News & Politics

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

A memoir of Peace Corps work written with a “poetic ear and clear eye.”

 This is a Peace Corps memoir in which the Peace Corps is barely mentioned, and there’s no talk of homesickness or culture shock. To say the book is stronger for it takes nothing away from the Peace Corps, nor is it to imply the author lacks emotion or vulnerability. It’s just that this story isn’t about her—it’s about an Ivory Coast village whose life Erdman shares.

 “I was packed off to this village with only a collection of health-education books and head full of vague ideas,” she writes. “. . . I am here to see what I can make starting from scratch. . . . But where do you start when health is vast and elusive at the same time? . . . How do you promote behavior change so that people have more control over the state of their bodies but stop at the threshold where important traditions get destroyed?”

 Among her challenges are poor child nutrition and denial of AIDS; among the traditions are a sometimes-unsettling belief in sorcery. Her accomplishments include delivering infants (while consulting a manual), holding a healthy-baby contest, and raising funds for a maternity clinic. She teaches children to read in her home and trains locals to continue her work.

 In one of the funniest and most touching chapters, she stages an AIDS-education “fête” with the half-hearted help of an NGO—complete with unexpectedly gruesome film footage and a skit she directs. A villager nicknamed Américain plays a patient: “While he lists all the symptoms, Américain ails hysterically. It must be true that every actor yearns to die on stage—amateur Américain staggers and moans and shudders on his back before falling still.”

 A week before Erdman leaves, electricity comes to Nambonkaha and she mourns what’s lost: “Darkness was delicious. We survived in little islands of light defined by our flame. . . . And moonlight—moonlight was a joy gone silver. Moonlight was children dancing in bare feet, songs lilting on the air, laughter deep into the night. Moonlight made infinity smaller; it made the sky personal. It made nature safe and graspable.”

 That’s the kind of poetic ear and clear eye with which Erdman—who now works at the Peace Corps’ DC headquarters—writes. Even more praiseworthy is her deep respect for the people of Nambonkaha. She makes their lives wonderfully graspable.

Sarah Erdman

Henry Holt


Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.