Book group: Monique and the Mango Rains, Two Years with a Midwife in Mali

Date: January 10, 2008
Location: Home of Roo Dane, ’61

On January 10, 2008, Sandra Lovell ’56, Dorianne Low ’66, Barbara Powell ’62, Libby Atkins ’46, Sydney Owens ’64, Erica Bernstein ’92, Judith Bernstein, and Cornelia Robat ’61 met at the home of Roo Dane ’61 to discuss Monique and the Mango Rains, Two Years with a Midwife in Mali, by Kris Holloway.

Here is a fine memoir by a successful American woman about a successful Malian midwife woman read by successful women college graduates, and by what did we begin our discussion? By a generous bashing of the villain of the piece, Monique’s husband François. With the guiltless and blameless cooperation of his card-playing civil servant cronies, the selfish and immature François withheld most of Monique’s salary, permission to send their children to school or to use his moped for travel to get medical supplies, and even the fruits from his garden.

Current U.S. fact cited: 87% of college men want to marry a woman less smart than themselves. If the balance of power is changed in an unequal relationship, the dominant partner of, for instance, a couple, siblings, a government, may perceive a threat and react with hostility. Monique’s very success seemed to work against her: the more she achieved the more her husband resented her and worked to block her movements.

Monique, both wise and naïve, was a first-rate nurse-midwife and an excellent teacher, and we learn much about African village life through her story. But this book could also serve as a model for any long-stay travelers on how to survive far from home. The author, Kris Holloway, brought several gifts that Greg Mortenson, of Three Cups of Tea, also shared: a facility for language (although Holloway blurted out some howlers), basically excellent health, physical stamina, and, especially important, an amazingly open attitude. She mentally converted each setback, each obstacle into a learning experience. “So that’s how they do it here,” she would muse after a difficult confrontation with tradition or lack of equipment. She would work with the doable. She also knew when to keep her mouth shut and when it was a suitable time to present a suggestion or a complaint to her superiors. Like Mortenson, her parents had a strong service ethic and encouraged her to travel abroad in a service capacity.

The ability to escape colors everything, one of us remarked, and I thought of my time in Niger when it was generally agreed that the best doctor for the anasara, the Europeans, was an air ticket back home. Like Mortenson, Holloway was considered an honored guest who would return home one day. The dùgùtigi, or village headman, took her into his household, called her his American daughter, and subtly promoted her work with the village women. There are amusing sketches of how clumsy Kris was at planting, sorting, needlework, and how useful she was in the infirmary and birthing house. On a more personal note, she was able to manage any homesickness (aided by the courtship of another volunteer) so that her full energies were devoted to being of service to her African community.

There are eye-opening explanations of the different degrees of female circumcision, and an introduction to some of the details of foreign aid and village politics. The change of the seasons and their festivals and agricultural activities gives a lovely backdrop to Holloway’s memoir. Monique’s child, Basil, provides a calendar of days as he grows from a lovely burden on Monique’s back to a lively, curious toddler, stumbling around the courtyard to discover the household goods. A charming picture of how many ways he uses discarded flip-flop lightens the litany of health problems that Kris and Monique face every day.