Holloway served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, West Africa from 1989-1991,
where she met her husband, John Bidwell. She holds a MPH from the University of
Michigan where she focused her research on maternal and child health. She has
used her unique background in writing, public health, and development to further
the mission of numerous non-profits and educational institutions including Planned
Parenthood, the National Priorities Project, the University
of Michigan, Springfield College, and the Greenbelt Movement International. She
currently works as the Director of Institutional Relations at the Center for International Studies, a fabulous study/live/explore abroad organization. She is a confirmed Francophile,
loves chocolate, and sits on a physio ball while at her computer. She lives in
Northampton, MA with John and their two sons.
John Bidwell (Consulting Editor)
John is Principal of Bidwell ID, a strategic branding firm, located in Florence,
Massachusetts. Their award-winning work involves development for nonprofits and
schools, and marketing for businesses. Clients include Amherst College, Mount
Holyoke College, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Green Belt Movement, and Point Eight
Power. John has taught design at Smith
College, and has been a visiting lecturer at the University of Michigan and the
University of Massachusetts.
Interview with the author
Q. What inspired you to write Monique and the
I always thought I’d write a story about Monique. She was such an amazing
African woman, midwife, and mother — really the first “feminist”
in her tiny, rural region of West Africa. I lived with her as a Peace Corps volunteer
from 1989-1991 and her effect on me was profound. But my life here in the U.S.
was full with work and kids — way overprogrammed as all parents can relate
to, and writing about her remained a dream, something others would remind me about
saying, “you really should write a book about her…” I was just
happy that Monique and I stayed in touch, through long letters and cassette tapes.
But in 1998, when she died in labor with her fifth child, I knew that this book
had to be written. I had to go back, had to tell the story of her life, her death,
and her remarkable legacy. This book grew out of that trip and took on a life
of its own.
Q. There are lots of “Returned Peace Corps
Volunteer” tales. Why is this one different?
This book is primarily about friendship — the power of friendship to transform
us. When we met, Monique and I were both young women; I was 22 and she was 25.
She was a rural African midwife seeking something new, something interesting in
a life of routine and an unhappy marriage; I was a middle-class Peace Corps volunteer
from Ohio, far away from home and eager to make personal connections in this foreign
place. We became as close as sisters, “same mother, same father,”
as Monique once said to me. We worked together, shared our desires and dreams,
challenged each other's assumptions about work, life, and love, and stood by one
another through sickness, birth, and tragedy. It’s this intimacy that makes
Monique and the Mango Rains different from the other Peace Corps books out there,
though many of them are wonderful! This book is the personal story of a remarkable
African woman, told by a friend.
Q. How did Monique’s friendship affect you?
Monique gave me a new perspective on what it means to be a woman. Before working
with her I had never seen a birth (as I mention in the book, I had spent my life
avoiding pregnancy and its consequences), didn’t know (or care to know)
much about babies and kids, and had never really defined myself by my gender.
Monique was only a few years my senior, but had married at 19, had given birth
to three children, lost one to malnutrition, and was the sole midwife for a village
of 1400 people. I had much to learn from her. I received a master’s in public
health, inspired by her example of quality care and health education in practice;
I had my two children at home with midwives because she had shown me their skill
and grace, and had given me confidence in my body’s power. But most significantly,
she expanded who I consider my sisters to be. On a day-to-day basis, this means
that bad hair days have lost their power! Meaning that I know what’s important
to me, and what I want for others. I have my clitoris. I married the person that
I wanted to, have the number of kids that I wanted to. Odds are that my children
will live healthy, long lives. I get paid for work that I enjoy and believe in.
Would that every woman had such benefits and choices.
Q. You’ve said that Monique taught you that
what joins us humanly is greater than what divides us. Explain.
Depending on each other to survive is a great way to find that common humanity!
Living with Monique showed me that we all want the same things: enough to eat,
a place to rest, the love of family and friends, the right to lead a life that
holds meaning. Not that we brush our differences under the rug and pretend that
they aren’t there, but that we talk openly about them, let them take up
space, and work and live with each other anyway. As for prejudices (versus real
differences), if we admit that we have them, they lose their shape and their power;
they become two-dimensional and fall like paper to the ground. Seeing the “other”
in ourselves is the essence of peace.
Q. You’re white. Monique was black. Were
you nervous about capturing a black woman’s story as a white woman?
I never thought about it that way. I never thought of Monique as my “black”
friend. Skin color was the least of our differences. We didn’t speak the
same language, didn’t come from the same socioeconomic class, didn’t
have the same schooling, and came from completely different cultures. I was more
worried that I would not do her story justice due to my own biased cultural lens.
But then I realized that if I didn’t write a book about her, who would?
Q. How do you feel about your influence on Monique
and other village women’s lives?About changes that may go against
her culture’s values and beliefs?
First, sharing of ideas is going to happen, whether we want it to or not. Our
world is getting smaller. But the question gets at an issue that anthropologists
call “cultural relativism”—that people act in accordance with
their own culture and belief system and their actions should only be judged from
within this context. This means that if we’re coming from another culture,
we cannot and should not judge their actions. I agree with this in general—being
careful about assessing others when we don’t know them, but not in the specifics.
I believe that there are certain inalienable human rights that transcend culture.
For example, I believe women should not suffer violence at the hands of others;
I believe women have the right to not have parts of their genitalia removed; I
believe all children should receive primary healthcare regardless of ability to
pay. Monique couldn’t believe that I hadn’t had my genitals cut; she
assumed all women around the world had this rite performed. But don’t misunderstand
me. An idea may come from outside the culture, but to affect lasting change, it
must take root, develop, and grow within the minds and actions of the people.
Q. You did extensive research for this book. Can
you tell us more about it?
The research was on three levels. The first was gathering journals, letters, cassette
tapes, anything I, or my husband, had written or recorded about our Peace Corps
experience. The second was the return trip to Mali, where we gathered Monique’s
clinic records and her own prenatal records, as well as taped conversations and
interviews with her family, friends, and colleagues. The interviews were conducted
in French and Bambara and translated into English. Thus I had the challenge of
portraying each person’s distinctive voice and personality in a language
that she or he had never spoken! The third level of research was more academic:
“Does this story illuminate a larger truth about women’s lives?”
Besides drawing on my public health studies, I spent a year reading articles,
books, and dissertations/research on women in Mali. This background brings a depth
to the book, while using the words and stories of Monique and others keeps the
book conversational. I hope that the first-person viewpoint makes it personal
and offers a cross-cultural perspective.
Q. What was the hardest aspect of the book to
Putting myself so much in the center of the story was hard for me. I wanted the
story to be about Monique, not about me. But the women in my writing group, my
agent, and others kept telling me that they identified with me and my reactions
as a Western woman. Having me as a guide allowed them to relax and absorb Monique’s
world. But it meant that I had to admit my frailties and faults, my doubts and
insecurities, and show aspects of myself that I’m less proud of. I also
had to write about the things that I knew Monique wouldn’t be proud of.
At first, it was emotionally hard to write anything at all because writing reminded
me that she was no longer here. I had to bring Mali and Monique alive again. I
would smell mudcloth, play music, listen to her voice on cassette tapes and on
videotapes. Then I would write for six hours, totally and completely back in Mali,
but of course, then I’d “awake” to the reality of typing on
my computer at my dining room table, and realize once more that she was gone.
Q. Has anything surprised you about people’s
reaction to this book?
I’m thrilled when they love it, of course! One woman said it made her think
of following her heart; it made her believe that ordinary people can make a difference.
Another said she would never think about African women the same again. I thought,
“wow if this book affects one more person in such a way, my work is done!”
I knew Monique’s story touched me deeply (hence the reason I spent five
years writing it), but didn’t know if it would touch others in the same
way. I’m also surprised by how people relate to the female issues in the
book — the stories of lack of control over childbearing or birth control,
of rape, and of domestic violence. Women have said “ I, “or “my
sister,” or “my friend” — “have suffered the same,
and yet go on just like Monique did.” That has been remarkable.
Q. You’re still connected with Monique’s
family in Mali. What’s happening with them now?
All three of Monique’s children — her two daughters, and her son,
are enrolled in school. I can’t tell you what an achievement this is. It’s
due to the support of Monique’s siblings and family in Mali, and the generous
funding from people here in the States. Monique’s sister Angele has kept
her vow of becoming a midwife and continuing Monique’s work. She received
her degree in 2004 and will soon be practicing on her own. Monique’s brother
will be installed as a priest in 2007, and we’re invited back for the big
ceremony. John and I plan to return to Mali and bring the kids for the first time.
Monique’s cousin Maxim has started a rural birthing house and health clinic
in Monique’s honor called Cabinet de soins Monique or “Clinique
Monique”, as we’re calling it. Currently, he is able to perform minor
surgeries and conduct prenatal visits, but his dream is to provide obstetrical
care as well. For this, he will need to construct a new building. Another birthing
house in an area with the fewest doctors and nurses of anywhere in the world!
Monique would have been thrilled. Proceeds from the book will go for capital improvements
and program development at this clinic.
Q. You and your husband met in the Peace Corps,
Yes. In fact, this book tells the story of our meeting. John, my husband, was
a fellow Peace Corps volunteer and arrived in Mali in the same training group
as I did. I was from small town Ohio, and he was from even smaller town New Hampshire.
We were both members of the 30% Club — a joke, really, but based on the
fact that our Peace Corps trainers told us that 70% of all Peace Corps volunteers
eventually marry other volunteers. Lots of us wanted to buck that trend. Guess
we didn’t succeed. John and I lived apart for a year in Mali — an
8 hr. motorcycle ride apart — then together for a year. We got engaged in
Egypt traveling after the Peace Corps, and married back in Ohio. He has been an
integral part of the writing and research for this book.
Q. What’s your next project?
I’d love to do more work in Mali and write about other aspects of the people
and of life there. I’d also like to write about other great women who are
too humble to write their own stories. I have some ideas. Another idea has more
to do with stories from the land of parenting. That would certain require the
least amount of research (I’m living it!)