“Meeting the Mantis” by John Ashford
Washington State has long been one of the most reliable sources of Peace Corps volunteers – folks who combine idealism with a willingness to do transformative, hands-on work in countries across the globe.
The agency, conceived of during John F. Kennedy’s campaign for the presidency in 1960, has sent over 220,000 Americans to work in scores of developing countries. Just as every one of those volunteers has been expected to share America’s ideals of democracy and opportunity, they’ve also brought back to the United States a new appreciation for cultures very different from our own.
“Meeting the Mantis” is a book by a Peace Corps alumnus. John Ashford had worked in education for nearly 30 years – including two decades as library director at Seattle Community College – before deciding he needed a change of purpose and scenery. He and his wife Genevieve left for Botswana in 1990 and taught there for two years.
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Following their term of service, the Ashfords decided to do some further traveling into the Kalahari Desert. They wanted to visit the Bushmen, a people whom John had first learned about as a college student in the 1960s. Deemed by anthropologists to be one of the most ancient in the world, their culture has been described as one valuing harmony and collaboration.
While living in Botswana, John learned about a white man, Freddy Morris, who had lived in the desert for 70 years, embracing the Nhara Bushmen’s culture as his own. John felt that if he could locate Freddy, and if he still retained English language-speaking skills, this could provide deeper insight into the culture than if John were to attempt to communicate with the Bushmen on his own, using improvised sign language.
The quest to find Freddy and his particular community took the Ashfords deep into an arid land that is also home to flamingos, ostriches, springbok, lions, snakes and scorpions. They also encounter jackals and mantises – both believed by local cultures to possess magical powers.
Every once in a while the travelers came across small settlements, and interacted with locals whose world views had been shaped by forces very different from their own life experiences. Their eventual meet-up not only with Freddy Morris, but also with another Scot/Nharo fellow who advocated for the well-being of the Bushmen in the modern world, gave them a tantalizing glimpse into an endangered way of life.
“Meeting the Mantis” offers a thoughtful interpretation of a foreign country and ancient culture through the perspective of respectful travelers. It is a capacious and unhurried travelogue.
That is one of its merits, but it also prompts a regretful scolding: what a pity this book was not written and published sooner after the experience! No doubt the intervening quarter century has brought significant changes to the people and possibly the landscape of the Kalahari.
As readers, we must content ourselves with these interesting observations and prize them for what they captured at that moment in time. Their relevance to the present is less certain.
The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at email@example.com.