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.

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