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Nine Hills to Nambonkaha: Two Years in the Heart of an African Village    by Sarah Erdman order for
Nine Hills to Nambonkaha
by Sarah Erdman
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Sarah Erdman spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nambonkaha, a tiny Muslim village deep in the northern savanna of Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa. In Nine Hills to Nambonkaha, she shares with us her feelings, experiences and insights as she gradually gains the depth of understanding of a foreign culture only possible by living in it. This is a place she calls 'laughing yet troubled, strong yet crippled, and dancing'.

In Nambonkaha, Erdman liaises with an enlightened nurse named Sidibé, and develops a friendship with him and with his prickly wife Abi. The couple has an unusual relationship of mutual respect and dependence, eating and talking together - 'unheard of in a village where the sexes separate to eat, to pray, to mourn, even to work the fields'. Sidibé is a professional, burdened by the support of a large extended family.

The author shows us a society still rooted in animism, that believes in sorcery and witches (a witch trial is held after the death of the accused, since this is safer). She speaks of the underlying 'pulse that says, "only today matters"' and of its implications for disasters like deforestation and AIDS. She shows us some of the pros (to some extent it slows down the spread of AIDS) and cons of polygamy, and the cruelty and health risks of female circumcision. Of pervasive poverty and hunger, she asks 'How much hunger do they swallow with a smile?'

It is fascinating to see the long slow process required to introduce a health initiative for mothers and babies (based on regular baby weighing and nutrition advice), and it is heartrending to see AIDS reach into the village via a generally benign tradition - a nephew's obligation to take in a dead uncle's wife as his own. Electricity comes to Nambonkaha just before the author completes her term there, and war breaks out soon after she leaves. She calls the latter a greater evil than AIDS and sorcery, one that 'could set this country back a century.'

There is an African saying that it takes a village ... Sarah Erdman has taken us into the heart of an African village, that has clearly won her own heart and continuing advocacy. Read Nine Hills to Nambonkaha if you have an interest in the continent and its problems, or have ever wondered what groups like the Peace Corps can do. It's totally fascinating.

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