Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown
|Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown
|Reviewer: Zoe Morris
|Summary: A travel diary from two stints volunteering in West Africa, this is an entertaining and humbling read that will open your eyes to a bit of the world you probably know little about.
|Date: November 2019
|Publisher: Independently published
|External links: Author's website
In the summer of 2008, this book's author was spending her days working in an office job in the USA while spending her nights dreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else. Long story short, she ended up volunteering in Ghana, West Africa. Now coincidentally, in the summer of 2010, this review's author was spending her days working in an office job (albeit in the UK) while spending her nights dreaming about being somewhere else, doing something else, and she ended up just 3 countries away, volunteering in Sierra Leone, West Africa. So you can see why, when this book came up, said reviewer was delighted to have the opportunity to read and critique it.
Christine's book takes the form of a diary, and chronicles her two trips to Saviefe (unlike me, she returned for a second stint, in 2010 so we were pretty much in the same place at the same time if you think of it that way). Her base was a small village where she worked on a community development placement, along with a fellow volunteer from the USA each time (Denise in 2008 and Samantha in 2010) and the main body of the story is about her life there, describing the compound she lived in, the work she tried to do with the local school, and the trips to the local town to buy supplies or exchange money or use the internet. We didn't have much in the way of mains electricity where I was, just some sporadic generator power, but I did have dongle internet which kept me connected to the outside world, and based on her experiences of internet cafes and the Bridge office, I am very glad I had this 'luxury'.
I tell a lot of stories about my time in Africa (and my time in South America, and my time in the USA, and my time in Australia…) and although people are usually (semi-) interested, you can tell that a lot of people cannot entirely relate. I thought Christine did a really good job of explaining the frustrations of volunteering in West Africa (such as the general pace of life and the struggle to get things done when no one is in the same rush you are) but also the little oddities, like bucket showers, and manual toilet flushing, which is a delight at any time, but especially so when it's new year's eve and you're laid up in bed with Typhoid, eating dry cornflakes straight from the box and trying to avoid needing the loo (true story). If anything, I thought she could have gone into greater detail. It's all very well saying you're drinking from a pouch of water, and using these to brush your teeth, but that glosses over the many, many times you almost swallow the corner of plastic you've had to bite off, or end up with water dribbling down your front. It is a very ungainly way to drink, especially if you're used to a western style plastic bottle or glass, but Christine made it sound quite easy.
One thing I could fully relate to was the sheer exasperation that things she'd tried to accomplish during round one had stalled when she returned for round two. In my case it was the distribution of Malaria nets for women and children to sleep under which, when we went back a few months later, had been taken down by the men and were being used for fishing instead. In Christine's case, it was developing, organising and stocking a community library which then sat unused. Her frustration was palatable. I used to say flippantly that I went to Africa to save the world, but the world did not want to be saved, and while this is of course hyperbole, it was both reassuring and saddening to read of Christine having comparable experiences. This was key learning for both of us as volunteers I think, and something I do wish I'd known before I'd travelled so I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly.
All in all, I think we had very similar experiences, and some of the parallels were even a bit freaky. Her passport went AWOL in the mail as she was trying to sort out visas, and mine did exactly the same, necessitating a last minute trip to the Liverpool passport office to try and get it sorted. I was impressed she got through part one of the book without being ill, but nothing lasts forever and by part two things were going downhill. I wouldn't wish my aforementioned Typhoid (or the Malaria that preceded it, about 6 weeks earlier) on anyone, but even a few days sickness is traumatic when you are that far from home, from medicine and even from clean running water. Some might find her constant descriptions of food amusing, but when you're volunteering in that kind of environment, it is a big deal. My blog posts at the time similarly listed my meals each day, and I too was on porridge breakfasts, even in warm and sunny Africa. I had to laugh when she described the vegetable pizza she had while trying to treat herself because again, one of my stories is about the time I ordered veggie pizza while out one day and it came back a Margherita topped with peas and carrots from a can.
I really enjoyed reading this book and it took me straight back to my days in Salone. It was easy to get swept away by the stories, and from a purely literary perspective the only thing that broke up the flow was the changing from past tense to present tense and back again now and then, which occasionally made me want to stop and re-read a sentence a few times. However, due to the diary nature of the book this was not a deal breaker, and I still enjoyed the general style. Being self-published, it's not as tightly edited as some books I have read, but the grittiness fits with the stories. This is not a book that glosses over the realities of life in Ghana, but nor is it a super-negative tale of her experiences there. The warmth of the children, and of the community as a whole, really shine through, and I think most of the people featured could read it and be proud of the way they are portrayed. While it didn't make me want to rush back to that part of the world, it did remind me what it's like to go off adventuring, definitely stirring up a little something inside me.
I would like to thank the author for sharing a copy of this book with us. If this has whet your appetite, we can also suggest our Top Ten Books About Africa. You might also enjoy The Water Thief by Claire Hajaj. You might find this of interest.
You can read more about Christine Brown here.
You can read more book reviews or buy Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
You can read more book reviews or buy Bucket Showers and Baby Goats: Volunteering in West Africa by Christine Brown at Amazon.com.
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