Two months into her marriage to a Dutch agronomist, North Dakota native Jill Kandel boarded a plane in Amsterdam, where skaters were racing on frozen canals, and flew to a city that “rippled with heat” in Zambia.

It was the beginning of the young couple’s six years in Kalabo, a remote village on the northern rim of the Kalahari Desert and a bone-jarring journey by truck or hourslong trek by river to the nearest town. While her husband, Johan, travels to villages, testing new varieties of wheat, rice and triticale to help the region’s farmers, Kandel battles cockroaches, snakes and poultry-eating ants and limited food, electricity and clean water to maintain their household.

Alone for days while Johan travels, Kandel struggles to navigate the local language and customs. She falls silent at the market, where people laugh at her inability to speak SiLozi or the other four languages in the district. “Even these children, they can talk,” the women at the market tell her, mystified by her ignorance.

At first, Kandel summons her mother’s prairie stoicism, “You can laugh or you can cry.” But as expatriates come and go, as the family’s time in Africa wears on and Kandel gives birth to the couple’s first two children, the daily encounters with hunger and poverty begin to wear on her.

Africa becomes an adversary, outwitting her efforts to be a perfect wife and cultural good Samaritan. Kandel returns from one daylong trip, two crying children in tow, to a home with no water or electricity. “Africa leans over, pokes me in the ribs, and whispers in my ear, That’s a good one, isn’t it?” she writes.

After a year in England and three in Indonesia, the family returns to the Midwest to a reverse culture shock: too many choices at the local supermarket, church members who want to hear a rosy view of aid work, small-town neighbors who view her time abroad with bafflement.

Like grit under a shell, Kandel pushes the memories of her six years in Africa down, but she is split, haunted by her time in Kalabo, its impact on her marriage and her worldview. She spends 14 years trying to write the story.

Told in a series of lyrical snapshots, “So Many Africas” often raises questions it leaves unanswered. A chapter on witchcraft in Kalabo documents court cases without offering a local perspective. An expat doctor’s wife is rumored to be a witch, but we learn nothing further.

“So Many Africas” is most powerful when it engages Africa directly. It is also a meditation on marriage and life, what two people know and don’t know when they begin a journey together.

 

Trisha Collopy is a Star Tribune copy editor.