An African Sojourn

By Mike Tidwell

Lyons & Burford. 276 pp. $19.95

Of the aims of the Peace Corps the goal of teaching ourselves about how others live is where the successes are most easily seen. All those hundreds of thousands of slide shows in schools and church basements surely have made lives in Kerala and Stann Creek and Dembi Dolo more comprehensible to many millions of Americans.

Dozens of books by former volunteers have contributed to this relative enlightenment, and the best of these are becoming part of our literature. "The Ponds of Kalambayi," Mike Tidwell's meticulous and affecting memoir of his two horrendously difficult years as a fisheries extension agent in eastern Zaire, is the latest valuable addition to Peace Corps writing. Less overtly artistic than some of the more ambitiously literary work done by former Peace Corps writers in recent years, Tidwell's graceful anecdotal recitation is no less artful in its casual way. He simply tells story after story of worthy lives blighted by hunger, disease, frightful deprivation and a government whose sole reason for existing appears to be -- as if it were some evil kingdom from another age -- the cruel exploitation of its own people.

Tidwell also has persuasive unkind words (of a sort that keep cropping up in Peace Corps books) about the World Bank. In western Zaire the bank builds roads and bridges so that a Belgian cotton company can join with corrupt government agents in forcing farmers to grow cotton for a return of about $20 a year. Tidwell's scene where the agents come to buy the cotton is one of the more hair-raising in "The Ponds of Kalambayi," as a soldier with a rifle watches menacingly over the rigged proceeding, and then the government tax collector moves in, in a "sordid circus of fraud and thievery." One of Tidwell's greatest satisfactions is helping sabotage this rotten scheme in a small way; as an "extension agent," he spreads the word that some farmers are planting peanuts and sweet potatoes between widened cotton rows, and that many are using leftover cottonseed to feed their fish.

Tidwell was sent to Zaire in 1984 in what sounds like one of the Peace Corps's better projects. "If you give a man a fish," Tidwell is told at his Oklahoma training program, "he eats today. But if you teach a man how to raise fish, he eats forever." Tidwell is to go around promoting riverside ponds where farmers will raise tilapia; these will add protein to the meager local diet of corn-and-manioc fufu and will bring in some cash for medicine, clothing and school fees.

Working out of his room at the end of a run-down cotton warehouse, and covering by motorcycle a "400-square-mile patch of simple mud huts and barefoot people," Tidwell runs into fatalism, suspicion and indifference until he meets Ilunga, a young chief who sees the logic of fish farming. This man, heroic by any standards, digs 4,000 cubic feet of dirt with a shovel and subjects himself to the humiliation of gathering fruit rinds in the marketplace to feed his fish. After overcoming a number of difficulties, Ilunga's harvest is a success, the idea catches on, farmer by farmer, and after two years the dozens of ponds Tidwell has promoted have improved life in the region in a small but significant way.

The price Tidwell pays for his achievement is enormous. He suffers constantly from dysentery, hepatitis, malaria and other ailments, from revulsion over the way the (U.S.-supported) Zairian government treats its people, from cultural isolation (for two years Tidwell speaks Tshiluba almost exclusively), from an addiction to the local home brew that frightens him deeply, and from the constant shocks and surprises that make Peace Corps life such a monumental adventure for anybody who does it.

Tidwell, to cite one example, is forever bumping into the African custom of sharing everything. He's irked when fish farmers who worked hard share their harvests with rude laggards who sat around and laughed at the project. He's ashamed when a mad beggar woman calls him a muena tshitua, a stingy one, a man who doesn't share. He learns that that's how he's thought of -- this man with his own motorcycle and Bob Dylan tapes -- even among the friends who otherwise admire and like him. After two years Tidwell knows that "what I gave these people in the form of development advice, they returned tenfold in lessons on what it means to be human."

Mike Tidwell now works with the homeless in Washington. Maybe from that experience he'll write a book as harrowing and revealing and lovely as "The Ponds of Kalambayi."

The reviewer served with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1962 to 1964.