Too bad every teacher in the rich hemisphere can’t hustle the class off to Africa for a semester on wheels.
It takes an unusual teacher to lead students on trips that extend for a semester in places on the fringe of the average college attendee’s comfort zone.
The author is that exceptional type, an English professor specializing in African studies and African literature at Doane College in Nebraska. She leads small groups of college students on enriching study tours through southern and eastern Africa. Betty Levitov skillfully shares the experiences gleaned during several teaching tours in Africa focused on cross-cultural communication and experiences. The narrative usually unfolds in the present tense giving immediacy and connection to the characters.
The Africa Semester sounds like a great idea and Dr. Levitov’s lighthearted motherly presentation should put at ease the parents or guardians of prospective exchange students. Even if the students aren’t headed for Africa, this book offers travelers handy advice for how to get along in challenging circumstances and how to interact with people from other cultural and economic backgrounds.
A Land Without Time ~ A Peace Corps Volunteer in Afghanistan by John Sumser
Oh mercy me, not another Peace Corps narrative, was my knee-jerk thought. Instead, flipping open the book with a seductive title — A Land Without Time, I was enthralled immediately by John Sumser’s funny, self-aware memoir of working as a volunteer teacher in Afghanistan during the run-up to the 1979 Soviet-led invasion and coup. For those who slept through the past six administrations, the Soviets made the same mistake as Prince George Bush who led the USA into the futile rock pile of Afghanistan in the early 21st century, perhaps in a fantasy of imperial fervor, misunderstanding that the British Empire had actually not succeeded there in the 19th century, nor the Soviets, nor anybody else. It was deja mess all over again.
Though a packet of years have slipped by, Sumser inhabits the voice of the young volunteer he was and infuses the story with the perspective of a canny adult living in the political world post-911. He starts off edgy with a chip on the shoulder attitude towards some of the other Americans in country and wastes no time trying to make Afghani friends. Of course, he met only Afghani men because the women, then as now, were shrouded in chadors and denied social interaction.
Sumser understood his role as a volunteer, to live within the culture, not try to change it or insult people. This makes for some funny encounters and as the author spins out his story, he presents an increasingly wiser voice. Honest about his fears, he tells of living on watermelon and orange soda until mustering the courage to eat in local dives and teashops. He knows that his presence is inexplicable to an Afghani. Why would an American leave prosperous family and comfortable home to live as a poorly paid volunteer teacher in Afghanistan? Surely the volunteers must be spies. Insights about cultural differences won in late 1970’s by Peace Corps volunteers could have served this century’s beleaguered invaders.
At one point he’s passed a paper sack made of an old magazine page containing sugared almonds. Sumser notices a photo of Bertrand Russell on the magazine page. Sumser exclaims that he ‘knows’ Russell. During the ensuing discussion, the Afghanis determine that Russell is dead and that Sumser never actually met him or shared tea with him. While these men sit in characteristic silence etching the differences in their cultures, Sumser ponders that he knows more about Russell’s life story, his ideas and impact on academia — more about a dead man he’s never actually met — than he knows of any Afghani including the companions in the tea shop. To know an Afghani, you needed to be one.
There’s useful advice for travelers. In one scene while instructing an Afghani houseman who refuses to boil
water for 20 minutes to sterilize drinking water against the invisible bugs the Afghani man doesn’t believe are in the water, someone tells the man that the holy book advises Americans to boil drinking water for 20 minutes. That bit of cross-cultural fiction is understood by the devout Afghani who then agrees to boil the water for the specified time. These and other scenes make this book useful for travelers contemplating hard-seat travel in barren lands.
I read this tightly written and well-edited book start to finish, non-stop. For this serious consumer of travel writing, it was a grand read– laced with humor, tension, adventure, insight, landscapes and sharply defined characters. I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing the white-knuckle finale of Sumser’s story.
Maybe the secret to writing a great Peace Corps narrative, or any travel story, is to let enough time go by to mature the writer and distill the events with notes of history, wisdom and cultural insight.
Ray Bradbury lived a long and creative life. He died last week which sent me to my copy of Zen in the Art of Writing, Essays on Creativity, his 1990 book on the writing process. Bradbury celebrates life and the mystery of imagination in these essays, as he did in public — at readings, lectures and impromptu autographing events.
His essays remind writers to relax and follow the fantastic notions that stalk our logic and reason. In the urgent elaborations and emotional intensity that awaken our minds, we do our best writing. Or maybe it’s sheer surprise at creativity from the unknown dimension that captures our energy. Sometimes it is pure luck and having enough time to get the words down before a writer’s attention wanes. Bradbury’s Zen message to writers: Just write and the rest will unfold. Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for opening your prescient imagination to us.
I opened the collection randomly, trusting serendipity and found this passage in the essay about Dandelion Wine:
Here is my celebration, then of death as well as life, dark as well as light, old as well as young, smart and dumb combined, sheer joy as well as complete terror written by a boy who once hung upside down in trees, dressed in his bat costume with candy fangs in his mouth, who finally fell out of the trees when he was twelve and went and found a toy-dial typewriter and wrote his first “novel.” (page 86)
No, it couldn’t happen in America, not in the 20th century. No way!
Oh, but forced sterilization did happen, encouraged by state governments, doctors and social workers. The programs were sometimes supported by pharmacy manufacturers and were based on lousy research by people who weren’t geneticists. The political ramifications bear close attention.
Sterilization programs did happen and not just in one place or during a remote time long ago. Utah, where researching ancestry is an ardent pursuit, was sterilizing people without their consent as recently as 1963. I’m relieved to note that my home state — Maryland — never passed a compulsory sterilization law. However, sterilizations without consent still occurred.
If you can stomach it, read Against Their Will to learn about the awful reality of North Carolina’s 20th century sterilization program which curtailed forever the capacity to reproduce for thousands of people without their consent. When was this North Carolina law finally struck down? In 2003!
Eugenics programs existed in many states. More than 60,000 Americans were sterilized without their consent, part of the eugenics fad of the 1920s that found its way into the rhetoric and practices of Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany and the United States of America were not the only nations engaging in compulsory sterilization — two provinces in Canada followed the US lead in this practice of weeding the gene pool.
North Carolina considered setting up the first Department of Heredity, leading to program where agencies across the nation would track family roots and decide who should or could reproduce. That didn’t happen.
Heroic journalism by the Winston-Salem Journal reporters Kevin Begos, Danielle Deaver, John Railey and Scott Sexton brought this repulsive episode to light. The series led to the North Carolina governor issuing an apology to the involuntary participants in the program. The North Carolina legislature was the first in the U.S. A. to consider compensation to victims of eugenics or involuntary sterilization.
Patti Smith wrote an honest account of how young artists struggle with the enormity of becoming outsiders by embracing the path of art. The memoir won the National Book Award and that’s no surprise. The prose is smooth and the concepts expressed are significant for individuals and society.
Anyone who was born during the years 1945-1965, the rock n’ roll protest generation, will see their hopes and heart reflected in this gentle book.
Join the discussion on books and adventure travel.
One of my favorite books about walking is Miles Morland’s A Walk Across France. Bloomsbury Books, 1992 New York Times review
An out-of-shape British advertising executive and his French wife hoist rucksacks and walk towards the Atlantic Ocean from Gruissan-Plage near Narbonne on the Mediterranean to Capbreton, north of Bayonne, a distance of 553 km. Their route takes them along country roads and through farm villages. It’s hot and dusty, but they slake their thirst with lots of wine.