book reviewBy Reviewed by Katie Broendel
Washington, D.C. — Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. Sarah Erdman, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003. 322 pp. Glossary. $23.00, Hardcover. ISBN 0-8050-7381-7.
Sarah Erdman, who spent two years in Cote d'Ivoire with the Peace Corps, wrote Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village. She was a health worker; it was her job to provide programs for the villagers to learn proper ways of feeding and weighing babies so they could chart the infants' growth to determine levels of malnourishment. She made it a point to educate them about the deadly virus, HIV/Aids, which was sneaking up on the village. In doing so, she broke many taboos the villagers had about the openness of sex and the women's role in family matters such as birth control. During her two years of experience with the villagers, Erdman found that it was not just a learning experience for them, but one for her, too. She rid herself of her skepticism and began to not only learn about their culture, but to respect it as well. In her book, she conveys the various controversies that exist in African countries over diseases like HIV/Aids and malaria, education, infrastructure, and ethnic conflict. An inside look at Cote d'Ivoire provides an understanding of many of the problems other African countries face.
Although the book does not mention it outright, the Triple Heritage of Africa is discernible in this village's way of life. The Triple Heritage refers to the indigenous, Islamic, and Western influences spanning the African continent. Nambonkaha is a village found in the northern part of Cote d'Ivoire, which has a predominant Muslim influence. The leaders in the Christian south do not pay much attention to their fellow countrymen. However, some Christian people have moved up north to live in the village. The same circumstances exist in Sudan and Nigeria where there are conflicts between two different halves of the country.
Cote d'Ivoire is a very diverse country. Many people in the area are Burkinabes, from the bordering country of Burkina Faso; there are also many people from Ghana. Erdman wrote of a political dispute that occurred while she was there that included the President and his opposition: a man from Ghana. From the president's perspective, only people from Cote d'Ivoire deserve to be political officials. Most of the people in Cote d'Ivoire have ancestry in other countries. The villagers are Muslim and celebrate Ramadan every year. At the end of the month, there is a big party in which they break the fast. Even so, a lot of the villagers do not practice fasting because it is too much to ask for during the dry season when they have to work in the fields all day. They have their religion, but they have kept their own traditional practices as well.
According to Erdman, sorcery plays a big part in village life. Usually when someone young dies, it is attributed to the witches or genies. The people recognize diseases, but only as being tools of the witches. HIV/Aids was never seen as something contagious, but as a fate laid out for those with witches after them. Erdman was able to bring a safety net for people in the form of condoms and HIV/Aids education. She taught them the signs and symptoms of HIV/Aids with artistic pictures since many villagers were illiterate. HIV/Aids poses a problem in many other countries, especially in southern countries.
Other than sorcery, there is a belief in a curse that causes an uncircumcised woman's baby to die. Erdman was attempting to eradicate this belief, and when she asked why the educated people in the village did not stand up to the witches' curse, she was told that educated people believed in sorcery, too. It's not necessarily an excuse for death, but part of the belief system this village has kept for many years. Erdman learned about their culture and to respect it, but in the case of female circumcision, she felt it needed to be stopped. It has turned into a health issue, but the older women, or vieilles, still practice it. There are some things that may not change in the near future.
The French had colonized Cote d'Ivoire, but only some of the villagers actually speak French. Most speak the local language, Niarafolo. Since most of the villagers are illiterate, Erdman found herself educating local village boys in the skills of reading and writing. The children didn't get very far in school and most fail the annual standardized exams. These tests are extremely detailed and difficult so that only the students who are incredibly intelligent or can guess the right answers are able to pass. Even in the adult world, information is extremely hard to follow, almost as if the country wants an extremely narrow educated workforce. Since they are nation-wide standardized exams, the children of Nambonkaha do not always learn the same things as children in other schools; therefore, they cannot perform as well on the exams. The government needs to pay more attention to their education systems and find a more efficient way of testing. There is a lot of wasted talent from some intelligent students who fail their exam; some fail more than once.
Nambonkaha is a lucky village in that it has been recently included in infrastructure improvements. They have a road, and bush taxis eventually make their way to take people to the nearest town, Ferké, or to the market. However, electricity had been a problem in the village. Communities surrounding Nambonkaha have had lights, but Nambonkaha was left in the dark. The government officials would come to visit, which required the villagers to shower them with gifts of food, and these officials would promise electricity. It never came. Eventually, some initiative was taken and poles with cable were set up. It wasn't until the last week of the two years Erdman stayed there that the lights came fully on. The people were excited for now they could buy TVs and other devices to plug in to the network. Erdman was slightly disheartened because she witnessed this village leave some of its ancient past and traditions and add those of western cultures. She was trying to change traditions that endangered people or ones that could potentially help people live longer lives. She did not want to see culture thrown out, only to be replaced with droning machines. She had tried to get the ball rolling on change in order to improve the health and well being of people.
Change is ever present in this world, but it needs to happen quicker in some African countries if they are to compete and survive. Infrastructure such as electricity, communications, roads, and running water need to be improved and better developed. More planning and efficiency need to go into the education systems for there would be a bigger and better trained workforce, which would increase opportunities and the formal sector. This would have economic impacts in that the country could become industrialized. Healthier lives would be lived if people could be convinced to use condoms for protection against disease, as well as family planning. Erdman has touched on all these things in her two years of working in the village. She was able to promote some change, but the significant part has to be taken on by the villagers themselves in conjunction with their country. Not only Cote d'Ivoire, but also many other African countries have the potential if they have the initiative in the right place.
Katie Broendel is an editorial intern at AllAfrica.com for the summer. She will be going into her third year as a Geography major at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. Katie has been inducted into Gamma Theta Upsilon, the Geographical Honor Society, as well as the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. Her other academic interests include anthropology and journalism, and her goal is to work for National Geographic.