July Read of the Month: “Deeper than African Soil” by Faith Eidse

Deeper than African Soil (Masthof Press, 2023) by Faith Eidse is a most unusual and exceptionally fine memoir. No wonder Florida State University recognized it with the Kingsbury Award, given annually to a graduate student who demonstrates lasting intellectual value in writing, and with the English Department’s Ann Durham Outstanding Master’s Thesis Award. Several chapters won first place awards in the annual Seven Hills Review contests as well.

Eidse’s memoir recalls her years growing up in a Mennonite missionary family in the Congo. Her cross-cultural background is further enriched by drifts of time living in Canada and the United States, and wide-ranging tours of the world with her family. Faith, with her pale skin and modest clothing, belongs nowhere and everywhere, all at the same time. She finds herself always trying to adapt and fit in. Faith and her sisters—Hope, Charity, and Grace—bonded closely as they rebelled against their parents’ strict rules and their shared lives as outsiders in Congo.

In many ways, readers will recognize their own growing up experiences. Playing ball with kids in the neighborhood. Rebelling against parents’ rules as a young adolescent. Singing hymns in church. Enjoying the popular music of the Sixties and Seventies. But very few of our readers will have helped their mothers tend to patients suffering from leprosy, and few will have had a parrot that served as an intercom, routinely calling out messages from one family member to another in a different part of the house. And fewer still have lived with the trumpeting of elephants or the presence of hippos.

This talented author’s descriptions of Congo, which later becomes Zaire, will make readers feel as if they have lived there alongside the Eidse family. Faith does a superb job of showing us the people, the homes, the roads, the vehicles, and the landscape. She allows readers to feel the heat and the danger:

Overhead the sun blazed and turned the van into an oven. In the distance black smoke rose, dense enough to be a village burning. The van’s rectangular wing windows stood open, catching eddies of ash, light and stale as gnats. It was the wrong season for grass fires and it was hard to shake the feeling that something was going wrong in Congo.

Dad slowed for a woman with a huge load, forty kilos at least, and a baby on her back. She scurried into the tall grass when she heard the van with its rear motor only meters behind her. But then she waved her hand in a chopping motion for him to stop, her eyes large, her forehead lined and pouring sweat. We were already filled up but her expression was enough to stop river rapids.

This incident when village houses are burned foreshadows even worse violence to come.

One of the scariest parts of Faith’s story takes place when she is living temporarily with a family in another village. Congo revolutionaries go on a killing spree in the region where she is staying. Soldiers have slaughtered priests with machetes. In this terrifying moment, Faith doesn’t even have the comfort of her own family around her. She makes a hair-raising escape on an overloaded plane but still doesn’t know if her family also made it to safety.

Other aspects of Faith’s life are also troubling. There’s the hairy piano teacher who sits creepily close, and Hector, who is too controlling with nit-picky rules over students in the missionary hostel. There’s Faith’s older sister Hope, who chooses to barely eat so she won’t have a period—sacrifice taken to extreme. Faith joins this harsh regimen for a time. There are swimming with poisonous vipers and exposure to leprosy. There are tall, thin men who trap girls at the curb and grope and assault them. There is Faith’s ninth birthday with “no cake, candles, or presents” because her father says they “should deny [themselves] and think of others.”  The strictures of Mennonite life shape Faith’s adolescence:

After suffering through dress codes in Canada, I could see the irony in women having to dress modestly to prevent men’s evil thoughts. But many people still agreed—women were responsible for inspiring evil thoughts. Mom’s parting words to me at the airstrip were, “Don’t become a cheerleader.” Mom had sent us off with dresses to our knees yet demanded even more eccentricity. I couldn’t even do cartwheels. Our bodies had been off limits to us, sources of shame, not pleasure—unless we were hoeing or cleaning.

The family’s experiences abroad also affect the sisters in myriad ways, and the author clearly lays out the positives and negatives of missionary life. Faith’s classmates in Canada and the States couldn’t “understand about [their] lives in the Congo, such depths of meaning, adventure and sacrifice they would never know.” As she and her sisters return to lives away from Africa, Faith recognizes what they “would all have to carve away went deeper than African soil. It shot through [their] blood and marrow on savanna-laced river-jungle-runs and plunges; the village-rhythm life-toil-beat of hunting, gathering and water carrying . . .”  All the kids who grew up in the missionary hostels would return to a different world from the one they were raised in: “we had no homeland but our faith and sometimes no faith at all. Yet we were born to justice-seeking parents who were some of the best models in the universe.” Their parents felt “called to their work and faced revolution, disease, disability and death.” The children felt “alternately involved, inspired, distanced, neglected, deprived or privileged.” They were third culture kids, “borrowing from home and host cultures to create a unique third culture.”

Deeper than African Soil is a remarkable memoir told by a gifted author who has lived an amazing life. One that isn’t over yet—with more amazing adventures and stories sure to come.

Faith Eidse

Faith Eidse taught writing for twenty years as adjunct professor at Florida State, Barry, and Keiser Universities. Her compilation Voices of the Apalachicola won Florida’s oral history of 2007, and she co-edited several collections on growing up global, which were selected as Princeton textbooks, including Unrooted Childhoods: Memoirs of Growing Up Global and Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids. She also wrote Healing Falls, a novel drawn from six years volunteering in women’s prisons. Faith lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with her family.





Leave a Reply