cultural encounters beginning with the fact of being a stranger in a strange land bereft of the anchors of American civilization, yet ever willing to try, test and learn about our new surroundings. Perhaps understandably there are several anecdotes focused on gastronomical distress, even more detailing the travails of local transportation and a couple dealing with snakes, lions and elephants.

Undeniably PCVs encountered a different and, for most - at least in retrospect, a magical place where time was often suspended, even as those societies were marching inevitably forward into the modern world. We were part of that process. We saw contrasts and understood changes, yet the resilience of the cultures we were immersed in and their embedded values, made change wrenching. The poverty of Africa overwhelmed us, but the optimistic spirit of its people and our shared humanity heartened us. They shared their hope for a better future and we could only trust that their expectations would bear fruit.

Despite the opportunity, this collection is not a self pat on the back about jobs well done. In fact, there is very little in it about the work accomplished. It is not about the “how,” but about “who.” Furthermore it is not about our impact on them, but of theirs on us. We all came away changed.

I never could figure out where the intriguing title of the book came from, but this is the first of several volumes in this anniversary year organized on a geographical basis, i.e. volumes on Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe will follow.
Anyone who served in Africa as a PCV will immediately embrace these essays. Although each one is unique, collectively they represent our experience. Buy it, settle down and relive your past!

Also let me call attention to www.americandiplomacy.org . Look in the index for essays on “how the peace corps experience changed me.” Several dozen folks (again me included) write on this topic. I would be willing to flag other such sites, so if you know of one, please let me know.

1 comment:

AaronBarlow said...

You write that the book "is not about 'how,' but about 'who.'" Exactly, and that's what made editing this volume such a joy. We ended up including over 60 essays and voices, stories of people changing through experiences unlike anything else in our lives.

Thank you for your kind words. Like Peace Corps itself, the book isn't perfect. But, as we all did as PCVs, we all tried, and can be proud of even the attempt.

There's another review of the book on the Peace Corps Worldwide site.