By Mike Tidwell
As a Peace Corps Volunteer stationed in Zaire in the 1980s, Mike Tidwell worked as a fisheries extension agent teaching rural farmers how to build and maintain tilapia ponds as a sustainable source of protein. Tidwell recounts his journey as a PCV starting with the grueling trial of pre-service training all the way through two years of building understanding, trust, and ponds in rural Africa. Not only does Tidwell encounter stark differences between the life he knew in the States and the life thrust upon him by the African bush, such as the alternating dry and wet seasons, hunting parties, and housing structures that do more to reflect a communal lifestyle than provide privacy, but his understanding of personal relationships also undergoes a significant transformation. Removed from everything familiar and isolated by difference, Tidwell reexamines his ideas of how people build relationships as well as what goes into maintaining relationships (material resources as well as non-material energy), and adjusts his behavior to ensure success not only in his fish pond endeavors but also his personal survival. From the Western lens of possibility and opportunity, Tidwell carves out a unique existence and feels that he receives so much more than he gives to this deeply impoverished bush-African community.
“The Ponds of Kalambayi” by Mike Tidwell is a deeply reflective and thoughtfully recounted story of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Tidwell encapsulates the essence of Peace Corps service, touching just long enough on the logistics of training and bureaucracy to provide a framework for how Peace Corps operates, and then devotes much more detail to the importance and difficulty of finding ways to create meaningful existence and contributions as a PCV. His honest and heartfelt recollections convey the ambiguities of the Peace Corps experience, giving life to the in-betweens of love and hate, give and take, and the clash of cultures. Much more than some extended journal rehashing the daily life of a stranger in a strange land, Tidwell conveys his experience in the context of the village, country, and historical era of his time in Kalambayi. His writing is human, entertaining, brutally honest without being provocatively so, and relatable. This is not the tale of some hero out to save the world. This is the story of one person’s encounter with difference and how he made meaning out of it.
I absolutely love this book. I read it for the first time as a PCV while still in Samoa and felt that my experience was absolutely reflected in this writing despite the fact that nothing about my service was even remotely similar to his, the most significant differences being that I was at the complete opposite end of the Earth doing entirely different work. Rereading it brought waves of nostalgia and sent me down a rabbit hole of looking at pictures and reading letters and blogs from Samoa. Whether or not you were in the Peace Corps or have any kind of connection to it, this book is a must read.