Author Kris Holloway came to Wingate University recently to talk about her experiences in a part of the world that’s about as foreign to most of our students as a place can be. But her message is one that people of all ages should embrace.
“People in other countries are much more similar to us than they are different, ” Holloway, a former Peace Corps volunteer in the west African nation of Mali, told me when I asked what she hoped an audience of college students would get out of her presentation.
Holloway, who now works for a company which arranges international study experiences for college students, is the author of “Monique and the Mango Rains,” which recounts her two years in the early 1990s spent assisting a midwife (the title character) in a clinic under the most daunting of conditions.
Incoming freshman students at our university were required to read the book over the summer and discussions of it were part of their orientation at the beginning of the school year.
“I wanted to know how the rest of the world lives,” said Holloway, explaining why she went to Mali, located largely in the southern Sahara Desert and nearly twice the size of Texas. “I’d spent my life in a tiny, privileged part of it. I come from a line of teachers and social workers, so (joining the Peace Corps) wasn’t just out of the blue.”
The Ohio native had studied environmental science in college and was interested in working in natural resource management. Being fluent in French (Mali was part of colonial French West Africa) and having studied in the Ivory Coast, Holloway said she was comfortable with her assignment.
But, as customary for beginning Peace Corps volunteers, Holloway was required to spend some time with a host before starting her assignment. (“Wouldn’t it be great if we did that for everyone who came to this country?” she said.) She spent a week with Monique Dembele, a midwife and the only health care worker in the village of Nampossela, and decided to stay on helping her in the village’s “birthing house.’
“I thought the impact I could make would be so much greater,” Holloway said. “It was an easy choice.”
Holloway’s book is a wonderful read. It captures how it feels for an American to adjust to a place where theirs is the foreign language and culture. And it vividly describes Monique’s one-woman battle again disease and unsafe practices (genital cutting is still a cultural practice among women there) — as well as other cultural norms that make life difficult for women — to help bring more children successfully into the world and care for the health of mothers. The graphic descriptions of deliveries made a definite impression on some of my students, and Holloway said what she saw also left an impression on her.
“I think I was unprepared for the deaths I saw, especially a child’s death,” she said. “I wasn’t prepared for a place where women and children didn’t have access to basic human rights. When you hold a child that’s dying in your arms, the amount of care you take of, say, your cat is put into some perspective.”
But there were rewards, too. “I wasn’t prepared for how much I’d be loved there,” she said. Holloway and Monique became close friends as well as colleagues. But in one of life’s cruel ironies, Monique, who had battled adverse conditions to bring so many babies into the world, died in childbirth several years after Holloway left Mali.
But Monique’s legacy lives on in her village in the Clinique Monique, a solar-powered women’s health center started by Monique’s cousin in 2004 and which is almost finished, Holloway said. Monique’s sister is now a midwife there. The clinic has been built with the help of royalties from Holloway’s book and individual donations. She is still in contact with Monique’s three children, the youngest named Kristini in honor of her. Her foundation supports their education in a country where the average salary is $350 a year.
“We were so close as friends,” Holloway said. “She was my connection to the country, and that connection may actually be deeper because she’s gone. Her entire family is trying to carry on her work.”
Holloway tells the story of her book to a variety of groups, from book club and libraries to civic and school groups. Her next presentation after her Wingate visit was a conference call with Harvard Medical School students the following day.
In this video clip, Holloway shares some thoughts on the basic message of her book and her talks about it: