July 16, 2016

Speak, Memory: A Review of Jill Kandel’s So Many Africas by Angele Ellis

Cover Credit: Autumn House Press
So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village by Jill Kandel
Autumn House Press (2015)

Reviewed by Angele Ellis

Jill Kandel’s memoir encircles her life as her scarred wedding ring encircles her finger (along with her belated engagement ring, whose five small diamonds represent the five full years—nearly six—that Kandel lived in Zambia’s Kalabo District, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert). So Many Africas is as painstakingly faceted as a diamond, as dazzling, and as hard.

Winner of the 2014 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, So Many Africas contains two parallel stories: the journey of a privileged and idealistic young white American woman, trained as a nurse, into the isolated and alien culture of rural Zambia; and her equally isolated and alien journey into full-time wifehood and motherhood. Both aspects were propelled by Kandel’s 1981 marriage to Dutch agricultural specialist Johan Kandel, who was as passionate about increasing crop yields in Zambia as about making a life with Jill. Unfortunately, Johan’s eyes (a shining blue, the first thing that attracted Kandel to this young man from yet another culture) were for the most part focused on his work, lacking the “peripheral vision” to perceive his wife’s struggles.

“There were five languages spoken in Kalabo District: SiLozi, Luvale, Nyengo, Mbunda, and Nkoya. I couldn’t tell the five of them apart,” Kandel said in a 2015 interview with Lisa Ohlen Harris for the literary journal Brevity.
Words have always been a very important part of my life and I was living in a village where the act of talking and communicating was a daily struggle. When you lose the ability to communicate with those living around you—really communicate—there is a sense of loss and isolation. And something odd happens: when you stop talking, you stop hearing yourself, too. You forget who you are. I wanted to be a good wife. I wanted to encourage my husband. So I didn’t talk about what it was really like for me.
Kandel, who did not start writing seriously until her forties, took fourteen years to craft this work of reclaimed memory and feeling, and to find a vivid and precise language in which to express herself, presenting the reader with sharp scenes from her circumscribed experiences. (Added to Kandel’s difficulties was the refusal of Zambian authorities to accept her American nursing credentials; she could not work outside her home, even as a volunteer.)

Everyday labors—with heat, sand, cockroaches, bats, snakes, scanty food, unpredictable transportation, unreliable electricity, and the demands placed on Kandel by her husband’s sense of duty as well as her own—are interposed with terrors and tragedies that, though far too common, never become commonplace. Foremost among these is the death of a Zambian girl who runs from behind a bus into the path of Johan’s Land Rover. There also are moments of grace. Kandel’s Christian faith is implied but never imposed on her narrative. When she expresses the belief that an unknown young Zambian man—whose calm advice after the tragic road accident saved her family from assault by an angry crowd—was an angel, even a secular mind admits the possibility.

She shares another such moment with Mr. Albert, a dignified and resourceful man who was proud to call himself a servant. His presence in Kandel’s life proved to be a major help and solace. She remembers:
        … I saw the ants fly every year we lived in Zambia. I came to look forward to it, that Ant Flying Day, waited for it, knowing it would come just before the rains.
        Mr. Albert would remind me. “Soon,” he would say. “Soon is Ant Day come.” And we would wait and watch together.
        When it comes, it is the birds that amaze me. Careening, plummeting, rising, plunging through the blue sky. They swirl above my head like freedom while they dip playfully, hungrily.
        And as I watch, I remember my youth and the birds [drunk on fermented berries] that fell from trees, and my father’s laughter.
        The sky is not falling, Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky.
        The birds are not falling, Goosie Loosie, Turkey Lurkey, Foxy Woxy.
        In Africa, it is the ants that fall.
        But first they fly.
        If only for an instant.
As Kandel achieves release in ants that fly, she also attains it (at least once) in grief sent aloft. When Jos—a Dutch neighbor who, with his Zambian wife, Solie, had become a good friend—dies of a heart attack, Kandel is able to let go. She writes:
        …I sit beside Solie through a black night as the wind and fire carry our grief up into a darkened void. The night lasts forever, but it is not long.
        In a strange way it becomes one of the most comforting nights of my life. Everyone sits generously, without shame. No holding back and sniffling into Kleenex. No Valium or sweet music, just the rolling out of grief and the deep inhuman sound of wailing that comes unbidden and unhindered.
        I weep that night for Jos. And for the twelve-year-old girl whose life ebbed away months before, beside a rusting bus. I weep for myself and all that I miss of my family and friends and the life that I had once lived, so long ago and far away.
        And the very freedom to wail somehow salves the pain. It’s not hysterical or hopeless. Neither is it sanitized.
Neither is it sanitized when Kandel snaps, emotionally and physically. Deeply depressed, she tells Johan—who has received another offer of promotion—that she cannot go on living in Zambia. Ill with hepatitis and filled with drugs and IV fluids, Kandel hides her eyes (“the color of bananas”) from fellow airport passengers in Lusaka so that no one will complain that she is too sick to make her flight to the Netherlands with Johan and their children, Kristina and Joren. She never goes back.

For years afterward, Kandel—who makes her home with her family in Minnesota after sojourns in the Netherlands, England, and Indonesia—kept silent while Johan told his tales of Africa. The incomprehension of friends and neighbors added to her sense of unreality that she—despite palpable gains and losses—had lived in Zambia at all.

In the last quarter of So Many Africas, Kandel describes how she found her voice and the strength and support to write. One vignette encapsulates the long yet magical process of creation. In the depths of Minnesota winter, Kandel goes to her unheated garage to blow soap bubbles—as she did as a child and later with her children in Zambia. At thirty below zero, the frozen bubbles can be touched—delicately—without breaking. With existential wonderment, Kandel writes:
… I have held a bubble. I have held a lifetime. I have lived for ten years in lands so far away they do not exist. Come. Reach out your hand and I will blow a bubble for you. It will land barely perceptible. If you stand still enough, and do not pull away, the bubble will hold its crystalline shape. And if you look closely, beyond the surface, and into the bubble’s reflection, you will see the world upside down. A baobab tree standing with its roots to the sky.

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