My African Horse Problem

A cross-cultural memoir by a former Peace Corps volunteer and Fulbright scholar


In February 2000, William Miles set off from Massachusetts for a Muslim village in West Africa with his ten-year-old son Samuel to settle an inheritance dispute over a horse. National Public Radio was so intrigued with this story that All Things Considered broadcast his pre-departure testament, as well as a follow-up commentary on what actually happened.

My African Horse Problem recounts the intricacies of this unusual father-son expedition, a sometimes harrowing two-week trip that Samuel joined as “true heir” to the disputed stallion. It relates the circumstances leading up to the dispute and describes the intimacy of a relationship spanning a quarter century between William Miles and the custodians of his family horse—Islamic village friends eking out a precarious existence along the remote sub-Saharan borderline between Nigeria and Niger.

My African Horse Problem is a multi-layered narrative—part memoir, part ethnography—reaching back to Miles’s days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger in the 1970s and a Fulbright scholar in the 1980s. At a deeper level, the story juxtaposes the idealistic and sometimes irresponsible tendencies of a young university graduate with the parental concerns of a middle-aged, tenured professor. Miles wonders if he was justified in exposing Sam to some of the worst health risks on earth, mainly to restore tenuous ties with long-ago friends in the African bush. Was it reckless to make his son illegally cross international boundaries, in a quixotic quest for justice and family honor? My African Horse Problem is more than an adventurer’s tale with a unique story line: it is a father-son travel rumination, leavened by Sam’s journal entries that help his father see Africa anew through a child’s fresh eyes. In this era of religious and racial tensions, it is also a reaffirmation—within a black Muslim context—of the basic human imperative of trust.

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