When the Peace Corps sends Susana Herrera to teach English in northern Cameroon, she yearns to embrace her adopted village and its people, to drink deep from the spirit of Mother Africa—and to forget a bitter childhood and painful past. To the villagers, however, she’s a rich American tourist, a nasara (white person) who has never known pain or want. They stare at her in silence. The children giggle and run away. At first her only confidant is a miraculously communicative lizard.
Susana fights back with every ounce of heart and humor she possesses, and slowly begins to make a difference. She ventures out to the village well and learns to carry water on her head. In a classroom crowded to suffocation she finds a way to discipline her students without resorting to the beatings they are used to. She makes ice cream in the scorching heat, and learns how to plant millet and kill chickens. She laughs with the villagers, cries with them, works and prays with them, heals and is helped by them.
Village life is hard but magical. Poverty is rampant—yet people sing and share what little they have. The termites that chew up her bed like morning cereal are fried and eaten in their turn ("bite-sized and crunchy like Doritos"). Nobody knows what tomorrow may bring, but even the morning greetings impart a purer sense of being in the moment. Gradually, Susana and the village become part of each other. They will never be the same again.
In 1992, Herrera set off for Northern Cameroon, where she spent two years as a volunteer teacher in the Peace Corps. While her Navajo and Spanish origins would make her a person of color in the U.S., the villagers of Guidiguis perceived her as a white woman or nasara, a term she soon realized had more to do with American culture and privilege than with skin color. Guidiguis, she found, was both modern and retrograde. The king and the mayor both had televisions and luxury cars, her neighbor bought a CD player and most of the residents appeared to have electricity, though it functioned erratically. Still, most of the daily workwashing, cooking, carrying water, grinding millet, making clothes, etc.was done by hand, and by women, which often disturbed Herrera. A fine storyteller, she paces her account so that her past in California slowly emerges (it turns out she has left an abusive marriage) between such adventures as eating termites and finding ingenious ways to circumvent the schools tradition of corporal punishment. Though the occasional bits of magical realism and mediocre poetry feel forced, the prose is lively overall. The combination of Herreras spunk, her romantic interest in a local doctor and her clever response to the political tensions involved in a teachers strike make for an absorbing read. Clearly Herrera knows how to balance the bad with the good. Its no wonder that by the time her stay ended, many of her new friends in Guidiguis saw her departure as a tragedy.