In the 1980s I worked as a community volunteer in Botswana and Kenya. In the former, I found myself in the thick of the refugee crisis as men fleeing the apartheid regime landed up in peaceful Botswana. In the latter, I myself fled from Moi and his boys, learning that democracy is a horse of a very different color in a country where only one party really counts at voting time. In both places I was called upon to do work far outside my job description and my personal skill range. I drove an ambulance, organized English classes and children's playgroups, prescribed medicines, even helped at a funeral. I had to eat masses of undifferentiated cow and goat, and got massively sick sharing sour milk from a common gourd with Massai women celebrating the birth of a son to a girl who looked to be scarcely out of her teens.
Sarah Erdman's book took me back. I was reminded of the sunny baked cake of the earth and the darkness of cavernous rooms without windows. Even the important people in the village sleep on lumpy mattresses on the floor, with their babies lying four across. What distinguishes the poor from the not-so-poor are unenviable possessions such as a screaming boombox or a rickety set of shelves holding an odd asortment of knick-knacks and murky photos.
Children are everywhere, suffering the lowest status and hungry for kind words and the slightest attention. Children quickly sense that foreigners are suckers and will give them things. Sarah learned that spurning the children in exchange for some hard won privacy wasn't worth it. She was lonely without them, in a culture where privacy is a bad thing and sociability is everywhere, like air and the smoke of wood fires. She also had to come to grips with the sad truth - the weakest children will be the most ignored, as families struggle to keep the strongest alive.
Sarah weighed babies, and from that small foothold of trust she gained an entry into the world of women. She longed to educate and conscientize them regarding the horrible tradition of female circumcision, but that door was closed tight. Mythos was too much a part of ethos, even in a relatively advanced country like Ivory Coast. She made the mistake of helping to deliver the baby of an uncircumcised woman; anything could happen to her from that misstep.
Sarah did the best she could, which is all any volunteer can say. Cultures based on superstition and weighted down with poverty are permeable, but the visitor can be popped out as easily as accepted in, and when we leave we know we are always, in some sense, abandoning people who have become our friends to their unkind fates.