Monday, May 23, 2011

A leaking calabash


This post is a review of the book Gods of Noonday: A White Girl's African Life Elaine Neil Orr was born in Nigeria in 1954, the daughter of medical missionaries. Her childhood coincided with coups and civil wars leading to independence from Great Britain. Intertwining the flourishing mission compound with Nigerian culture, furloughs in America with boarding school in Nigeria, and eventually Elaine’s crisis of kidney failure, the candid and powerful narrative builds in intensity as she recognises that only through recovering her homeland and her true identity can she find the strength to survive.

A kind friend, knowing that I had spent several years at a boarding school in Nigeria, recently sent me Gods of Noonday. She thought I might enjoy it, and I did, but it was gruelling to read. The author's rich and precise descriptions of Africa sent pangs to my heart. I could honestly only absorb a page or so at a time. My emotional response to the book surprised me. It must be a mark of a great author to make the reader feel like she is actually reliving the experiences on the pages and could have written parts of the story herself. As Elaine lived several decades before me in the south of Nigeria, there were only a few references to my region of Jos Plateau or the Hausa and Fulani people whom I knew. However, her various descriptions of "the beat of life in Nigeria" awoke many of my sleeping memories of Africa.

Here are just a few morsels from the book to try to help you understand my affinity with the author's accounts.
  • at the market twenty women selling the exact same things: "red peppers in mounds laid out in front...on a blue tarp, a small mountain of cassava in the background"
  • Nigerian way of speaking: using the phrase, "small, small" and accent "Ah-free-ka" (Africa), singing "Joy to de weld"
  • change in family dynamics when a sister left: "My sister had fallen off the edge of our secure domain and landed in boarding school far away" 
  • watching a boy run alongside their car while rolling a metal wheel, keeping the momentum going with a stick
  • her family listening to the news on the BBC
  • a woman wearing one print wrap over a different print dress, an enormous blue and orange headdress,  with her feet spilling over the back of her sandals
  • lizards inside the house and church
  • her mother pinning dress fabric to sewing patterns
  • Bata shoes
  • art work and paintings hung high on the wall
  • African coins with a hole in the middle
  • boarding school where after a while you adjust to a world "where relationships are distorted and you can't judge distance"
  • the smell of petrol fumes, goats, chickens, dried fish, smoking meat, urine, and dust
  • sweltering siestas, rainy seasons, dry seasons, harmattans
  • taking weekly allotment of bitter malaria medicine: "a good enough reason to abandon tropical Africa"
  • the missionaries playing singles and doubles tennis
  • so many items were recycled (newspaper, tin cans, car parts, glass jars, etc) "seeming to echo a hundred former lives"
  • sewing name tags on clothes for boarding school
  • living in a compound
  • chewing sticks to clean teeth
  • the metal drums used by missionaries for transporting their loads 
  • an African man wearing a loose tunic in rich fabric reaching to his knees with ballooning sleeves that fold back over the shoulders, embroidery around the neck, flowing trousers, backless slippers, and sometimes a walking stick, patterns of scars on his cheeks
  • difficulty adjusting to boarding school and America which were both "artificial, easier to adjust to than you would guess, but resulting in a kind of basic separation from what should be closest to you: your country and your mother" 
  • African children, their big bellies protruding, only wearing a string of beads around their hips
  • African fruits and flora:  guavas, calabashes, frangipani trees, elephant ears, umbrella trees, paw paws, hibiscus
  • the flamboyant tree "that looks as though God painted it green and then tipped over a can of orange paint on top", playing with its long pods
  • plantains, palm nuts, ground nuts, roasted ears of corn with their hard and blackened kernels and enticing smells
  • gabon vipers and mambas
  • spotted enamel bowls
  • sign on a bar "Guiness is good for you; hot or cold"
  • African choir in church dancing and clapping their hands "but not like Americans, who hold their hands in front and gently bounce one off the other; instead they moved their whole arms" 
  • beggars in Lagos whose knees bent backwards and walked along the street on their hands
  • being confronted by popular culture on furloughs where "everybody was so white my eyes hurt", trying desperately to fit in, where everything was new and fresh and clean and shiny, "the land of the better haircut and the home of the interstate", malls, trimmed lawns, TV, and supposed progress
  • feelings towards Nigeria: "I lean towards Nigeria like a plant toward a window...Nigeria is the place of my hidden self that is truer than my public self. It is the country of my heart."
An issue that especially rang true for me was the author's description of how her MK friends often disappeared on furloughs or at the end of school years with few explanations. "It was not until I came to live in the US many years later," Elaine writes, "that I realised it isn't necessarily normal to lose people as easily as the pebbles one puts in one's pocket and forgets to retrieve before the wash". She explains that occasionally her friends reappeared at boarding school "like the prodigal son" but the relationships had sadly altered and could not be repaired. In the book Elaine mourns these broken friendships and her failing health with this revealing statement: "If I were a calabash, I would not hold water."

Gods of Noonday is a heartfelt and melancholy memoir of a white American girl growing up in Nigeria, West Africa. In writing the book, Elaine verbalises the double-rootedness typically faced by many Third Culture Kids who share elements of their parents' culture and that of the other country in which they spend a significant part of their developmental years. She explains, "One needs a country as one needs a lover, as one needs a child, as one needs milk, as one needs a mother, as one needs a father, as one needs a god." I highly recommended the book to adult TCKs and parents of TCKs. There were so many truths in the book about the nature of the TCK experience and its effect on maturing, developing a sense of identity, and readjusting to one's passport country.  As Elaine writes, "Anyone who thinks MK life is about the trauma of landing in Africa without prior knowledge of culture and country doesn't know anything about MK life. West Africa will take you in. The trauma is coming to America, which will not." She goes on to share how she felt (as I did) like a foreigner in America (Australia) but no one recognised her (me) as such, feeling "almost at home but never really home." Gods of Noonday beautifully reflected many of my personal challenges, feelings of rootlessness, unresolved grief, and struggles with identity due to my background. It held a mirror to my face and forced me to gaze at my reflection. 

Thanks, Ellen, for sending me more than a book.

Renée Harvey (e Bissett), age 8, doing work duty in front of the dining hall at Kent Academy, Nigeria.

My second grade class at Kent Academy. I am on the far left.


  1. Beautifully written Renee xxx

  2. A beautiful post, Renee. The book broke my heart, too. E.

  3. Wow, just WOW! Your review made my heart race. Thinking of all of those things that are around me right now and of my kids. What am I doing to my kids? Well, home will just have to be wherever they are. I'll read this book...someday.

    In the meantime, I'd be happy to send you some African memories. I've got a whole bottle of chloroquine and I can get quinine at the chemist down the road, if you'd like. :)

  4. Thanks, Ali, but I don't miss it THAT much!

  5. Memories.....Will be interested to read this book, will have a look for it.

  6. Very well written Renee! I shall approach this book with caution...
    Jeanette (daughter of Mrs Wall, who you may remember)

  7. Excellent review, Renee. I read and did appreciate much about the book; my sense is that women seem to connect to it more strongly than do men. I'm a Plateau Person, too, and wish there was more written at that level about our old haunts. (1945-1955 for me)

    Dan Elyea

  8. Must find the book, thanks... another ex-Plateau expat kid.

  9. When did you go to KA? That looks like me on the back row - two across from the teacher (Mrs Smith?). Grade 2 would probably have been 1985/1986 for me.