The Ivory Crocodile

By Eileen Drew
(Coffee House Press, 1996)

Reviewed by Thomas Alan Holmes

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 2, March 1997 (pp. 84-85).

Copyright © 1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

In Eileen Drew's novel, Nickie Spark, the daughter of an American emissary in Africa, has preserved romantic childhood impressions that lead to her becoming an AfricEd volunteer. As a child, she has wished to fit in with the children "on the other side of the fence," believing that their lives have been somehow truer, freer, and more direct. Returning to Africa as a teacher, Nickie hopes to be assimilated into this culture. Her experiences upon her return to the fictional country of Tambala, however, force her to re-evaluate what Africa means both to her and to its citizens. The Ivory Crocodile presents Nickie's growing awareness of the intricate complications in everyday Tambalan life, leading her to face her own muddled, indeterminate purpose in returning to Africa.

In her attempt to define her place in Africa, Nickie's obtuseness in understanding the Tambalans can be downright frustrating. Better than she, the Tambalans immediately understand that Nickie's two-year assignment, her race, and her American citizenship provide her options that they cannot enjoy. We readers find tensions unresolved as a result. Mpovi, the wife of the prefet, asserts that the best thing for Nickie to do would be to settle down with a husband and child. Nickie does not realize for a long time that Mpovi's suggestion comes from resistance to American culture instead of from mere blind adherence to sexist provincialism. Nickie does not adequately challenge the notions of her African protegee, Diabelle, that the girl can solve her problems by winning a white American man. Even after Nickie attributes a failed relationship with Bwadi, a fellow teacher, to his racist sexual exploitation, she fails to acknowledge the possibility of her having similar motivations. In reaction to a history of colonialism, proclaimed government programs, and disavowed secret missions, Drew's Tambalans have reason to question Nickie's personal investment in their village. They suspect her degree of commitment to an assignment that will be over in two short years. They question her motivation to leave a life of freedom and physical comfort to teach in a declining police state. They doubt her respect for their way of life when her function as a teacher prepares her students to accept a Euro-American world view. Even Nickie feels ambivalence towards her teaching responsibility. When given the opportunity, she diverts most of her energy to a family-planning project, emphasizing its health benefits over its social and cultural implications. Frustrated that the villagers are already sizing up possessions that she must leave behind at the end of her assignment, Nickie does not fully understand that those items may be the only tangible good many of the villagers will get from her service in Tambala. In spite of her attempts to become more African, much of what the Tambalans readily accept eludes Nickie.

Nickie fails to pursue answers to many of the questions she faces. Why, for example, does she immediately suspect a number of specific villagers after her home is robbed, and how can she justify her desire to search their homes? What degree of faith does she have in the family planning center's Dr Vutudi, considering his dubious treatment practices, his mysterious resources, and his near caress of young Diabelle soon after her introduction to him? How much can she trust the prefet? If Nickie hopes to define her role in Africa, one wonders why she does not expose and cope with the answers to these questions.

Of course, Nickie may not realize that she seeks a sense of belonging rather than assimilation. Maybe she is looking for a new tie to an old home. In Africa, Nickie has lived with her whole family. She needs something more than the memory of a dead mother, scanty correspondence from a distant father, and complete separation from a brother who has chosen a way of life radically different from that of the boy she remembers. The novel's liveliest sections involve memories of youthful adventures with her now- absent brother, a celebration in an American engineering camp, and Nickie's indulging Diabelle's dreams of becoming a "modern" woman. Like the wedding scene, where Nickie inadvertently emphasizes her "otherness" by wearing traditional Tambalan clothing, The Ivory Crocodile defines Nickie's new African experience through unmet expectations, misplaced loyalty, and defeated intentions. In Drew's short story "Naked," readers of this journal have encountered a more naive version of Nickie. Although that story's events do not fit in with the novel's continuity, the sympathetic portrayal of Nickie's attempts to find her place in Africa suggests the themes that Drew develops in this novel. Seeing this familiar character in The Ivory Crocodile leads me to hope for more. Drew has populated Tambala with complex characters in complicated relationships, and I am certain she has many more fine stories about them to share.