Liralen's Reviews > Volunteering in Ethiopia: A Peace Corps Odyssey

Volunteering in Ethiopia by James W. Skelton
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's review
Jun 20, 2014

did not like it
bookshelves: z-2014, africa, nonfiction, reviewed

It was great fun being Americans and talking about America again, Skelton says (247) of Thanksgiving with the Peace Corps. And that describes the whole book pretty well: an American in Ethiopia hanging out with other Americans, collectively being extremely, extremely boring, self-important frat-boy bros.

Skelton -- who consistently refers to himself in the third person (and refers to just about everyone else, including his girlfriend, by last name) -- is not a writer. That much is clear right away. He talks about having made deep and valuable friendships with people in Ethiopia, but he shows no interest whatsoever in showing any evidence of that; he's too busy talking about his search for habitable housing (an ongoing saga) and hamburgers (another ongoing saga).

Of gender in Ethiopia, he writes first To Skelton, accepting the plight of women in Ethiopian society was the most difficult part of the process of adjustment (88). That would be fair enough, if he provided any evidence that he talked to any Ethiopian women (other than the housekeeper) in his two years there -- and if he hadn't followed it up with this: Skelton stretched his neck occasionally to get a glimpse of the more attractive women, thinking how the Ethiopian men never seem to notice them until they're in the market for some entertainment (89). Yes, he ogles and criticises others for ogling in the same breath, and he forgets that he is incapable of mentioning a woman (and there are precious few in this book) without commenting on her attractiveness and body.

I suspect that it is meant to come across as gallant.

Skelton has a girlfriend, for a while, a PCV in Chad. He isn't capable of describing interesting things, though, so this is about what their relationship looks like: The threesome had a fantastic time travelling through Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. They returned to Addis Ababa with absolutely no money but thousands of memories. They had been gone for a month, during which Skelton and Craig [the girlfriend] had become very close (201).

Yes. That is what passes for description in this book. (To be fair: I didn't pick it up expecting to read about travels through East Africa. However, I also didn't pick it up expecting to read about a bunch of bros whining because the Peace Corps wants them to -- gasp! -- interact with locals rather than getting daily hamburgers at the embassy.)

The Vietnam War was starting to wind down when Skelton was in Ethiopia, although I never figured out what stance Skelton takes. The PCVs all seem to be clean-cut anti-hippies (Skelton vows to steer clear of the guy who's postponing his draft requirements by volunteering (27)) but are happy to celebrate when they age out of draft status (45). By and large they all seem pretty yay-USA, though; by the end of the book they're chomping at the bit to get out of Ethiopia. Returning to the U.S.A. seemed like a dream come true for them all. Each member of the household had become almost obsessed with the thought of going home--as long as they would not be called quitters (312). (It transpires, of course, that what they really want are the travel privileges and status associated with completing their full term.)

Ugh. Skelton sets himself up to be the hero of the book (which is fair, given that it's memoir), but the strongest impression I am left with is one of some very inflated egos in their little Peace Corps clique. Don't get me wrong -- maybe they did good, valuable work in Ethiopia. But how would I know? He barely talks about it.

Jumbled thoughts on narrative choices here.

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 20, 2014 – Shelved
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: z-2014
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: africa
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: nonfiction
June 20, 2014 – Shelved as: reviewed

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