Peace Corps Volunteer Cooks in Africa

50th Birthday of the Peace Corps!

On the street of Lastoursville, Gabon
Carrying machetes on the street of Lastoursville, Gabon, photo by Martha Cooper









Destination: Gabon, Africa

Book: How to Cook a Crocodile by Bonnie L. Black

I raced through How to Cook a Crocodile by Bonnie Lee Black, wanting to know what adventure the next day would bring.  I liked nearly everything about this memoir with recipes.  I liked the clearly-told story of a fifty-year-old-woman who gave up the life of a high class caterer in Manhattan for a life filled with heat and biting bugs in equatorial Africa.

I liked the pictures that accompanied stories about the lovely people she met.

I liked the basic and staight-forward recipes–some from her former life, but most the nutritious dishes she taught in classes in her Peace Corps assignment in Gabon.

And of course I was intrigued by her romance with a younger man, who besides being an attentive lover, constantly told her that he appreciated her wisdom–a quality lacking in younger women.  I was disappointed when he just suddenly disappeared at the end of the book.

It seems very appropriate that we should be talking about a memoir of a Peace Corps volunteer during the 50th anniversary of that organization.  How COULD it be 50 years since Sargent Shriver suggested the Peace Corps idea to President John F. Kennedy?

How to Cook a Crocodile is particularly appropriate because it was the first book published by the newly formed Peace Corps Writer’s Books. (see below)

Bonnie Black and friend in market. Photo by Martha Cooper
Bonnie Black and friend in market. Photo by Martha Cooper

Just when I was thinking that Bonnie Black is hopelessly Pollyanish about her circumstances–living with no refrigerator, walking a mile to buy groceries each day, fighting mud and snakes and enervating heat, I came to a letter she wrote to her sister.

She explains that because her letters might be opened, the Peace Corps urges volunteers to stay positive in letters home.

“The truth is (and I trust this letter isn’t intercepted) I try to write letters only when I’m in a positive frame of mind and I’m enjoying my experience here–which is to say, roughly four days out of the week.  The other three?  Forgetaboutit….(for instance) There are a b’zillion tiny ants everywhere–in your toothbrush, bed, clean underwear, fridge, everywhere….well, on such days (3 out of 7) I write only in my journal….”

Bonnie Black's house in Gabon Photo by Martha Cooper
Bonnie Black's house in Gabon Photo by Martha Cooper

Black obviously approached the work with gusto and her creativity earned her the nickname of “Martha Stewart of Gabon.” But since I see Martha Stewart as shallow and artificial, that label did not impress me favorably.  I will admit that I gasped when I saw the  (after) picture that showed what she had done to the living room of her house, which had stood abandoned before she moved in. Used to operating in America where everything was available and she had the price, Black adapted to working with more ingenuity than cash.

From the stories of her every day struggles, I could picture the landscape and the houses and the life of Lastoursville, Gabon. One telling moment comes when she asks Bev, her missionary friend for her “3 rules for living successfully in Gabon.”  Practical Bev says

  1. Always carry toilet paper
  2. Never expect anything–that way you can’t be disappointed
  3. Never criticize the government. If you don’t follow rule three you’ll likely find yourself dead.

I would have liked to see more insight into the emotions and motivations of the Gabonese people, and less self-congratulatory stories about her decorating and teaching successes. The memoir lacks the sense of self-discovery that can give this genre universality.

It struck me as unfortunate–rather sad, really–that Black only once got to experience African life in jungle villages.  Instead she spent her time in one small town, with infrequent trips to the capital.

That fact makes this one of those books about an exotic place that does not make me want to go there (like those un-travel books Alisa Bowman wrote about here a while back.)  My travel bug only perked up when Black took that short excursion into the jungle and remote villages.

Village house in Lastoursville. Photo by Martha Cooper
Village house in Lastoursville. Photo by Martha Cooper

Now at least I know something about one of the 52 countries in Africa.  A former French colony, located near the equator, it is populated by a million people and although nominally a republic, has a strong president and weak opposition system. Gabon is not likely to become a tourist attraction any time soon, although Lonely Planet points out some interesting sites, but this book helps us see one small piece of Africa.

In March 2011, Peace Corps Writers Books released Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Phillippines.

Get some taste of the book, How to Cook a Crocodile at Bonnie Lee Black’s blog on the former Peace Corps Volunteers site.

Black sent me this book so I could review it, and her book designer sent me the photographs by Martha Cooper to illustrate the post. All photos appear in How to Cook a Crocodile.

Here at A Traveler’s Library, we have visited  quite a few African countries through books or movies, but by my calculation, need to get to 41 more. If you don’t remember which 11 we have already visited, use the search box.  Then suggest books for countries we have yet to visit. I need your ideas.


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “Peace Corps Volunteer Cooks in Africa

  1. are you familiar with Elizabeth Griswold’s book The Tenth Parallel?
    it is not just about Africa (subtitle is dispatches from the fault lines between Christianity and Islam), but quite a bit about Sudan and Smalia, in particular, in it. have to say I read an interview with Griswold, which inspired me to seek out the book, but I didn’t like it as much as I’d hoped. still, you’ll learn things sbout parts of Africa (and Malaysia and the Philippines) you never knew.
    unlikely to inspire travel, though, I’d think.

  2. Now this is a book I’m intrigued enough to read. I love the truth about only writing Pollyannish letters because they are likely to be opened. And I’m not one to turn down a recipe for crocodile.

  3. I have great respect for all the peace corps workers- In Ghana I was privileged to know quite a few who really went above and beyond in their efforts. Also, I met young Singaporeans who were part of a similar program set up by the Singapore government- it thrilled my heart to see both sets of workers working tirelessly with others in mind and putting their own personal comforts to one side.

  4. Lovely review. I travelled through Africa some years ago (Morocco to Zimbabwe over a year), though not in Gabon and met quite a number of Peace Corp folks. While their volunteering work ethic was strong, life-changing, genuine and admirable, I was surprised by the number that had rarely ventured from the small town they were in. I never really grasped the reason for this and at times I think it limited their view of the country (most of which were very fragmented in every sense). Maybe the few down-time moments they had was better utilised by resting and relaxing rather than venturing to another village or area of the country (or indeed, a neighbouring country).

  5. I share your enthusiasm for the wonderful journey Bonnie Lee Black shares in this beautifully written book.

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