I just finished reading two very different books, both first person accounts of life as an expat in Africa. One is a compilation of stories over eleven years from a woman who worked as a medical researcher in Tanzania. The other is about two years of Peace Corps life in Zambia. I figure there’s something for me to learn as an author from both although I have completely different opinions about them Here are reviews I posted on Goodreads about the books.
In some ways Marya K. Plotkin’s book, Peace Like a Monkey, is something I’d like to have written. I lived in Tanzania for 12 years, working in the health care sector, and I recognized the places she wrote about. I’ve just finished my debut novel, based in some of them. I left under unfortunate circumstances in 2012 and admit to some ambivalence – particularly about the politics and corrupt institutions, which she acknowledges briefly. But most of the time there I loved my life, and Plotkin nicely conveys the warmth and easy laughter I enjoyed.
It’s hard to be objective in evaluating the book because of my connections to the places she describes. I shuddered while reading the incident with the phone and the toilet – that was one of my nightmares. (I learned that the more rural the setting the more important to wear a loose skirt to avoid being hobbled with pants down – and empty all pockets before heading to the toilet.) The story of losing her dear friend was well told and very moving.
The author’s generous heart shines through (except in the monkey story) and there’s some nice prose but I do think that stronger developmental editing could have pulled the essays together into a more cohesive story. For example, we learned early on, in chapter 4, that she’d had enough of the negative aspects of life in Dar and was thinking of leaving; this might have been better placed near the end of the book. Even though this was a compilation of essays, a few more transition scenes or sentences could have made the collection flow together better.
I enjoyed the book for so many personal reasons that I gave it four stars. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in Tanzania or the expat life in eastern Africa.
Josh Swiller wrote The Unheard: A Memoir of Deafness and Africa. He was a severely hearing-impaired, twenty-something year old when he went to Zambia as one of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers there. That took courage and his personal journey towards learning how he fit into a hearing world in a different culture was insightful and interesting. Deafness is a world I know little of and I learned a lot about those issues.
On the other hand, I’ve lived and worked for twenty years in various countries of Africa and I was surprised at his lack of insight into the cultures he encountered. Peace Corps was in its first year in Zambia; they made a mistake in sending a volunteer to Munungu and they corrected it after Josh. His experience was terrible but it isn’t typical of Peace Corps or representative of “Africa.” Unfortunately, he referred frequently to Africa as though it is one place. His little piece of experience no more describes “Africa” than the experience of someone who lives in a gang-infested, drug-dealing, violent corner in the USA describes “America.” His inability to read cultural cues and to master his arrogance and hot headedness makes him a poster boy for the ugly American. I’ve made some of the mistakes he made too, but I hope I’ve learned from them—he doesn’t seem to have, at least by the time he left the country. I cringed reading about his temper tantrums and assumption that he always knew best.
Aside from the interesting insights into deafness in a different culture, the book was depressing. I only finished it because it was the selection for a (Peace Corps) book club. Wonder what they'll think.