Non Fiction / Memoir
Date Published: December 18, 2013
Everybody needs to run away from home at least once. Susan Corbett told people she was out to save the world, but really she was running — running from her home as much as to anywhere. Like many women, she was searching for meaning to her life or for a good man to share it with. In Africa, she hoped to find both.
Compelling and compassionate, In the Belly of the Elephant is Susan's transformative story of what happens when you decide to try to achieve world peace while searching for a good man. More than a fish-out-of-water story, it's a surprising and heart-rending account of her time in Africa trying to change the world as she battles heat, sandstorms, drought, riots, intestinal bugs, burnout, love affairs and more than one meeting with death. Against a backdrop of vivid beauty and culture, in a narrative interwoven with a rich tapestry of African myths and fables, Susan learns the true simplicity of life, and discovers people full of kindness, wisdom and resilience, and shares with us lessons we, too, can learn from her experiences.
The first time I met Death was in a tiny bush-town called Foequellie. It was said that the bush devil who sometimes came to town, dancing to a chorus of drummers, was Death. But he was just a local man dressed in rags and a wooden mask.
On a blue morning of sailing clouds, I crossed the clearing that separated my house from the two-room clinic—the only health facility within a 20-mile radius of thick bush and rain forest. A breeze carried the voices of chatting mothers and crying babies. It was Under Five’s Day, the weekly clinic for babies and children up to five years old. Well into my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked there, giving nutrition demonstrations and vaccinating children.
Awake from my morning cup of Nescafé and ready for the day, I passed through the dappled shade of a cottonwood tree. This was the town’s Ancestor Tree where the ghosts of great-great-grandfathers, great-aunts, uncles, and cousins hid in the hollows of the trunk with the snakes and spiders, and high up in the branches among the leaves and the ricebirds. The Ancestor Tree loomed next to a red dirt road that twisted its way around the clinic, past my house at the end of town, and on through hillside plots of rice, potato greens, and cassava.
Women with babies tied to their backs in cloth slings gathered at the clinic door. They entered and stacked their yellow “Road to Health” cards in a pile that reserved their place, and then sat on benches to wait their turn and catch up on local gossip.
James, the clinic janitor and local translator, joined me in the waiting room, a 20-by-10-foot space with a dirt floor and mud-plastered walls that smelled of baby pee and sweat.
We said our good mornings; then James explained the causes and treatment of diarrhea. I stood in the center, squeezing oranges into a bowl. As I demonstrated the pinch of salt and teaspoon of sugar needed to make rehydration fluid, a woman came in with a round-faced little girl in tattered shorts and cornrow braids. The two of them sat at the end of the bench, and the little girl laid her head on her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
Over the next few hours, James and I worked with Francis, the local physician’s assistant and clinic “doctor.” We weighed babies, treated skin and stomach ailments, gave out malaria medication, and vaccinated against smallpox, whooping cough, and tetanus. Morning cool gave way to the heat of day, and the rooms grew stuffy. Sometime before noon, I walked back into the waiting room to call the next in line.
The woman with the little girl took her daughter’s hand to lead her in. The girl, about five years old, tried to stand but collapsed. Her mother caught her, and I ran to grasp the girl’s arm. Her skin burned, and her lips were chapped and dry. She breathed out a rattled sigh, and her head lolled to one side.
“Frances! James!” I called, and they came in an instant.
A writer, community organizer, and consultant in program management, micro-enterprise development, family planning, and HIV/AIDS education, Susan Corbett began her community development career in 1976 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in a health clinic in Liberia, West Africa. In 1979, she joined Save the Children Federation as a program coordinator for cooperative and small business projects in Burkina Faso. In 1982, Susan returned to the States where she has worked with local non-profits in drug and alcohol prevention for runaway youth, family planning, homelessness prevention, and immigrant issues.
Susan has traveled to over 40 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean, and Central and North America and has lived and worked in ten African countries over the past thirty years (Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, The Gambia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Liberia). She lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, her sons, Mitch & Sam, and her dog, Molly.
Barnes and Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/noresults/in-the-belly-of-the-elephant-susan-corbett/1117760316