Nine Hills to Nambonkaha Two Years in the Heart of an African Village

Sarah Erdman




Trade Paperback

336 Pages



Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy

In a northern part of the West African nation known as Côte d'Ivoire the savanna undulates and baobab trees rule over the horizon. Nambonkaha, village of Nabon (Stranger), has often been forgotten by the world. Sorcerers here still conjure magic. Electricity's arrival has been endlessly delayed. Sunrise brings the tok tok of women grinding corn with pestles. At times of dancing, young boys smack calabash drum so fast their bare hands blur.

Yet Nambonkaha, for all its innocence, is a little world on the cusp of enormous change—another spot where the modern issues facing all of Africa are beginning to disturb and disrupt. Sarah Erdman, a Peace Corps volunteer in the village for two years, shows us all the reasons we should care, drawing us into the lives of this funny, colorful, and haunting place. Beginning with the faithful but overworked village nurse and his sometimes cantankerous wife, we meet a gallery of village residents—salt sellers and seers, cotton farmers and vieilles, witch doctors and genies—and witness their way of life, death, celebration, and survival. We visit market day, where bejeweled tribeswomen snap up bargain bushrat and glitter for girls' faces. We observe a sacrifice to the ancestors, births complicated by sorcery, and an all-night wedding festival. We attend a graduation where children whose chores leave no time for schoolwork watch diplomas, and the opportunities they represent, pass them by. Erdman also shows us Nambonkaha's first AIDS loss and the beginning of the villagers' struggle to fight against the disease that could destroy their futures and the community that has sustained them. Beautifully written and observed, Nine Hills to Nambonkaha is filled with the grace, dreams, and spirit of this place and its beautiful, unforgettable people.


Praise for Nine Hills to Nambonkaha

"Erdman's irrepressibility lofts you along . . . If her book is more earnest, less coruscating, less eager to K.O. the reader than [other memoirs], it's wonderful in a way that [the others] can't touch."—The New York Times Book Review

"Erdman sets about her incremental work—wheedling mothers to weigh their babies, gently broaching the scandalous topic of AIDS—with the eye of a social scientist and the ear of a poet. It was a long and fascinating trip, and her delightful telling of it has me hoping she'll be packing for another one soon."—Steve Hendrix, The Washington Post

"At a time when American foreign reporting is obsessed with massive news events—war, famine, genocide—Sarah Erdman's voice rings with a distinct and refreshing intimacy. Her portrait of Nambonkaha includes the big events—AIDS, political unrest, the introduction of modernity—but these forces remain in the background, where they belong. This book is simply about people and their stories. In the joys and failures of daily routines in a small African village, she finds life itself."—Peter Hessler, author of Rivertown

"This account of two years of development work in West Africa is exemplary in many ways. Erdman conveys faithfully the complex maneuvering between hope and disillusion that characterizes such efforts. The observations of persons, place, social life are acute and vivid. The writing has the narrative pulse of good fiction, and is as absorbing. This is a beautifully done book."—Norman Rush, author of Mortals: A Novel and Mating

"Charming and important . . . Erdman never condescends, never patronizes."—St. Louis Dispatch

"It is rare to pick up a book and be so completely transported to another land, another culture. The village of Nambonkaha comes alive in Edrman's hands. Her powers of observation, her prose and her daring are truly Orwellian. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha is a treat."—Abraham Verghese, author of My Own Country

"This is the book I wished had been written when I took a group of young writers up to a remote mountain village in my own land of the Dominican Republic. I wanted a model of a sensitive, well-written introduction to an unknown world . . . Sarah Erdman has written just such a luminous book—a wonderful introduction to the Côte d'Ivoire, to Africa, and to the human heart."—Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents

"With an uncommon eye for the smallest, nost revealing details of village life, Erdman casts a poetic light on the whole of Africa. Whether writing about malnourished children or corrupt officials, heroic doctors or overworked women, flaming sunsets or hot Sahara winds, Erdman brings an exceptional beauty to this book."—Mike Tidwell, author of The Ponds of Kalambayi: An African Sojourn

"Erdman has been blessed with these gifts: a fervent curiosity, a generous heart, a lightly self-mocking manner, and a fluent and poetic language. She steps out the door of her cement cubicle onto the mud of a West African village and celebrates a world in which stylish girls from town strut on high heels through the dust; in which a man's third wife, who spends her days squatting in a dirt courtyard cleaning and cooking, plans to go to the city for a sonogram; in which a self-important man deferred to by all as 'the President' turns out to be the illiterate head of the parent-teacher association; and in which an almost-frighteningly beautiful and sober-faced baby shrinks rather than grows despite his mother's doting care. With his death, this haunted-looking baby becomes the messenger of a fast-approaching enemy which is going to devour the village: AIDS. This is a vivid, at turns hilarious, at turns terrifying, important, and beautiful book."—Melissa Fay Greene, author of Last Man Out and Praying for Sheetrock

"[The author] spent two years as a Peace Corps worker in the small town of Nambonkaha, Côte d'Ivoire, at the end of the last decade. Erdman, who acted as a health-care worker and instructor, is surprised to find herself called upon to help women in labor, surrounded by curious children who want to learn to read, and honored with gifts from the chief. She also faces the challenge of trying to meld medical knowledge with traditional sorcery, as the village denizens believe most illness and misfortune is caused by witchcraft rather than infection. This is particularly dangerous in regards to AIDS, which arrives in the village in the form of a young widow and her son. With the help of several of the town's residents . . . Edrman begins teaching classes and sets up a baby-weighing station in the market. With graceful, thoughtful prose, Erdman ponders the problems the village faces and describes in vivid detail the many people she met there."—Booklist

"A thoughtful memoir of Peace Corps service in West Africa, with all the hallmarks of the subgenre. First-time author Erdman brings a large heart and a sense of humor to her account of her two-year stint in the interior of the Ivory Coast, providing healthcare in a market town in which nothing is quite as it seems . . . Erdman's tale follows a trajectory that begins with cultural misunderstandings, with an appropriate level of self-pity, and that arcs into understanding, acceptance, and friendship. [Erdman] delivers some sharp observation on rural life in Africa while poking fun at herself . . . There are plenty of serious moments, though, as when [she] ponders the astonishing corruption that keeps the Côte d' Ivoire, with an economy that is the third largest in sub-Saharan Africa, impoverished and struggling; the upper class has plenty of money, she notes, but it 'never seems to seep through to the rest.' By the end of her memoir, Erdman has taken to a more or less relativistic view of such things, and even if they continue to bother her, she is fierce in defending the people of the Ivoirian interior from Western misperceptions and stereotypes . . . A worthy debut."—Kirkus Reviews

"In this complex debut, Peace Corps worker Erdman, who lived in eight countries growing up, takes the reader on a vivid and compelling journey into the colorful world of a small village in the Ivory Coast. Arriving in early 1998, she faced extraordinary challenges as she taught children how to read and women about nutrition and birth control, overcoming superstition, language barriers, ignorance, diseases, lack of funding, and her own personal fears. The lecherous gendarme; the many children; the old women of the village, who raise money to begin building a clinic; and Erdman's friends, local nurse Sideb and his wife, Abi, are all wonderful, three-dimensional characters that liven up the narrative. Erdman's eloquent descriptions allow the reader to appreciate the scenes of cautious yet excited village women who show up each month for the healthy-baby contest and then to desperation at the description of a baby dying of AIDS. The author's sensitivity to the traditions of the villagers, the unique ways she found to overcome and incorporate those traditions in her work, and the despair she sometimes felt over the intrusion of the modern world make this a complicated but also contemplative book."—Linda M. Kaufmann, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Libirary, North Adams, Massachusetts, Library Journal

"[Erdman] spent two years in Nambonkaha, a northern Ivory Coast village, starting in 1998. As a culturally sensitive community development volunteer, she took her time finding her niche. She started working on maternal and child health by introducing the regular weighing of babies, as a means of monitoring malnutrition and as a way of opening the door to a wider range of health-care interventions. Without funds or equipment, this boiled down to rudimentary first aid: cleaning and bandaging wounds, cooling down a fever, or recognizing malaria and going to the nurse for pills. By the end of Erdman's stay, with the support of the village, she'd moved on, very successfully, to birth control and AIDS prevention education. Happily, Erdman focuses on the story behind the story: how she learned local ways, how she gained the confidence and friendship of assorted villagers and even how she couldn't do anything about some atrocities, like female genital mutilation. In the end, she understands the village world view so well, she can imagine better ways to deal with certain issues, like promoting condom usage: what if international health organizations had depicted AIDS as a sorcery problem and 'introduced condoms, with the help of chiefs and fetisheurs, as the only fetish that can stave off' the disease? This is an engrossing, well-told tale certain to appeal to armchair travelers and to anyone—especially women—considering international volunteer work."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Sarah Erdman

  • Sarah Erdman still works for the Peace Corps and lives in Washington. D.C. She is a graduate of Middlebury College.