24th Oct 2011
Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
Monique and the Mango Rains is an autobiographical account of Kris Holloway‘s work in Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer, where she forged a deep friendship with Monique Dembele, the local midwife whose critical services she assisted – and continues to champion today.
Holloway embarked on her genuinely eye-opening and life-changing journey at just 21 (the ‘just’ is relative, coming from a 30-year-old who is far stronger and more independent in her head than in reality, living in a country where – according to the UK Office for National Statistics – the average woman married for the first time aged 28 and a half).
Upon arriving in Nampossela, she met Monique, who at 24, shouldered ultimate responsibility for the village’s wellbeing, as the sole midwife and health care worker. She was also raising her own child and supporting a feckless husband who could have stepped ready-made from a work of fiction. Yes, by page six, I was already feeling very privileged – and very small.
The conditions for living and working were harsh: the ‘woman come down house’ was a mud-brick construction containing the barest of necessities for giving birth – a concrete slab for a delivery table, a plastic bucket for the afterbirth, a standard medical kit and a birth register.
Its broken tin roof rendered it useless for the rainy season. Yet Holloway emphasises how lucky women felt to have it as ‘one of the few hallowed grounds where men were not allowed to tread’.
Simple, often understated, prose reflects the desiccated landscape and starkly deprived way of life, but elegant figurative phrases inject the same warmth as the (mostly) generous, kindly people who are living it. Occasionally the lyricism feels clunky, but overall Holloway’s straightforward style strikes the right note.
She remains impressively non-judgemental in the face of witnessing unpalatable realities, such as the laziness of Elise, a mother whose child continues to deteriorate despite Monique’s interventions and education.
The author’s anger is mostly reserved for the bureaucratic (and male-run) institutions that prevent Monique from controlling her finances or improving women’s lot, and even then, she is acutely aware of becoming tangled in the thorny wilds of cultural imperialism.
A particularly poignant moment is when Monique realises that Kris Holloway has not been ‘cut’ (undergone female genital mutilation). Her disbelief – and amazement that sex can be enjoyable – is equalled by her intimate and knowledge that birth is made more difficult because of it (‘I have noticed myself, that it does not help the baby pass through’).
Holloway recounts Monique’s (and her own) remarkable achievements in combating child mortality and malnutrition, including education programmes on feeding, avoiding sickness and FGM, and the implementation of a communal field for growing crops for baby food.
The reader can’t help but see the women’s friendship as a symbol for the relationship between the developed and developing worlds, as they live for a brief time in parallel – on the same path, but still with an impassable space between them. Even in their romantic lives, while Monique’s choices are curtailed, and her desires quashed, Holloway’s foundling relationship prospers.
The bitterly ironic climax could leave the reader wreathed in despair, because Monique seems such a beacon within a community cramped by poverty, ignorance and patriarchal traditions. However, hope is allowed to remain flickering in the ‘soft face full of determination’ belonging to Monique’s younger sister, Angele.
The book is in part a memoir, but perhaps even more it is a tribute to the remarkable Monique – and its profits go towards continuing and expanding the work of Clinique Monique, which provides vital gynaecological and general health services to Mali villagers.
Although lacking the abundance of stand-alone anecdotes one might expect (the one self-consciously humorous passage boils down to translation trouble and a dirty word), Holloway’s story is undoubtedly inspiring. After reading, I found myself researching the work of the Peace Corps – and the UK’s equivalent, VSO, with a view to undertaking a trip with a similar purpose.
Which books have inspired you to plunge into adventure, danger and the unknown – or simply prompted you to re-evaluate your own life and priorities?
Recommended for: Anyone who is in a well of self-pity – this will drag you out sharpish, squirming in pampered self-indulgence. Equally, if you’re interested in travel, or aspire to make a practical contribution to improving the world, this will stand you in good stead.
The book itself includes a handy reading guide for book groups, consisting of thought-provoking questions. These would also come in handy for English teachers studying memoir with their students.
Other recommended reading: Kris Holloway is adding to a long tradition of Peace Corps memoir; try How to Cook a Crocodile by Bonnie Lee Black or Bread from the Sky by Marie McCarthy. For an insight into midwifery’s turbulent history nearer home, try Call the Midwife: A True Story of The East End in the 1950s by Jennifer Worth.