Review: “Nine Hills to Nambonkaha” by Sarah Erdman

Thumbs up for Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman. Travel.

I picked this up as research for a story and within a few pages realized it was not what I needed. But by that time, I’d been hooked by Erdman’s writing. There are so many ways that a white woman’s memoir of her Peace Corps work in an African village could have been irritating or obnoxious. But it doesn’t read like Erdman’s memoir, in the sense of something that dwells on her internal state; rather, it is a memoir of the villagers and their world. It shows what the best anthropology should: that human emotion is universal, but culture can sometimes seem like an uncrossable gap. You can read it to learn about the world, or you can read it for the pleasure of Erdman’s prose. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Abi brings out a pot of bisap, that sweet hibiscus drink that puts soda to shame. She figured out early how much I love it and whips it up on the sly to surprise me with it at dinner. She has her seven-month-old tied to her back. The other five children have been cleaning the dishes and studying their schoolbooks by lamplight. Sidibé’s son Tidiane places my glass and the four bowls in a neat line in the dust in front of me. I pour theirs first and we all drink it together—smiling a little into our cups. Sidibé reaches into a bag at his feet and pulls out a loaf of fresh-baked sweet bread made by the school director’s wife. Still warm. He chews a piece pensively. “It’s a good thing you’ve come,” he says. “Before now all we knew of Americans was Mike Tyson and the Baptists down the road. One is a cannibal. The other thinks we’re cannibals.” Then he turns to me and says, “So far, I think we get along pretty well, don’t you?”

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