Thursday, March 15, 2007

An Exotic Setting I May Never Use

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I was 20, I joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa. In those days, you didn’t actually have to know anything to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. They put about 100 of us “BA generalists” just out of college into a summer training program where we got a crash course in African geography and American civics and spoke French all the time for practice. We went on a camping trip where we were supposed to experience living “in the bush” and learn how to wring a chicken’s neck. Each small group had its own chicken. I confess I took out my contact lenses and looked the other way while my group killed the chicken. (Luckily, it was a skill I wouldn’t need in Bouaké, the city of 100,000 where I was eventually sent. The first year, we bought our chickens already butchered and plucked in the vast open market. The second year, a French supermarket chain opened a branch. We used to go in there and hang out just to enjoy the air conditioning.)

I spent September in Quebec, living with a family and struggling with the peculiarities of Canadian French. I remember the maple trees blazing glorious reds and golds in a fall that would give way not to winter, but to two years in the tropics. Autumn without its usual poignancy was very strange. And then came a very long trip by plane and there we were: West Africa! Air thick as oatmeal, the smell of pineapple and rotting vegetable matter, kaleidoscopic colors, and gorgeous women with huge loads balanced effortlessly on their heads (look, Ma—no hands!) and sleeping babies bound around their waists like fanny packs. This was way before you could buy African prints or kente cloth in the US, even in Harlem, as far as I know.

In the 1970s, I did write a mystery set in a fictional West African country. It was called Death Is a Volunteer, and I didn’t succeed in selling it. I doubt it’s salvageable. Times have changed a lot. In the 60s, Côte d’Ivoire and the countries around it—Nigeria, Togo, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Ghana—were in the first delirious joy of independence. There was a lot of hope and energy. The world has gotten more complicated since then. Africa is angry and dangerous in new ways.

I’m sure I could summon up the colors and the textures and the smells. I still remember small details about the people, some of whom I’m still in touch with. My friend Valentine, for example, came from a village where her father was the chief. He had eight wives and 64 children, but Vany was the only one who pursued education past grade school. Her older brothers used to consult her about when to plant and whom to marry. When she went home to the village, everyone would tiptoe past her room so they wouldn’t disturb her, just in case she was thinking.

But on a deeper level, I’m not as oblivious to undercurrents as I was at 20. And I don’t have a fraction of the chutzpah. I saw an outsider’s Africa, and I’m not so sure I could write about it successfully. Could I research it? Could I go back? My husband and I did visit Valentine and my other friends in 1986. But now, for the past three years, Côte d’Ivoire has been engaged in an ugly and inconclusive civil war.

Valentine writes that things are more or less back to normal in Abidjan. She’s okay. She's the current President’s cousin. But Bouaké is the capital of the rebellion, not far from the new border that splits the country, with armed Ivoiriens facing off on either side. My French friends, some married to Africans, have fled the country. I don’t know what happened to the Lebanese friends who lived in Bouaké, fourth generation sub-Saharan residents who used to talk wistfully about beautiful Beirut, back before Beirut became a war zone. I hope they got out when the French evacuated “Europeans.” The issues are so complex. Feelings run so high on all sides. There are no good guys, except the little guys caught in the middle. Who am I to write about Africa?


John said...

Elizabeth--check out our website: and you'll see we have quite a few writers who have written, even mysteries, about Africa. Look for Wiley, who has set two novels in Kenya and Nigeria.

Anonymous said...

I can understand how you'd be hesitant to use this experience. I have similar feelings about writing characters from other ethnic backgrounds.

Don't forget that you do have a wonderful first person POV as an outsider, looking at a situation and trying to comprehend all of the complexities.