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A Father, a Son, and an African Horse: William and Samuel Miles

Visiting Writers’ at WSU – Second Installment (October 7, 2010)

Cover of My African Horse ProblemTraveling many miles across the United States from the east coast, William F.S. Miles and Samuel Benjamin Miles, a father and son duo, agreed to come to Pullman for the second presentation of the Visiting Writers’ Series on October 7 and read from their memoir My African Horse Problem (2008).  William is a political science professor at Northeastern University in Boston, volunteered in Niger with the Peace Corps from 1977-1979, and has written nine books.  He is a Fulbright Scholar and also received an American Philosophical Society grant in 2001.

Samuel, who is of Franco-American ancestry, is a senior who is studying in the Ethics, Politics and Economics program at Yale.  He speaks French and spent his early life studying in Martinique, Mauritius and the Lycée Français de Jerusalem.

The memoir tells of the trip that William and Sam (only ten years old at the time) made to West Africa in 2000 to resolve a dispute concerning who should inherit a particular horse.  It weaves the voices of father and son together, and this is exactly how they read from it during their performance.  Before they begin reading, however, William starts things off on a humorous note by completely changing his clothes from a normal suit into a traditional African-style outfit.

Samuel Miles

Samuel Miles

But then the two get down to business, and William narrates the more complex, adult perspective of the story, and Samuel, staying true to his ten-year-old self, reads the entries that he made as a fifth grader in a foreign country.  To accompany their reading, Sam and William have put together a PowerPoint presentation with photos. The two work well together, and procure many a chuckle from the attentive audience.  The performance is unique in that the two authors alternate between reading their work and responding to questions asked by WSU English professor Peter Chilson.  At the end of the reading, members in the audience ask more questions, and I follow up with the two authors afterwards, asking them each a few questions separately.

Reading by Samuel and William Miles

Peter Chilson (to Samuel): Do you consider yourself an author?

Samuel Miles: I like to think that I’m half-way there.  There’s also a question of intent.  Was I writing to be published?  Was I hoping to reach an audience? The nature of the things I wrote were a bit more personal at the time.  I wasn’t planning on having this talk right now, ten years later.  What it did do was start me on a writing path, showing me the importance of writing, and the power of it. So, I kind of do [consider myself an author], not necessarily because of this book but because what this book gave me was a mentality of someone who writes to be read and the knowledge that when I write it’s powerful.  It’s something to be taken seriously for myself.

William Miles

William Miles

Peter Chilson: How [did] you work this out collaborating with your father?

Sam: [The writing of the book] was done mostly when I was in high school. So it would happen late at night. I would come home and lay it on the ground and have all these different pieces of paper with all my notes from current memories and writings from my journal. And we would piece together the things that we thought would flow.  There wasn’t exactly an equivalency—I was in high school, and he (William) had published six or seven books at the time, so there was a power imbalance there. My version would’ve included a lot more pictures with dinosaurs or something.  It was actually kind of easy and fun because it’s my dad, and we were doing a really good project together.  The tension was mostly that I was tired and didn’t want to do it.  But the writing process itself was unique, nothing I had ever seen anyone do before.  In that respect it was more fun than anything.

Peter Chilson: Whose idea was this? How did this idea come about? Did Dad just come home one day and say “you’re writing a book with me”?

Sam: Well actually it started with Mr. Foley [Sam’s fifth grade teacher]. I was a ten-year old at the time, in fifth grade in Massachusetts.  I was being pulled out of class, my dad called me and said, “Listen, we’re going to Niger” and I said, “I have school.” So I went to my teacher, Mr. Foley, and I said, “So, I want to go to Africa. Can I not do my math homework for awhile?” I don’t know what kind of process went through his head but he said, “Sure, keep a journal, and that will count for your homework.” [This] was awesome for me, because it really started me off on a process of writing in general, and I [continued] keeping a journal after that. To this day, I still do. It’s a lot of fun, actually.  That was my assignment.  That was how I got out of doing math problems: [by] recording my thoughts and [a] perspective my father couldn’t get.  When I came back, I showed it to my teacher and that was how I got away with skipping school to go ride a horse in Africa.

William: I should explain at this point why it was that I had a horse in Africa in the first place.  That makes me have to go back to my last year in college, when I was a senior and I had the good fortune to be rejected by every law school that I applied to, because I didn’t really want to go to law school. That’s what the parents said I should do; what any social science major would be doing.  I didn’t get into any of those elite schools, [but] I did get into the Peace Corps. I didn’t even know that Niger existed as a completely different place from Nigeria.  It shares five rivers [and] it does share part of a river that flows through called the Niger River.  It’s a former French colony, it’s got a tenth of the population of Nigeria, and it was fortunate that there was a civil war that weekend in the second choice [of country] that they were giving me, which was Zaire.  I chose Niger, instead.

My biggest obstacle was this lady (referring to the picture of his mother on the slideshow).  To say that I had an overprotective Jewish mother would be an understatement.

(reading from memoir)

Mine (his mother) was absolutely horrified that, instead of going to medical or law school after college, I would join the Peace Corps and go off to live in the middle of Africa.  (For that matter, I ought also to thank those half dozen élite law schools that, by rejecting me, rescued me from a post-Vassar life of jurisprudence.)  When she could no longer resist my ultimate expression in youthful rebellion, Mother implored me to heed three warnings.  Remember that my leaving for Muslim Black Africa, in 1977, coincided with seemingly frequent Palestinian hijacking of U.S. and Israeli airplanes as well as an upsurge in other anti-American and anti-Semitic terrorism.

“When you’re over there,” my mother intoned, “do not say you are an American.”

“Yes mother.”

“And do not,” she continued, “reveal that you are Jewish.”

“Yes, mother.”

“And lastly,” my mother implored, “never tell them that you are white!”

[Audience laughter]

It is to her everlasting credit that, twenty-two years later, Helen Miles-Rayner “allowed” me to take her ten-year old first-born grandson back with me to Muslim Black Africa.  And so I was meeting my counterparts, Peace Corps volunteers in my group, one of whom I shared a village with, not that far from where Peter was also a volunteer.  We were all English teachers at a middle school.  I was teaching English, in the Sahel, where I encountered a whole range of experiences, especially (*reading from memoir now) if you were what the Hausa called either an Anasara (literally, Christian) or Bature (literally, European)—that is, a White Man, for all whites are automatically regarded here as Christian and European—and you speak any of their language then you’ll be asked to greet them all the more.   For you are a phenomenon: a rich foreigner, an emissary from the white world, who has bothered to learn the local tongue.  You will be followed down the street, Pied Piper-like, by children chanting, in a combination of Hausa and French, “White man! White man! Give me a gift!” Some adults, too, will call out to you by your skin color or your presumed religion.  You know they mean no harm, that no insult is intended; but after six months, after twelve months, after a year and a half of residence, you think it long overdue that they call you by your name rather than your race.

When you can’t take this perverse celebrity anymore—w —hen even buying eggs in the marketplace becomes a complex exercise in multicultural diplomacy, crowd control, and racial stress management——you retreat into your home.  You stay inside to preserve your privacy——a concept that is totally lacking in the cultural environs——but the kids start banging on your door, or pitching pebbles, to get your attention.  After a spell of this, your house begins to feel like a prison.  Outside, relentless stardom; inside, stir- crazed entrapment.

So you saddle up your horse and you trot out of town.  On horseback, nobody expects you to halt for all the customary greetings: you can just wave and go!  Even the kids tire of running after you, once you canter outside the town limits.  Then, following a sandy track into the empty bush, you break into a gallop!  You are thrilled by the combination of speed and rolling rhythm, by the thump-tikatik-thump on the soft Sahelian sand, by the slight danger of a stumble or a fall, by the sheer magnificence of racing alone, on your own horse, out in this vast African savannah.  You are alone. You are free!  You take your horse back down to a canter, and then down to a brisk walk.  Over his heavy breathing you can now hear the occasional braying of distant donkeys, the bellowing of cattle, and the bleating of sheep and goats.  Sometimes the hot wind carries the sound of distance women pounding millet in huge mortars with their wooden pestles.  The sun begins to turn orange on the horizon and a hoot-hoot-hoot joins the improvised score of the bush.  You follow the sound: an exotic bird with a long, curved, bright red bill swoops into its baobab tree, preparing to nest for the night.  You are alone, you are free… and when you finally return to town, in a final gallop on the home stretch, triumphantly answering the calls of “How’s the horse?  How was the galloping?” with “See him here!  We galloped in health!” your soul has been restored, your cultural claustrophobia assuaged, and your love for living in Hausaland totally reinvigorated.

Peter: Sam, this book came out two years ago, you were a sophomore in college.  You are a senior now.  In that time, how has the experience of writing [this book], the experience of having it published, impact[ed] your life?

Sam: Well, it’s a great conversation starter in bars (joking).  For real, this is what has illustrated what’s special about creative nonfiction, actually. You can sit and write and write and write and come up with some really good stuff, but creative nonfiction is something that requires that you go out in the world and do something cool and then write about it.  That has been the most important thing about publishing this book—it’s not really the fact that it was published (and taught me so many things that I would never have experienced otherwise),  but the fact that I got to [have] this experience.  What’s really important to me is what happened, the story, the going, the doing, [as well as] the fact that it was so cool that it was publishable.  So, the effect is that it’s opened so many other doors for me; the ability to be here, for example.  I have never been on the west coast, and this is an amazing experience for me.   It’s one of the crazier things that has happened to me and keeps leading to more and more experiences that are pretty unique.

Peter: I want to get back to the writing and the editing of the book and what that experience was like.  You’re working with your father on this [and] I think maybe he was asserting some editorial control there.  How did you solve those problems of working together and did you also work closely with an editor at the University of Massachusetts Press?

Sam: When I was in Niger, what I would do is write in my journal by hand, and it took me awhile to transcribe it and actually I was the only one capable of doing so because my handwriting is practically code. So I would be sitting there [probably] almost two years [later] transcribing these things.  When you’re that age, you grow pretty quickly.  I was a decent writer for a ten-year old, I think, but even months later, a year later, I’d be looking at this and not really like the way I said something, so I exercised some editorial control over myself, a little time-lapse editorialism.  Then I had the benefit of having my dad look over these things.  But we did want to stay true to my voice as a ten-year old, and my dad gave me a lot of control over how I presented myself.  It was pretty unvarnished, it was kind of raw.  So in that sense, not too much editing to be done.

William: I guess the most painful part of the experience was trying to convey the concept of copyediting.  [I would say], “look, you have to read the whole thing again.” He refused. [Audience laughter]  “Why do I have to do that, Dad? You’re giving me more and more homework, it’s already done!” “This is our work, these are our names, and any mistakes that are there are there forever and they’re our mistakes.”  I had to exercise more than editorial control—parental control.  And I made this boy copyedit the whole thing.

Sam: I write for a paper for my school [where] there’s obviously a lot of copyediting involved, [and] I’m a pretty good at copyeditor now.  It’s another effect of being published, reading the same material.  Because once you read something [and] you have to read it again and then again, your mind just goes over it.  The first time you read it you catch mistakes, the second time it’s really hard to catch something you haven’t caught the first time. It glosses over. (To his father) So, thanks for making me a good copyeditor. It’s the worst job in the world, but somebody’s gotta do it.

William: We were also talking at dinner about how difficult it is for a Peace Corps volunteer to leave a place that you’ve grown  attached to over  years, and we find pretexts to return. Professor Chilson did it in doing research for his writing.  My pretext to go back was to do research. The way I was able to justify it was to say “look, I lived along the borderline as a Peace Corps volunteer.  Let me go back and live in two villages in the same region in that same area.  One on the Niger side of the boundary, the other on the Nigeria side of the boundary, to see what difference this boundary that was artificially imposed by Britain and France a hundred years ago make[s] in the lives of the people.”

To get from one village to the other, there was no road at the time.  Most people would walk it—it’s only eight miles, 2½ hour walk.  But I had money. I could ride a horse. I went back, I bought the horse, I did my “Mission Impossible” of research in the two villages, traveling across the border on horseback.  I did have a problem when my research materials were lost in the diplomatic pouch. The United States information agency facilities told me, “give us your research and we’ll send it by the diplomatic pouch.” [The] diplomatic pouch was lost, [and I] never got back those surveys, so I had to go back once again to Niger and Nigeria, and this time I made sure that I held on to the materials myself. Each time that I went I bought a new horse and sold it before I left.  But I realized that I was getting attached to these animals and I was going back frequently enough that I didn’t want to be in the situation of having to buy and sell another one.

Reading from the memoir:

Sa’a was the third horse I’d owned in Africa. The previous one, Wahalla, well-deserved his Hausa name— “Trouble”.  Wahalla, whom I’d bought in 1983, had the annoying habit of sneaking away.  It was bad enough when he slunk away from my compound in the village.  But when he escaped from his tether in the bush it created quite some trouble, for how do you catch a runaway horse in the empty expanses of the Sahel?  Only by relying on the kindness of strangers—unknown Africans, all—who always managed to corral my wanton Wahalla….

In his defense I should acknowledge that Wahalla was oversexed.  Usually he kept fleeing to pursue female company: his urge to reproduce was enormous, as was his instrument for satisfying the urge.  Were you ever embarrassed by the extended member of your pet? When my girlfriend ventured across the Atlantic and into the African bush to check up on the strange man still courting her from afar, I was. When my equus stirred, even homo sapiens—of both genders—had to take note.

Sa’a, on the other hand, (my most recent horse), was to inflict the opposite kind of embarrassment.   Agreeing to stud him out with the mare of another villager—and accepting the customary payment in advance—I had failed to predetermine his sexual maturity.  During an excruciating forty-five minutes out on the edge of the village, we watched as he suspiciously eyed his maiden date and took only a few awkward, inadequate steps to satisfy her and her prepaid master.  Maybe he was just painfully shy: after all, even if he had been previously deflowered, having to perform in public maybe have crimped his style.  Or so I ridiculously reasoned, as if I were not merely the owner of a sexually immature horse but the parent of a woefully uninformed adolescent. So ashamed was I of Sa’a’s virile ignorance that I offered to return the stud money.  But the mare’s owner declined:  in Hausaland, non-consummation is no grounds for refund.

I made this agreement with the chief of the village that I would leave Sa’a in his care, and the agreement was it was his to ride, to use as he saw befit, but he was exempt if there were an act of Allah—that is if the horse should become sick or if it should die, I would hold him harmless.  And that was the agreement that I had and almost a decade later I received this unexpected letter in Hausa. That a scenario that we had not—remember, I had not gone to law school, so the legal document had some loopholes [audience laughter]. And what we had not anticipated at all, was that the chief might predecease the horse.  And that’s what happened.  And his heirs were now fighting, because some of them said “that was our father’s horse, it now belongs to us,” and others were saying “no, it belongs to that white man, don’t you remember?” And I received this letter and it started bringing me new life that I had constructed in America with this individual (referring to Sam) and growing very rapidly.  And I decided it was time to either cut off entirely this long-distance relationship that I was maintaining from afar, or to bring my son with me to make our claims and to show the real heir, the true heir. Here were 27 reasons [audience laughter] why I should not have gone (referring to a slide in the Powerpoint with a list of all of the potential diseases one can contract in Africa).  All of the diseases that Peace Corps certified that Peter and I had been exposed to while we were there.  My favorite one is plague, what’s your favorite one Sam? But I was going to bring him anyway. And it’s at that point that Sam had the opportunity to start writing and put his thoughts into words that have made their way into the book as well.

*Sam (reading from their memoir):

For a long time, I had known that I was going to Africa with my dad—going to Africa on an adventure and on a mission. I felt very excited, nervous, and privileged.  That I was going to Africa because of the horse was pretty interesting in itself—traveling halfway around the world just so I could see and ride my horse!  I felt like some millionaire who had just bought a whole nursery day care center for my two week old baby.  It gave me the feeling that I could do anything I wanted, anywhere, anytime.

*William (also reading from their memoir):

What trust a boy puts in his father!  As long as I’d be with him, Sam would willingly go anywhere: to Africa, to Hausaland, to Mars.  Danger, discomfort, disgust—none of this would count, as long as we were together.

Two contradictory imperatives incessantly tug at me throughout our trip: adventure and protection.  This is to be no tourist safari to Kenya, where during the day, Bwana-bored guides point out lions from within air-conditioned vehicles and at night big-game photographers repose in four-star bungalows.  In bringing Sam to the exotic but impoverished West African bush I am initiating him into a world simultaneously repugnant and alluring.  On the one hand, I am deliberately planning to expose my ten-year old son to the economic ends of the earth, where tropical disease is common, infant mortality runs rampant, and local food and water pose constant gastric threats.  It is also, on the other hand, an exotic and welcoming land where I have cultivated long-standing ties, entered into complex relationships, and developed deep feelings.

*Sam (reading from the memoir):

The day before we left I was very nervous.  I couldn’t remember a trip when the whole family wasn’t going together—no sister, no mother.  I also felt it would be cool to go to Africa—like camping for ten nights!

*William (reading from the memoir):

What does a father wish to give his child, if not the best part of his own life? While I’d do everything in my power to protect my son from direct harm, I shall not shelter him from the most intense land of my life—Hausaland.  I shall share with him the dignity of life in impoverished Africa.

So I warn Sam about the flies. About the open-air latrines. About being stared at, about being touched. I tell him about the disagreeable smells, about body odors from kids who haven’t the access to water for washing.  I make sure he knows in advance that not all people—especially nursing mothers and uncircumcised boys—are fully clothed.  I don’t wish to omit anything about which he can later cry, “But Dad, you didn’t tell me about this!”

Still, there are the unpredictables. That is the nature of Africa.

*Sam (reading from the memoir):

I eagerly anticipated what I‘d wish I’d brought, so I ended up packing a lot of entertainment—crayons, books, electronic games. Clothes, I left for mom and dad to pack.

*William (reading from the memoir):

The first unpredictable occurs—predictably—before I would ever have predicted it: prior to takeoff in Amsterdam.  Three rows behind us, on the mostly white passenger plane, a stout black man is shrieking. “Look at what you have done!” he wails accusingly at the three burly white men hovering around him.  “You have broken my hands!” Tears stream from his eyes. “Oh, Aje,” he weeps, invoking the name of an African deity.  “Aje, see what they have done! My hands are broken.  Broken!”

*Sam (reading from memoir):

Dad, what’s the matter with that man?

*William (reading from memoir):

It isn’t difficult to figure out.  A quick glance reveals that the bemoaned hands are in handcuffs and that the shrieker’s “companions” are, albeit in civilian garb, policemen.  Here, as we are still sitting on the runway, Sam’s first journey to West Africa is marred by this shocking scene.

A petite Dutch stewardess hurries over to reassure us.

*Sam (reading from the memoir):

(speaking as the Dutch stewardess) “Don’t worry about that man,” she says, with a broad but forced smile. “He thinks that by making a big fuss now he can still leave the plane. That’s how he was on the previous flight.  He’ll calm down once we’re in the air and he realizes that it’s too late and there’s no getting out of it.”

*William (from memoir):

“It” means deportation.  Whence he is being evicted, and for what reason, remains a mystery. Nevertheless, I have to supply maximum details, and my own variety of reassurance, to my apprehensive and curious son.

The stewardess is right, however.  Once aloft the deportee does pipe down and, along with his fellow passengers, quietly watches the in-flight movie…..

Protocol demands that before leaving our home in Nigeria we pay a courtesy call on the emir.  For decades Alhaji Muhammadu Bashar has been in charge of the emirate of Daura; it was he whose blessing I’d required in order to receive the actual hospitality of his “subjects” in the village, and who put me through my quasi-doctoral oral exam.  For myself, the infinitely long waits in the antechambers before being received had always been unbearable. But for Sam, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be ushered into a real fairytale-like palace and be introduced to an actual king.

Buckingham Palace, even if more architecturally grandiose than the adobe minarets of the Sahel, does not have floridly bedecked retainers wearing turbans and swords who greet ten-year-old Little Leaguers as if they were themselves royalty.  Nor do a coterie of retainers follow the queen, announcing her entrance at the top of their lungs.  As it turns out the aging emir—wearing an elaborate turban knotted at the top like rabbit ears –did not receive (or did not remember receiving) the letter I had sent in advance from America, announcing our planned arrival.  But at home Sam had had an inadvertent peek at the draft, lying next to my printer…

*Sam (reading from the memoir):

“Dad? What does ‘ya yi wayo’ mean?”

*William (from memoir):

“Old enough to begin understanding the ways of the world.”

*Sam (from memoir):

Is he really a king? I thought there weren’t any real kings any more.  Just those in storybooks.”

*William (from memoir):

“He’s a real king,” I insisted. “Emir, sultan, king—it’s the same thing.  He’s the king of Daura.  And it’s always best to let royalty know in advance when you’re going to pay them a call.”

*Sam (from memoir):

Hi. It’s 12:30. I am now in the emir’s palace in the waiting room.  An emir is a king…

Hi again! It’s 12:45.  The King of Daura has arrived and everyone else has left.  Dad is talking to the Emir (who speaks English better than anyone I know in Africa) about the books he had given the emir last time they had met.  [On our way up from Kano] he gave those same books (except different copies) to the Library of Daura which was founded in 1950.

Everyone who speaks to the emir must first bow down (more like kneeling and touching the ground with their hands).

*William (from memoir):

For Sam, the highlight of Daura is neither entering the palace nor meeting the emir.  More memorable is being handed wads of naira and having his name changed.  (After that, Sam was known as…)


William: So, we went to the village and Sam got into living the village life as best he could.  He kept the journal very faithfully, as you see.  He was exposed to the economic ends of the earth, and this is the one picture that we most discussed [audience laughter] (referring to a picture on the slideshow of Sam without any clothes) but we allowed it in, and things were going very well in my pursuit to find the truth of who was on my side and who was against me, and I discovered that there was a problem between the two would-be heirs to replace the chief.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

The people were interested in me, probably because I looked different, with white skin and lots of hair. I had less interest in them because I had seen black people all the time, while they had never seen a white person before.  The kids probably didn’t have a good education or just didn’t think I was a real kid and didn’t have feelings. They just kept on touching my hair, my skin etc.  They would always surround us and follow dad and I wherever we went. God, could those kids could stare! It made me feel on-stage, or in-the-spotlight, with all that attention.

Peter Chilson: Sam, you kept a journal this whole time under the orders of Mr. Foley.  Had you been much of a journal keeper before that? And can you talk a little bit about the experience and discipline of keeping a journal? It’s actually very difficult to do in an uncomfortable environment.

Sam: It is. There’s a difference, I think, between a journal and a diary, and that is something that I learned after this experience.  In going over some of the things I’ve written over the years, I’ve noticed that what’s most important is the narrative you construct, not just the daily events.  This was something I wish I had known at the time, although I couldn’t have, because this was my first time writing seriously for myself.  But I did a lot of cataloguing, which was less interesting to read afterwards.  As a whole I wish I had created, imparted more of what I was feeling in terms of a direction, a narrative, of where I thought this was going, how this would relate to my life, what I think would be most interesting for myself to read later. Not just a record of the things I had done that day. Those things are facts which aren’t necessarily as interesting, as relevant, as important, as my general impressions of the state of being, of the kind of things you would want to read about afterwards.

That’s something that I continually strive to do—I try to give myself an accurate representation of what my life is like at the moment, or what I’m trying to convey in my writing.  It is a sacrifice to make, it is difficult to just let go of the details which are important to you.  That’s why editing is so painful, because you include things which you think are important but you have to close your eyes and bite the bullet and take out those things if you come to a realization that this is just overkill, it’s too much, it’s not necessary.

Peter (to Sam): When you stepped out to write, did you find yourself working directly from the journals, or working more from memory and then consulting the journals when you needed detail?

Sam: It was mostly from the journals.  It’s strange how I remember [these things], like my dad would [say], “lets include that time when this happened,” and I’ll [say] “oh ok, I remember it.” And then I’ll read the journal entry relevant to it and there’s a different picture that comes out.  It’s very interesting how memory is a fickle science. Maybe in that sense I was better off recording these things very literally, because when you remember them, you somehow put slant on them over time and impose your present memory on the past one.

Peter: Here’s a critical issue in creative non-fiction.  You’re writing thisbook years after the fact. You’re really not the same people anymore. Your memories have changed and evolved, you’ve gotten a lot older.  How accurate is this story, really?

Sam: It’s very accurate.  I was that much of a dork [audience laughter].   I asked my dad to change some of the passages from my diary.  They’re pretty bad. [For example], I’d be describing the flies “oh there are so many flies out here! There are more flies out here than there are cells in my body!” [audience laughter] It’s in there, and it’s a good representation of who I was, which is fascinating because it’s not exactly who I am anymore, but I remember the same things as that kid.  I feel the same way about a lot of stuff, [but] I feel very differently about a whole lot of other stuff. And those are the most important things to record [because] you can see how you change over time and you get to know yourself by analyzing your own writing.  So, I think it’s a very accurate representation of what happened.  We didn’t really take too many liberties in smoothing over the events.  The events happened the way they happened.  It’s the raw, unvarnished truth.

Peter: One more quick question, was there anything you witnessed out there that for some reason didn’t make it into your journal or you regret not having recorded it at the time because you would’ve gotten that sort of verbal snapshot of detail that would have made your memory more accurate?

Sam: Two things, one serious, and one less serious.  I’ll start with the more serious one.  I didn’t really describe the degree to which I was shocked by the beggars and the amputees that we saw in the cities, and the kind of inventiveness that these people employed in their locomotion.  They were missing all kinds of body parts yet they still shuffled and scuffled and got where they needed to go. They developed their own way of getting around that, to me, was mind blowing. It was just a form of poverty that I had no way of really conceiving.  So, that was something I wish I had written more [about], but I think I kind of didn’t know how to confront it, didn’t want to divulge too much.  I guess I wanted to feel more mature; feel older than I was, and accept it.  But that would’ve been really amazing to see how I dealt with it at the time.

The less serious example, this one we didn’t include because it didn’t really fit in with the story at all and to be honest with you, it was just too embarrassing.  We were driving in this land from one place to another and we stopped because I was getting sick.  I sprinted out into the bush [and] I was out there in the middle of nowhere, the next building was miles and miles away, so I felt fairly secure. Thirty seconds later, this girl walks into the clearing, and I’m so embarrassed and she just stops and stares at me and she won’t go away! She doesn’t speak English obviously, [she is] not even laughing, just confused.  We just stared at each other for a little bit and I scampered off [audience laughter throughout].  That didn’t make it into the book, that didn’t make it into my journal, actually. I did not write about that, I did not record that. But I remember, it is seared within my memory.  I guess maybe I’m not a narrator to be trusted because I didn’t include that somewhat relevant, important, and scarring experience.

*William: So we’re going to do the final reading.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

We said goodbye to Sarkin Fulani—the Chief—and I played him a farewell song on my violin.  I said goodbye one last time to Sa’a (sob).  I knew I probably wouldn’t come back in a long while so I carefully watched everything around me to remember what Africa looked like.

*William (reading  from memoir):

It’s not the horse I most want Sam to remember, it’s Moutari Alyiu, our patron of Tropical Motors, Kano; Alhaji Lawal, the royal Health Inspector of Daura, who renamed him Sama’ila; Mamane, my Peace Corps “boy,” who gave me the precious gift of Hausa.  He should forever recall our lifelong friend Lawali, university grad and schoolteacher, who painfully straddles two cultures as a humble resident of Yardaje; faithful Faralu, who chose to care for my horse rather than enrich himself with naira; our Yekuwa host Alhaji Mallam Harouna, whose unexpected letters triggered our journey in the first place.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

In both villages, there are people whose voice boxes (or vocal chords) can’t articulate—they’re practically mute.  They are for that reason very expressive in their movements.  Dad can converse with them though.

*William (reading from memoir):

May my son forever retain the images of the palaces and retainers and their Highnesses, the kings of Daura and Magaria; the chiefs of our two humble, borderline village homes; Jagga, the Praise Singer and Jamilu, Tea King—turned—Motor Car King.  May he never forget Mallam Souleymane, our crippled hand-walking, Muslim priest friend in Magaria.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

In both villages, there are also blind men who get around by walking around with sticks held on one end by their sons.  The son turns the stick to direct the father.

*William (reading from memoir):

May he never forget that we wandered and rode alone, Hebrew songs and prayers on our lips, through the wilderness of Hausaland; that even during Harmattan, which fatally felled our friend Jeff Metzel, we crossed borders of continent, country and convention; and that throughout it all, despite all risks, despite all appearances, his safety was uppermost in my mind.

It’s not the horse I most want Sam to remember.  It’s the blind men with staffs who cheerfully greeted us, the deaf-mute women who patted us in welcome, the ragged beggars whose smiles reassured us.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

I felt proud leaving Yardaje this last time, as if I accomplished what I had set out to do.  I was happy that I had come and sad that I had to leave. It felt like the end of a long journey in which I’d learned, and done, something important.  A burden of responsibility was lifted off my back.  Going to Africa taught me a new view of life.

*William (reading from memoir):

This is the major lesson that I most hope my son will retain, long after he resumes his life as a “typical American kid”: the intensity of life, and the dignity of the outwardly wretched, that together we witnessed, deep in the African bush.  This was our ultimate sa’a; this, our true Luck.

*Sam (reading from memoir):

I knew I’d have to grow up for ten days, and honestly I did my best.  I think now that I did a pretty good job for a beginner!


Audience member: So obviously the motivation for returning there was to settle this inheritance dispute over Sa’ah.  So you talked about the cultural role of horses within the Hausa culture—are they the status symbol?

William: The answer, disappointingly, is no.  Horses in the non-motorized society are just the easiest way to get around, it’s practical. And anybody who can afford a motor vehicle and is lucky enough to have a road built, that’s a major constraint, because if you’ve got a vehicle and the road is not there, it’s going to break down.  But there is this intermediate phase [where, for] people of a certain economic threshold, there’s no question of them ever buying a motorcycle or a car. For them, having a horse really was a major status symbol, in addition to being a practical means of transportation.  Having a white horse carried a special connotation, especially for the chief.  If you couldn’t afford a horse, you’d go for a donkey, but a donkey had very low status. But horses, particularly in Nigeria, are being crowded out now, as the road infrastructure is there and the people can go on motorcycles or motorized vehicles.

Sam: One of the interesting things which I’ve derived from my relationship with my dad with Niger is the evolution of status symbols.  Now it seems to be more motorcycles, now that there’s road infrastructure.  Without infrastructure, horses might be more useful.  I personally have an obsession with knives.  And whenever we went to a market, I’d always be looking for the coolest knife I could buy.  And one of the times I found just the best one, it turns out that it was a chief’s knife and we were not allowed to [buy it] because we were not of noble lineage.

William: He wouldn’t sell it to us.

Sam: We were willing to pay, and I had like a ten dollar bill in my pocket when I came over and [even with all that] money I had I still could not get it. I kept offering more, and this guy was just laughing at me [and saying] “no, you’re not a chief.” So I got a smaller knife, I got four knives to make up for it. My college dorm was very military, tons of African knives in there.  So it’s interesting to see how the  status symbols are evolving in relation to their relationship with the rest of the world, with western civilization and modern technology.  Status symbols [are] definitely not stable; they’re changing all the time.

Audience member: From what I could tell, hearing your portion of the book, part of it was straight documentation, your ten-year old diary, and part of it was you now, looking back.  Why was it important to the project that you include that ten-year old voice and not just cast it into your older self looking back? And related to that question, are there parts in the book where you look back and comment on your ten-year old self?

Sam: For me, it’s very important that I can qualify my writing with these kinds of presentations. My representation of this book is much more than [my] ten-year old self.  My voice, my older self, is more reflected in my dad’s voice than in the ten-year old self because I helped write the actual narrative.  But the ten-year old self was included precisely because it was almost a third party; an objective accounter. This was the perspective of an American ten-year old who was in the middle of this place and that was what was intended to be the contribution, this was what was unique about the book: this wide-eyed, innocent perspective. (Sam to his father) Do you have any particular examples of things that I was stunned about that maybe I hadn’t noticed?

William: Yeah, being able to see the ground in the vehicle.  We were driving along and the floorboard had rusted away a long time before, and for me that was normal, [but] you saw it, and it made a big impression on you.  I’d like to answer that question (referring to the audience member’s question) as well, and go back to part of one of Peter’s questions that remained unanswered.  We did have an editor at the University of Massachusetts Press, a very good editor, and he also intervened, and said “no, you don’t want Sam as an older person, now commenting.  That boundary between the father and the young boy should be clear to anybody who is reading the book.”

This is not something that ordinarily happens in the literary world anymore, but I made a special effort for Sam’s sake that we actually go to the publishing house, sit down with the editor, sign the contract there, and that we have a discussion.  Usually these things are done by mail, and it’s usually much more impersonal than that. [The editor] took a risk too, by saying “yes, we’ll do this book and yes we’ll include Samuel and yes we will even put his name there on the front cover.”  University Press has certain standards and they have their own status that they have to retain.  The other risk he took was to justify this kind of book in what they publish.  University of Massachusetts Press, I think most university presses, is relatively small in the number of titles it puts out per year, and it has to be well-defined. Their biggest series is American Studies and here we’re pitching a book about a trip to Africa.  I made the point [that] “there is nothing more American than Peace Corps,” [and he was receptive]. It was the Peace Corps experience with which I begin the book, and that led to my continuing relationship with the village [and what] brought Sam there.

Audience member: I had some questions about borderlands of identity.  In the U.S., we tend to define African-ness in a particular way, typically in a racial way; to be indigenous must be black.  And in that sense, Islam is often called as an outsider as a “foreign division” which always struck me as rather silly for the Sahel which has been exposed to Islam for over a millennium.  Having lived there and traveled there, what the reactions of both of you were in terms of the Hausa relationship with Islam.  Is it an “outside” religion, or is it who they are?

William: My social scientific answer in terms of identity and religion is that there is longer a Hausa identity. There is Nigerian-Hausa identity and Nigerian-Hausa identity (Niger and Nigeria).  The reality of the nation-state that has been super-imposed upon this ethnic group and all the other ethnic groups in Africa [has] created an additional identity. So you can only be Hausa in a Nigerian way or a Nigerian way, and religion gets incorporated in those national identities as well. In Niger, being a Hausa means being Muslim and Niger; just being Nigerian means being Muslim, full stop. In Nigeria, where only about half the population is Muslim, half the population is Christian, you’ve got a lot more Hausa-speaking people who are Christian—they’re an oddity.  But there is not the necessary relationship between Hausa and Islam as there is in Niger.

I then met briefly with the co-authors to ask them a few more questions of my own.


Angela: Looking back on your trip, do you think overall [it was] a positive experience? Are you really glad that you went?

Sam: Yeah. I did enjoy it thoroughly, and sometimes it was tough because it was rough conditions.  As a result of that, I’ve been completely acclimated to cockroaches, I saw so many at the time.

Angela: You [probably] have a really good immune system too, right?

Sam: I am the most immunized person I know.  I’ve had immunizations against things I can’t pronounce. I should be set if an outbreak of anything gets out.  So, overall, [an] incredibly positive experience, a life experience that I’ll probably never be able to match for my kid, unless I try really hard.

Angela: Do you think you’ll write another book, based on this, in an older tone [of voice]?

Sam: It’s been in my mind for awhile.  I don’t think a full-fledged book, but I definitely want to have something published.  A reflection of this whole experience and process, and the process of being published and coming out here to do stuff like this, which I’ve done back on the East Coast as well.

Angela: So this is your first trip out here to the West Coast to give a talk on this?

Sam: Absolutely.

Angela: What do you think of it?

Sam: I like it actually.  My campus is urban, and the contrast is incredible.

Angela: You talked about being on the border of two countries [where] there’s a lot of tension. I don’t know if it’s still like that today, but it sounded like it was pretty dangerous when you were traveling there.  Was that a little frightening?

Sam: There were points in the city where I felt uncomfortable.  We had to fly into the major cities and that’s really where the danger is. If you get killed in the rural area where we were, no one is going to find out forever, actually, because it’s just out in the middle of nowhere.  When we were in the cities, I did feel uncomfortable often because there were some people who were very forthcoming and very forward with their requests for money or they wanted something out of us.  And the possibilities for getting extorted for money were endless.  It was intimidating.  [There were] pretty much no scruples because you do what you do to survive, and sometimes, to survive, you’re predatory.  Out in the boonies everybody was incredibly helpful, nice, and respectful. Just because you don’t have anything doesn’t mean you’re not going to have manners.

Angela: It sounds like they were just mesmerized by the idea of white people being in their community, too.

Sam: The younger kids who had never known [my dad] did not know I was a person.  They would come up and looking straight at me would come over and touch my hand, touch my skin, touch my hair.  They’d sneak up behind me and tug on my hair.  They weren’t being disrespectful— when I’d look at them they’d feel embarrassed [and] they’d hide behind each other.  But I was just such an oddity, such a strange thing for them. I looked totally different, and I had no idea of how weird I looked.

Angela: So aside from publishing something related to your experience in Africa, do you intend to do any more writing in general?

Sam: Yeah.  Writing is something that everybody wants to do but never gets a chance to.  My plans are actually to do something non-traditional, in whatever capacity, whether it be the Peace Corps, or getting lost out in the middle of Africa or Asia, or something.  And at that point I think I’ll be taking some time to write.


Angela: So you were in the Peace Corps awhile back, in the 1970s and 1980s.  Did you write any books just about your work in the Peace Corps?

William: This is my Peace Corps book, even though it’s not only about my Peace Corps experience, it forms the entire story.  This is my most accessible or general readership book.  The others are academic, more scholarly.

Angela: Do you intend to write another book later that’s just about your Peace Corps experience?

William: No, everything I needed to say about that [is in the introduction to this book].

Angela: So have you returned to Africa, to the same place that you took Sam ten years ago?

William: I was there as recently as December.

Angela: Do you spend a [lengthy] amount of time there?

William: I haven’t been able to spend more than a couple of weeks.

Angela: So, just visiting people?

William: Yes.

Angela: Was it really frightening to you to be near two countries that are fighting and [where] there’s a lot of tension on the border?

William: Normally, it’s actually one of the most peaceful borders in Africa, so it’s very random when there’s trouble along that particular border.  My greatest fear was being stopped at the border post for not having the right papers. Even though we had visas, it wasn’t easy to get to where we needed to go.  We didn’t go through traditional border posts.