Peter Chilson, a prize-winning author who teaches at Washington State University, explores the experiences of Americans struggling to cope with the political and social upheaval of life in Africa, and of Africans acclimating to life in the United States.
Question: How did your interest in West Africa begin?
Answer: I went to Africa with the Peace Corps in 1985, after spending a year as a reporter on a daily newspaper in upstate New York. I was about a year out of college. I would have gone anywhere the Peace Corps sent me, but Africa was my first choice. I wanted to write, but at age 22 I had little experience to write about. I was looking for new, radically different cultural territory to challenge me. At that time, 1985, the Sahel region. which stretches across northern Africa from Senegal to the Horn, was stricken by a terrible drought. And I was captivated by the stories of survival and disaster coming out of this region.
It wasn’t that I wanted to go to Africa and help out, no; I wanted to go and bear witness. I taught junior high school English in the Peace Corps in a remote desert village called Bouza in central southern Niger. My job had very little relevance. Many of my students were terribly undernourished or ill. So, I tried to do things on the side like visit their villages to learn more about their lives and incorporate health lessons into my class work. But I learned a lot.
Q: What were you like growing up?
A: I was born in Detroit where I lived until I was 9. In 1970 we moved to Aspen, Colo., where I spent the rest of my formative years. I like to think asking questions — being curious about the world and the way things work — has always been a part of my personality. I have been writing — personal journals and later working for school papers — since grade school. My work is my passion both in my own writing and through teaching writing and literature.
Q: How did your experiences as a teacher in Africa shape who you are and your vision of the world?
A: I entered the Peace Corps as a young man. I wanted to be challenged. Growing up in a resort town in Colorado always gave me a sense of being at a disadvantage in the world, a sense that growing up in a super insular, comfortable mountain town impeded and even distorted my development as a human being, my understanding of myself and the world. So, I left the country in search of the “other,” to find out what I was about and, I admit freely, to gather material for writing stories.
In the old French junior high school system in which I taught in Niger, my students were the equivalent of grades 7-10. They demonstrated an acute geo-political awareness of how the world worked, what was going on in different countries around the world, especially in my own. They were hungry for knowledge and for contact with me. But their awareness — largely gained by listening to a lot of radio programs in French and Hausa from France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and various African neighboring countries, as well as any stray reading they could find in the remote village where I was posted — startled me.
Part of what challenged me both physically and mentally was also that I went to Niger in 1985 during a time of terrible drought. And I really felt that teaching English had no relevance to the lives and needs of my students. That bothered me, and so I began doing a lot of hiking to visit their villages. I tried to incorporate health lessons into my English lessons, helping people build and repair their homes, anything I could do to help make myself useful. All the while I was getting sick from parasites, one malaria attack, poor food, and trying to convince myself that staying in this tough place was somehow good for my character. One thing that really impacted me, though, and which I write about a lot in this book, is the cruelty the African power structure, particularly the military, inflicts on its own people.
The seeds of the Tuareg rebellion in Niger were being sown while I was a volunteer. I witnessed a fair amount of African-on-African violence and discrimination, mainly soldiers taking out their biases and personal angers on their innocent countryman in situations that were sometimes merely arbitrary and at other times sparked by tribal rivalries and resentments. The worst of what I saw, however, was the abuse of Tuaregs. That is part of what the novella “Tea with Soldiers” explores.
Q: What are some of your other interests?
A: I am an avid backpacker, hiker and bicyclist. I commute to work most days from Moscow, Idaho, to Pullman about a 20-mile ride roundtrip. The commute is a really nice part of my job teaching at WSU. (Also) I want to learn Spanish.
Q: Do you still travel?
A: I have traveled back to West Africa — Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ivory Coast — once or twice a year since 2002, partly to put together material for this new collection of stories and partly for research on a nonfiction book project. That nonfiction project is another issue, another book, which I have not written. I need to learn Bambara, an important Sahelian language, before I continue with the project.