My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah, Robin Wiszowaty
Memoirs of a Reluctant Servant: Two Years of Triumph and Sorrow in Liberia, Africa, Jerome Cabeen with Barbara Pawlikowski
Why is it hard to write about Africa? Google this question and you’ll find plenty of answers. Read Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, How to Write About Africa, and you’ll have a nervous little chuckle and then never, ever try to write about Africa again.
Wainaina has a point though. Readers, or perhaps publishers, have come to expect certain elements in stories of Africa: the corrupt official; the starving refugee; the recovering-but-permanently-damaged child soldier. Africa is, I think, often depicted with broad brushstrokes that North America or Europe are not.
For non-Africans, the challenge to write about Africa is greater. Plunk someone down in a foreign culture for a limited time, then ask them to write about it in a way that’s sensitive but not saccharine, knowledgeable but not know-it-all, specific but not biased. Then ask them to publish and sell their work back home.
Jerome Cabeen plunked himself down in Liberia, Robin Wiszowaty in rural Kenya. Both were somewhat shocked to find themselves in Africa, both planned to stay for one year, both wrote a memoir.
My Maasai Life begins with Wiszowaty’s “ordinary life” in suburban Illinois. She has everything a middle-class teen could want, but is unsatisfied, almost disgusted by the opportunities available to her. “I couldn’t explain what I wanted instead…. I just knew it wasn’t what I already had.”
Her anger is never fully explained, but it is resolved — by moving to Kenya.
Wiszowaty is an intriguing character. Clearly bright and confident, she portrays herself as alternately super-naive or ultra-competent. Boarding her flight to Kenya, she stops and wonders if she has her passport: “You need a passport to go to another country, don’t you?” Once in Nairobi, however, she soon hops a matatu across town on her own, then heads out to Maasailand in the back of a pick-up truck. She acknowledges that she didn’t know what language Kenyans spoke before she arrived the country and had done “brief research” on the Maasai before joining their community. Yet she jumps in with both feet and seems immediately at home in a manyatta, carrying water and eating ugali seven days a week.
This contrast makes Wiszowaty likeable, but hard to get to know. Her writing is matter-of-fact, neither judgemental nor overly analytic. She describes activities such as daily cooking and ritual circumcision in with similar frankness. On female circumcision she says: “How could I form an opinion on a rite of passage with a long history I couldn’t fathom?” At the same time, she takes the liberty of sterilizing the circumcision knife and surreptitiously placing it back by the fireside.
Wiszowaty is not naive, at least not by the time she’d finished writing her book. Her “Notes and Background Information” gives a detailed and fairly astute account of Kenyan culture and politics. Yet I was distracted by her adolescent tone throughout the book. She describes a drawn-out conversation with her “Mama” upon learning that her friend, Samuel, was still in grade school at the age of twenty-two. “Plainly, Mama didn’t see how I might find this strange.” Neither do I! Surely someone who has spent months in rural Kenya might realize that missing chunks of schooling is not unusual.
By the time I’d finished My Maasai Life, I’d come to accept it as a well-written book for young adults. Taken as such, the tone is appropriate, and given that Wiszowaty works with Free the Children, a youth-powered non-profit, it is no doubt effective.
Jerome Cabeen, like Robin Wiszowaty, held no life-long dream or plan to visit Africa. He begins his memoir: “It had to be God who called me to Africa. I was more than content to stay in Honduras….” It was also his wife, Clarissa, who urged them to relocate to a missionary in Liberia. There is little prelude to Cabeen’s story; by page two, the couple had landed in Monrovia. I appreciated that quick start because by page two, I was far more interested in Liberia than Cabeen.
The author keeps himself in the background throughout much of the book. Nonetheless (or maybe as a result), I grew to like Cabeen. His empathy, not sympathy, is evident. He acknowledges that he’s out of his element in war-scarred Liberia: “…when everywhere I turned I met people eager to share their horrific stories, I realized nothing could have prepared me for this.”
Yet Cabeen doesn’t separate himself from those around him — a me versus them. Instead, he focuses on commonalities. In an early scene, he meets a group of ex-child soldiers on the street. These men are grown now, and destitute. Yes, they are the requisite recovering-but-permanently-damaged child soldiers but Cabeen first notices and describes something in common, a basketball shirt:
He was adorned in a fading Detroit Pistons jersey with the number 33 emblazoned on the front. The last 3 dangled loosely as it had lost most of its thread and I was quite sure he would be left with only one 3 but day’s end…. Having spent eleven years of my life engrossed in the world of … college basketball… I didn’t need to see the name on the back of the jersey to know it was an old Grant Hill model.
This chapter on child soldiers reveals a lot about Cabeen. He first jokes with the men about the dangling number 3, he engages them, he is genuinely interested in their stories. And he’s an interesting fellow himself, versed in blues music and college sports and so in love with Honduras that he had a map tattooed on his back.
We also learn that Cabeen is a committed Catholic missionary. He infuses his writing with references to his faith. Speaking of the men on the street he says: “To me they were children of God; as such I saw them as my brothers…. They were homeless, but they were also temples of the Holy Spirit.”
Memoirs of a Reluctant Servant is set in a mission in Liberia, and told by a devout missionary. These facts did not draw me to the book; I thought Cabeen’s faith might overwhelm his story. It doesn’t. In fact, faith comes to the forefront only when it steers fellow missionaries terribly wrong, and Cabeen has no problem condemning his colleagues’ actions.
Cabeen’s is a well-told story, enlightening for me about Liberia, the work of missionaries, and yes, how to write about Africa.