“Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian,” April Riley imagines herself intoning for two years in a remote African hut: maybe by the time her Peace Corps service is up she’ll have gotten used to saying it – and being one. Then she can worry about coming out to her Born Again parents. Cathy Rudge, April’s only friend on this nascent trip to Africa, is ten years and a messy marriage older than any of the other recruits; her wandering husband came home after two years away, just when Cathy had given up and joined the Peace Corps. Recruits only get 80 pounds of luggage to carry onto the flight, but both women have plenty they’re trying to leave behind.
Their immersion in francophone Togo begins before the Air Afrique flight hits the tarmac. They are pressed in on all sides by a vibrant, chaotic world and met at the airport by their teacher, Henri, whose robes and deep facial scars seem the height of the exotic. But Stanford-educated Henri is plagued by family troubles and disagreements with the Peace Corps director, kept hidden from the Americans the way he hides his fluent English. The Volunteers’ three month training is to be a highly regimented, French-only experience. Too bad neither Cathy nor April can speak much French.
On an early assignment, April spends a week in an inhospitable village, an experience made worse by her uncooperative Volunteer host, her own clumsy French, and someone’s truly abysmal cooking. The chef in question turns out to be Gwendolyn, a transplant from English-speaking Ghana, as misplaced and as lonely as April is. Whether April’s ready to be a lesbian or not, she’s falling in love.
After a grueling month of training, Cathy still hasn’t heard from her husband. The trainees are forbidden to leave the village and reminded of a cardinal Peace Corps rule: any Volunteer caught riding a bicycle without a helmet will have her service terminated. Yet, hoping to use a phone in another village, Cathy and April sneak out. Cathy is unable to contact her husband and fears he’s, yet again, being unfaithful.
Having broken Peace Corps rules once, April goes AWOL to Gwendolyn’s village at her next opportunity. There, she discovers a new law, requiring fishermen to obtain a permit in the distant capital city, has sunk Gwendolyn and her children into poverty. They can’t afford the travel, nor the permit itself, so are forced to fish illegally at night, risking being shot by the gendarmes who patrol the area.
The Peace Corps assigns April and Cathy to work in neighboring villages, they move to Cathy’s house for the last phase of training, studying the tribal language with Henri. Henri inexplicably avoids meeting with the tribal chief; this rudeness creates havoc in the tribe. Further complicating their visit is the Prefet, a government functionary who was once a school rival of Henri’s and is now visibly delighted with his new power over Henri and his American trainees.
“When I had my daughter,” Henri tells Cathy and April, “I swore that I would not cut her cheeks with the balafre.” And he touched the gouges on his cheeks, marking him as a member of the tribe. “How could you cut your baby’s skin?” But his mother stole his daughter away when Henri was off teaching for the Peace Corps, and she cut the scars into the girl’s face herself, wounds which still have not healed. Henri has been unable to face his mother, now wife of the chief, ever since.
As soon as training is over, April moves not to Henri’s uncle’s village, but to Gwendolyn’s. Gwendolyn has gotten sick and is struggling to take care of her children. Cathy is left to cover for April’s absence, which becomes impossible in the face of the Prefet’s pressure and the rising anger from the village chief.
Gwendolyn’s village life is shattered when a truckload of gendarmes arrive, drunk, torching fishing boats and nets, as well as the permits each family worked so hard to obtain. April tries to intervene but the soldiers, unhappy to have an American witness their violence, arrest her. April evades them only long enough to help Gwendolyn, now very ill, into bed, where she kills herself by overdosing on the very pain medications April has brought her.
Cathy, now in regular correspondence with her husband, is growing homesick and increasingly frustrated with her village situation. Not sure what has happened to April, she answers a strange summons to the remote house where April, dazed and worried about Gwendolyn’s children, awaits the Peace Corps director and her certain deportation. Desperate to stay, April asks Cathy to convince Henri to speak with his uncle, hoping the chief can appeal the Peace Corps on her behalf. But asking for his mother and uncle’s help requires Henri forgive what they did to his daughter.
Henri approaches his mother for the first time since she cut his daughter; he also sends Cathy to ask the Prefet to exert his influence as well. Speaking with the pompous man, who clearly delights in the failings of the Americans, Cathy realizes that the thing he values most is his reputation and his power. Her only chance of saving April’s Peace Corps service is to forfeit her own, gambling that the Prefet would avoid the humiliation of losing all of the Americans under his jurisdiction.
Cathy sets off on her bicycle, into the desert, without a helmet, on the one paved road the director must take to bring April back to the capital. Sure to see her, he should, by his own threat, deport her for breaking this rule. Cathy hopes his pride, like the Prefet’s, will force him to chose to deport one Volunteer instead of two. When his van stops for Cathy, he’s irate, but his choice is clear: he will let April stay. Cathy will be the one to go home.
This is just plain excellent.