Mango Elephants in the Sun

The Book of the Week is “Mango Elephants in the Sun” by Susana Herrera, published in 1999. This ebook is the personal account of the author’s two-year experience in the Peace Corps, assigned to the village of Guidiguis, in the northern tip of Cameroon in the early 1990’s. The first chapter was dense with minutiae, but the content became informative and entertaining as the book progressed.

The government of Cameroon was a monarchy, and the local regions had mayors, all of whom drove black Mercedes. The Muslim king had a hundred children. The country also had a president. There was growing anti-government unrest in the southwestern part of the country, that spread to the author’s region toward the end of her stay. The president ordered pay cuts for common working people, while soldiers got raises. The people were “…already angry, complaining that he has rigged the elections.” The different languages and tribes of the people made it difficult for them to put aside their differences to unite to fight against the injustices.

The living conditions were primitive, with no indoor plumbing. Water had to be transferred in buckets a mile distant. Clothes were washed by hand. Other hardships included but were far from limited to: the 125-degree Fahrenheit heat, the risk of contracting life-threatening illnesses such as amoebic dysentery and malaria, termites’ destruction of wooden furniture, elephants’ destruction of millet fields and corn fields in the village, the need for a mosquito net around the bed, and crickets and rats in the residence. But Herrera’s quarters had electricity, and included a refrigerator.

The author taught English to a class of 107 boys and 4 girls of varying ages. She was fluent in French– their common language, but learned a bit of their languages, Fulfulde and Tapouri, too. The village consisted of two tribes, the Foulbe and the Tapouri, which were rivals in hard times, such as drought. The kids had uniforms, but no books. It was common practice for the girls to be subjected to an arranged marriage or a life of farm work, instead of an education. Discipline in school was maintained through beatings, so the students would “respect” the teacher. Herrera meted out punishment by having students kneel on the ground or fetch water instead.

Herrera described her adventures. She developed personal relationships with a few of her students. She taught one girl, Lydie, to ride a bicycle, and was roundly criticized for it. Lydie’s father was angry because Lydie would never own a bike, so the author was giving her false hope, and the result was also wasted effort and time.

Lydie explained her busy life to the author thusly: “My little brothers help me with the water. Then I make beignets for breakfast and bathe the children. After I wash dishes, I’ll start the laundry or, if I have time, begin the midday meal. Then I’ll sweep the compound before going to school.” The boys had no chores. At dawn, they walked to school, and ate the peanuts they reaped along the way. Lydie could look forward to even more work as a grownup: “…cooking, cleaning, washing, planting, harvesting, child care, shopping and water pumping.” In Cameroonian culture, fatness of a wife was a sign of a husband’s love– his ability to provide for her, by selling grain, ironically.

Read the book to find out more about how the author coped with the everyday difficulties, and little triumphs, in a culture and land that was so different from her native California.

Dragon Sea

The Book of the Week is “Dragon Sea” by Frank Pope, published in 2007. This ebook describes the lives of sunken-treasure hunters– people who go SCUBA diving to recover material assets of ships that have sunk in prior centuries.

Such a pursuit interests marine archeologists, too. They should have knowledge of art, ancient history and the sea. The oil industry has developed the technology that allows the least expense and the fewest complications for conducting underwater research and exploitation of the seabed. However, the exploitation part is still life-threatening and very expensive. A gruesome death might await divers at any time, so they make big bucks.

Many divers take a chance by attempting to retrieve treasures from a sunken ship whose contents might be claimed by its country of origin. They risk confiscated cargoes, impounded vessels and court cases, not to mention plunder, if pirates find out what they are doing before they can finish grabbing the ceramics, coins or other valuables from the ship. Those items might end up at a big-name auction house or at a museum. Or on eBay.

Read the book to learn about the salvaging of ceramics from one particular ship– along with the dangers, complications and conflicts that arose, the equipment used, worker interactions in light of the situations they encountered, and the financial results of the project.

The Best of Times

The Book of the Week is “The Best of Times” by John Dos Passos, originally published in 1966. This ebook is “an informal memoir.”

Dos Passos was sent by his father, a bigwig attorney active in politics and in his community, to a “public school” (what Americans would call private school) in England, and later, boarding school in the United States. His father was of Portuguese extraction, with houses in Sandy Point, MD and Washington D.C. In his youth, Dos Passos communed with nature, capturing small rodents, bullfrogs and garter snakes.

The author became a Darwin Award candidate by choice during WWI– a volunteer ambulance driver in France and Italy, after which he bummed around Spain, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. At times, he lived in New York. “When I found I was late I jumped a bus. In the twenties you could still sit out in the air on top of the [double-decker] Fifth Avenue buses.”

In Dos Passos’ generation, it was easy to make a living as a novelist and playwright. He debated political philosophies with his friends. It is now known which systems of governments are superior to others. But in the hard sciences, “… you could perform your experiment, report the findings. Other men could repeat your experiment to check the results.” The author felt that “developing a humane civilization” involves half communism and half capitalism. This blogger thinks he was conflating politics with economics. He meant “socialism,” not “communism,” because socialism is an economic system, and communism is a political system. But to create a just society, respect for human rights in both governing and allocating resources, is required.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of the author’s adventures abroad and his experiences hanging around with Ernest Hemingway.