My impression of Peace Corps memoirs, before reading this book, was not good. This seems to be recognized as one of the better ones, and as an engaging, perceptive memoir with a strong writing style, it certainly exceeded my expectations.
Tidwell spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1980s, living in a remote region of what was then Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), where he taught fish farming to villagers. It begins with a chapter on his fairly bizarre training, but other than that it’s all about living and working in Kalambayi rather than about the life of Mike Tidwell (though he is probably an interesting person outside of this experience. Fun fact: this is the same Mike Tidwell who, years later, founded CCAN). Kalambayi, of course, turns out to be an extremely difficult place to work. The people are desperately poor; poor nutrition, poor health, poor education, and a cultural hostility to family planning, not to mention government corruption, all contribute to and result from this vicious cycle.
Tidwell is observant and insightful, and his two years’ immersion provide fascinating material, but what really makes this book work is his respect for the people he encounters. He finds aspects of the culture frustrating, but comes to understand why that society works the way it does, neither condemning it as backward nor romanticizing the simpler lifestyle. He sees the men he works with as individuals rather than stereotypes, without preconceived notions of Africans getting in the way. He’s also honest about his own weaknesses and avoids making too much of himself.
Tidwell does reveal a blind spot; he does not, apparently, interact with any women while in Kalambayi (other than one mentally ill beggar who harasses him into feeding her), nor give any reason why that would be so, especially in a society where virtually everything happens outdoors. It seems odd, to say the least, that an otherwise keen observer of people and places could travel from 1980’s America to a traditional society barely out of the Stone Age, and have nothing to say about gender roles.
Other than the potential for cliché portrayals or pat answers to the world’s problems – neither of which is present here – my initial skepticism about Peace Corps memoirs derived mostly from the fact that not everyone with interesting experiences can write. Fortunately, Tidwell can: the writing flows naturally, the transitions are smooth and the pacing appropriate; Tidwell keeps the focus on the interesting aspects of his experience, the people he meets and the world they inhabit. I found it compelling reading and read the book fairly quickly.
I would recommend this memoir as a strong example of travel writing; it paints a vivid picture of Kalambayi and its people, as well as the challenges of working in international development. And it gave me new respect for anyone who volunteers to join the Peace Corps; it is clearly grueling, soul-draining work, so kudos to Tidwell and everyone else who decides to take that on.