Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

One Saturday afternoon during one of my weekend library visits I happened to stumble across a copy of Sarah Erdman’s memoir Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. After picking it up and upon closer inspection I decided to check it out for two reasons. Number one, since her 2003 memoir recalls the time she spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in the West African country of Ivory Coast I could apply it towards Kinna’s African Reading Challenge. Number two, it was obvious that this particular copy, while not battered and bruised, still looked considerably worn. To me, that’s a good thing because it meant the book had been borrowed and read repeatedly. That means it’s probably been in fairly high demand. And of course, chances are since it’s been in fairly high demand it’s probably a very good book. So, taking all those factors into consideration naturally I checked it out from the library.

Crazy thing is it took me forever to read Nine Hills to Nambonkaha. But even  with me putting it down and picking it up over and over, thankfully I found myself liking the book quite a bit. On top of it, much to my surprise I found myself liking Sarah Erdman the young Peace Corps volunteer even more. Quite frankly, I have a lot of admiration for Erdman. A young American woman probably fresh out of college, she began her Peace Corps stint as the village’s designated midwife. From there she went from teaching English and then basic nutrition and childhood health. Eventually she would  help create and coordinate an AIDS prevention program as well as oversee the construction of a rural health clinic-achieving all of this with modest resources while battling indigenous corruption, cultural obstacles and unyielding bureaucracies. Much to her credit throughout all of these challenges Erdman faced no matter how frustrated she became, almost without exception she was respectful of everyone and everything.

On top of it, it’s a well-written memoir too. I found her prose thoughtful and descriptive without being long-winded. Interestingly, in telling her story Erdman relays hardly any personal information. Little if any time is spent discussing her life before she joined the Peace Corps, her motivations for joining or her personal and family relationships. The focus of her memoir is solely on her life and work in the village.

Erdman’s memoir and with it her recollection of life in a West African village with its laissez-faire, non-puritanical interpretation of Islam reminded me a great deal of Camara Laye’s The Dark Child: An Autobiography of an African Boy. In many ways it also reminded me of Ishmael Beah’s 2007 memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Besides causing me to reminisce a bit, it’s also inspired me to finally start reading Chinua Achebe’s classic Nigerian novel Nigeria Things Fall Apart. Who knows, it might inspire me to read other books about Africa. I certainly hope it does.

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