An author alum returns to inspire Middlebury's next class of global volunteers
When students seek career advice from Jim Ralph, he encourages them to act their age. "I urge students to consider their twenties as a time of opportunity for doing exciting things," says the Middlebury College history professor. "I don't try to mold an individual to do a particular kind of work. I suggest students take advantage of their youth to try out different possibilities."
A comparatively large number of Middlebury students try out the Peace Corps. About 400 Midd alums have enlisted in the 42 years since John F. Kennedy called on young Americans to devote two years of their lives to development work in poor countries. Among small liberal arts colleges, the Vermont college is a top sending school. Currently, there are 27 Middlebury grads in active service.
Sarah Erdman, class of '96, says Professor Ralph's counsel was a factor in her own decision to volunteer as a health educator in Ivory Coast. Erdman returns to Middlebury next week to talk about the Peace Corps experience as chronicled in her book, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village.
This collection of finely etched portraits depicts people with lives vastly different from the author's. Erdman traces the texture of daily routines and seasonal cycles in an Islamic/animist community that hasn't changed much in the past 100 years. But she also shows how even here -- in a parched, impoverished region with few links to the larger world -- modern influences are encroaching.
The appeal of Nine Hills is Erdman's storytelling. An operatic cast of characters offers rich material, it's true, but a less graceful writer would have paraded them as types rather than delineating them as individuals. Erdman makes the most of a colorful setting, as well, enabling her readers to attend harrowing childbirths, revel at all-night wedding parties and find comfort in the "tok-tok" sounds of village women grinding corn with pestles.
Her account is also satisfying from an intellectual perspective. Erdman comes to Nambonkaha as a stranger from a country locals regard as impossibly distant and exotic. Through tactful persistence, she gains the trust and, eventually, the friendship of many villagers. That in turn allows her to make incremental gains toward the goal of improved health care. As an expression of the possessiveness they feel for their "toubabou," or "white person," the villagers give Erdman the name Guissongui. In the local Niarafolo language, it means, "The Dreams of the Enemy Will Not Be Realized."
Utterly charmed, Erdman develops a deep empathy for her hosts; near the end of her two-year assignment, she even flirts with the option of staying there. "Why am I leaving?" she wonders. "Why do you trade in happiness for uncertainty? What makes you give up a good thing?"
What sets Nine Hills apart from travelogues by American Africaphiles is Erdman's refusal to romanticize aspects of Nambon-kaha that deserve rebuke. Some traditions -- female genital mutilation, for example -- don't deserve respect, she argues. She also exposes certain religious beliefs as dangerous superstitions, such as viewing AIDS as the work of evil spirits. In Erdman's case, serving in the Peace Corps doesn't mean being PC.
At one point, Erdman learns that some villagers routinely dump pesticides in a stream to make the fishing easier. Her suppressed frustrations explode. "How, how can they?" she shouts at the bemused mayor of Nambonkaha. "This is the 'sacred' stream, the one the ancestors inhabit, the one where women douse their children for good luck!"
The villagers "have no regard for the day after tomorrow," Erdman lectures the mayor. And in an aside to her readers, she adds, "It's all just helpless. I want to yell, 'Well, that's why you're stuck in the last century, that's why you die early, that's why progress slips through your fingertips: pesticide in the water, empty memorized phrases at school, four uneducated wives at home with no rights.'"
Erdman also resists the West's unquestioning embrace of progress. And at the same time, she resists the temptation to view underdevelopment as quaint. One evening, after years of broken promises, electric lights suddenly blink on in Nambonkaha. Erdman understands that this advance will confer a kind of freedom on the village, but her initial reaction is one of dismay. "We've been stripped naked by streetlights," she writes. "Darkness was delicious. We survived in little islands of light defined by our flame."
But that's the attitude, she realizes, of someone who has always been able to switch lights on and off at will. In Nambonkaha, the advent of electricity is cause for wonderment. "Needless to say," Erdman reports, "the villagers are ecstatic."
The book's uncommonly observant quality reflects the ease its author feels in foreign settings. Erdman "has internationalism in her veins," remarks John Spencer, a now-retired Middlebury professor whom Erdman describes as "a great mentor and friend."
Erdman was raised in Turkey, Cyprus, Yugoslavia, Israel and Portugal, with an occasional, and disconcerting, return "home" to the Washington suburbs. In keeping with her parents' aim of making their kids feel American, Erdman was parachuted into a Maryland high school straight from a paradise in Portugal, Erdman recalls. "I had trouble acclimating. Everybody was like, 'Hey, let's go to the mall!'"
Her father Richard, a career foreign service officer, is currently U.S. ambassador to Algeria. Erdman speaks French, Portu-guese and a second West African tribal language in addition to Niarafolo. Peace Corps work also runs in the family. Richard Erdman was a volunteer in Turkey, and Sarah's brother currently serves in Madagascar. She herself is now employed at Peace Corps headquarters in Washing-ton, where she places volunteers in Eastern Europe and central Asia.
Although Erdman would appear to have a genetic predisposition to Peace Corps service, her years at Middlebury did help coax her in that direction, she says. "The college has such an international focus. "I was excited by all the symposia on topics like the Mideast conflict and development in Africa."
Spencer was an important figure in Erdman's education. He taught African history and served as her advisor on a thesis entitled, "Palestinian Women in the Inti-fada." She notes, "He may not have led me to join the Peace Corps, but he always encouraged me along the way."
Not surprisingly, Middlebury's role as a hatchery for Peace Corps workers has a chicken-and-egg aspect. Some students may be inspired to become volunteers as a result of what they learn in the school's famed language classes or during its study-abroad semesters. But many future Peace Corps members, it seems, arrive at the school with the fully formed intention of serving overseas.
Matthew Meyer, for example, says he has known since eighth grade in Shelburne that he wanted to join the Peace Corps. Now a Middlebury senior majoring in neuroscience, Meyer hopes to become a volunteer in North Africa or the Middle East. He's been learning Arabic from Professor Christopher Stone, a former Peace Corpsman in Yemen. Meyer's father was one of the first volunteers in Gambia.
"Generally speaking, there's a self-selecting factor at work," says Spencer. "A lot of Middlebury students who go into the Peace Corps come to the college with a spirit of adventure and a love of the outdoors."
Erdman agrees that high schoolers with wide horizons gravitate toward colleges like Middlebury. "It tends to attract curious and active students. Many people attending Middlebury don't just want to succeed in finance or academia," she says.
Many at Midd also come from money. That may or may not be accompanied by a sense of noblesse oblige. Professor Ralph puts it this way: "There's an ethos among students here of giving back to the community, both locally and in a global sense."