Norman and Dorothy Kehmeier’s many friends will want to read a new book, “Chadian Diary: A Peace Corps Experience.”
In print for less than a month, the 130-page, soft-bound volume provides an account of the true and harrowing adventure that Norman and Dorothy experienced as Peace Corps volunteers in 1978 and 1979, and of the African civil war they became caught up in.
Their compelling, first-hand account lay in loose leaf manuscript for over 25 years. A daughter and her husband encouraged them to publish it in book form.
The Kehmeiers’ African odyssey began after they had raised five motivated and successful children on their family farm at Eckert. They decided to make the transition to the empty nest with a tour as agricultural advisors overseas, a decision which ultimately landed them in Chad.
This huge, central African nation had not long before gained its “independence” from France. It was a country racked by poverty and political strife that had flared into armed conflict between Muslims in the desert north and Christians in the sub-Saharan south.
Norman and Dorothy’s Peace Corps assignment found them in a borderline area of the fighting, in the village of Bol on the north shore of Lake Chad.
Because of the war, the Kehmeiers’ didn’t take up permanent residence in Bol until six months after arriving in Chad. Nevertheless, during that time they were involved in Peace Corps work and began absorbing the sights, sounds and ways of their new cultural environment.
“Chadian Diary” is filled with keen observations and penetrating insights of the ancient native society found in modern day Chad. The book continually surprises with compelling word picture accounts of the physical surroundings and, even more interestingly, of people and their socio-economic interactions.
For example, in just a few penetrating words, the book captures completely the irony and pathos of humanity’s endless struggle with its racial divisions: “A little girl brushes your arm with her finger. She wants to know how white skin feels and if her color will rub off on it.”
The Kehmeiers’ nearly impossible task was to help the Chadians “help themselves” into a better life. But difficulties abounded. There is the haunting picture of a sick lad with only a bit of open shade for comfort: “His eyes were sealed shut with dust and matter. His breath came in short, shallow cycles without any strength. He was obviously very ill and I didn’t know what I could do for him. I would be surprised to go back to Farcia tomorrow and find him still alive.”
How does someone make contributions to a culture which has developed its own ways of dealing with such scenes? Following a sudden, driving rain storm Kehmeier reflects, “Quickly, then, it stops and the sounds of life resume, punctuated now by the thump-thump of a woman pounding the evening millet in a wooden mortar with a long wooden pylon. What does one do to make their lives easier? – I’m not yet even sure that we are wise to intervene.”
But it couldn’t be denied this country truly needed Western-style help, as one memorable word picture shows: “...thin cattle moping through denuded scrub, picking at last year’s grass or trying to get a mouthful of this season’s half inch tall green growth furnished a discouraging picture to anyone trained in rangeland management.”
There were many obstacles to progress – poverty, climate, social backwardness and always the war. Although there were some big economic projects underway in the area – an irrigation project and a proposed cotton gin – real help and progress came mostly in small steps.
Drilling, improving and maintaining fresh water wells were key. Rudimentary sanitation was also a critical need. Following a truly funny account of a dealing with the local government franchise gravel merchant, Norman then explains the need for his barrel full of crushed rock and the concrete to be made with it: “The final outcome of all this was a prototype latrine cover containing a water trap designed to be flushed with a bucket of water. This allows construction of an outdoor latrine that is odor-free and fly proof, because it can be sealed tightly against the escape of the former and ingress of the latter.”
And to be sure, all was far from forlorn hope for the Kehmeiers in Chad. The book reveals a people who, though having little to work with, are willing to work. And a people who, in spite of ancient cultural traditions which have held them back, have strong family and social ties to build upon.
The Kehmeiers write, “The gap between traditional and twentieth century Chad is on the order of stone age to electronic age, and some modern Chadians have made the journey in one generation.”
There are revealing portraits of two who did, one Christian and the other Muslim. Beasnael, “speaks seven languages and has studied in England as well as in several African countries. He is working on a master’s degree in African literature and has applied for admission to the graduate school at the University of California. He is a protestant Christian and sees the coming of Christianity to Africa as a positive occurrence in that it has done away with many traditions and customs that were cruel and degrading in African native life, such as facial scarring, filing of teeth, and female circumcision.”
And there is Bachar, “a Moslem from the north (who) lived as a nomad until he was twelve years old. He has also studied in England and speaks at least French, English and Arabic. He is a firm believer in the teaching of Islamic religion and wants to raise his family in the atmosphere of discipline, courtesy and strong family ties that it characterizes. Both men are saddened by what the war is doing to their country. Both could leave and take up their lives elsewhere, but they would rather stay and help build a future for Chad.”
The thread of Chad’s warring factions runs throughout the narrative and brings it to a spell-binding conclusion. Dorothy had traveled to the capitol city to purchase supplies. Her arrival coincided with that of rebel military forces. Fighting spilled out into the streets and there was a complete breakdown of communications with Bol, where Norman was left totally uninformed of Dorothy’s fate.
For those wanting to know how Dorothy managed to cope with being caught in the middle of an African civil war and how Norman finally found her, the Kehmeiers suggest copies of “Chadian Diary: A Peace Corps Experience” that are available individually at lulu.com.
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