Non Fiction / Memoir
Date Published: December 18, 2013
Everybody needs to run away from home at least once. Susan Corbett told people she was out to save the world, but really she was running — running from her home as much as to anywhere. Like many women, she was searching for meaning to her life or for a good man to share it with. In Africa, she hoped to find both.
Compelling and compassionate, In the Belly of the Elephant is Susan’s transformative story of what happens when you decide to try to achieve world peace while searching for a good man. More than a fish-out-of-water story, it’s a surprising and heart-rending account of her time in Africa trying to change the world as she battles heat, sandstorms, drought, riots, intestinal bugs, burnout, love affairs and more than one meeting with death. Against a backdrop of vivid beauty and culture, in a narrative interwoven with a rich tapestry of African myths and fables, Susan learns the true simplicity of life, and discovers people full of kindness, wisdom and resilience, and shares with us lessons we, too, can learn from her experiences.
The first time I met Death was in a tiny bush-town called Foequellie. It was said that the bush devil who sometimes came to town, dancing to a chorus of drummers, was Death. But he was just a local man dressed in rags and a wooden mask.
On a blue morning of sailing clouds, I crossed the clearing that separated my house from the two-room clinic—the only health facility within a 20-mile radius of thick bush and rain forest. A breeze carried the voices of chatting mothers and crying babies. It was Under Five’s Day, the weekly clinic for babies and children up to five years old. Well into my second year as a Peace Corps volunteer, I worked there, giving nutrition demonstrations and vaccinating children.
Awake from my morning cup of Nescafé and ready for the day, I passed through the dappled shade of a cottonwood tree. This was the town’s Ancestor Tree where the ghosts of great-great-grandfathers, great-aunts, uncles, and cousins hid in the hollows of the trunk with the snakes and spiders, and high up in the branches among the leaves and the ricebirds. The Ancestor Tree loomed next to a red dirt road that twisted its way around the clinic, past my house at the end of town, and on through hillside plots of rice, potato greens, and cassava.
Women with babies tied to their backs in cloth slings gathered at the clinic door. They entered and stacked their yellow “Road to Health” cards in a pile that reserved their place, and then sat on benches to wait their turn and catch up on local gossip.
James, the clinic janitor and local translator, joined me in the waiting room, a 20-by-10-foot space with a dirt floor and mud-plastered walls that smelled of baby pee and sweat.
We said our good mornings; then James explained the causes and treatment of diarrhea. I stood in the center, squeezing oranges into a bowl. As I demonstrated the pinch of salt and teaspoon of sugar needed to make rehydration fluid, a woman came in with a round-faced little girl in tattered shorts and cornrow braids. The two of them sat at the end of the bench, and the little girl laid her head on her mother’s shoulder and closed her eyes.
Over the next few hours, James and I worked with Francis, the local physician’s assistant and clinic “doctor.” We weighed babies, treated skin and stomach ailments, gave out malaria medication, and vaccinated against smallpox, whooping cough, and tetanus. Morning cool gave way to the heat of day, and the rooms grew stuffy. Sometime before noon, I walked back into the waiting room to call the next in line.
The woman with the little girl took her daughter’s hand to lead her in. The girl, about five years old, tried to stand but collapsed. Her mother caught her, and I ran to grasp the girl’s arm. Her skin burned, and her lips were chapped and dry. She breathed out a rattled sigh, and her head lolled to one side.
“Frances! James!” I called, and they came in an instant.
James laid the little girl down, her skinny arms and legs limp against the floor. Frances bent his ear to her nose, then felt her wrist for a pulse. He looked up at us and shook his head. Her mother began to wail.
I knelt, unable to believe, unable to understand. In my two years at the clinic, this had never happened. I had never seen a person die. The spark of the little girl who had been with us only a moment before was gone.
Without thought, I propped her head back, pressed my mouth over hers, and blew my breath into her limp, dehydrated body. Her skinny chest lifted then deflated. Francis pumped her chest, and I blew into her lungs again, then again.
There was no ambulance to call, no emergency room to whisk her to. This was the only place. We tried for a while longer until Francis put his hand on my arm.
“She is gone,” he said.
Her black irises were dull, as if a door at the back of her eyes had shut, blocking out the light. But her skin was warm and smelled the way children smell, an earthy sweetness that no amount of dirt can hide. Francis gently pressed her eyelids closed. The bleat of a baby goat echoed across the clearing.
Amidst the mother’s wails and the silent grief of the other women, the muscles of my throat closed into a fist. The woman had brought in her child, sick with dysentery, dehydrated, dying, and she had sat and waited her turn. Why hadn’t I noticed when they first came in? Why hadn’t I done something sooner? I looked around at the faces of the women and children who still crowded the room, and I started to cry. The mothers all turned to me, eyebrows raised, mouths open, as if they realized for the first time that I, too, was made of flesh and bone.
A week later, several of my students put on a skit at a school gathering. A young man lay on the ground while another pantomimed blowing air into his mouth. Everyone laughed, inviting me to share in the jest.
Foolish Miss Soosan, thinking that by blowing, she could chase away death.
My flushed cheeks and blank face must have moved them. They patted me on the back and spoke kind words; the way one treats someone who simply doesn’t know any better.
Foolish Miss Soosan, crying because she could not make someone stay when they had already left.
About the Author
A writer, community organizer, and consultant in program management, micro-enterprise development, family planning, and HIV/AIDS education, Susan Corbett began her community development career in 1976 as a Peace Corps Volunteer, working in a health clinic in Liberia, West Africa. In 1979, she joined Save the Children Federation as a program coordinator for cooperative and small business projects in Burkina Faso. In 1982, Susan returned to the States where she has worked with local non-profits in drug and alcohol prevention for runaway youth, family planning, homelessness prevention, and immigrant issues.
Susan has traveled to over 40 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Caribbean, and Central and North America and has lived and worked in ten African countries over the past thirty years (Uganda, Tanzania, Mali, The Gambia, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Mauritius, Tunisia, Nigeria, and Liberia). She lives in Colorado with her husband, Steve, her sons, Mitch & Sam, and her dog, Molly.