Talking with Mark Wentling

John Coyne interviews Mark Wentling about his new novel Africa’s Embrace that has just been published by Peace Corps Writers.

Africa’s Embrace is Mark Wentling’s (Honduras 1967-69, Togo 1970-73; staff: Togo, Gabon, Niger 1973-77) fictional account of the adventures of a young man named David from Kansas who travels to Africa to follow his destiny, and becomes caught up in a mystical, larger-than-life adventure.

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Mark, first congratulations on your novel. How in the world did a PCV in Latin America end up in Africa?

I always wanted to go to Africa and was hoping to go there when I first signed up for the Peace Corps. After leaving Honduras in May 1969, I traveled about Europe with two other Honduras PCVs. I returned to Wichita in September 1969 and finished my bachelor’s degree. In May 1970, I re-joined the Peace Corps and did training in the Virgin Islands before going to Togo as a school construction and gardens PCV. I finished my time as a Togo PCV in August 1973 and began work as APCD/Ag-RD for PC Togo.

In January 1975, I was transferred to Gabon as Peace Corps Representative to re-introduce the Peace Corps to this country, and in May 1976 I was assigned to Niger as PCD. I ended my tour as PCD in June 1977 and took a job with USAID/Niger as manager of a complex rural development project.

I have been in Africa ever since. For me, my Peace Corps adventure has never ended. I had a full career with USAID and now work as Plan International’s Country Director in Burkina Faso.

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Quite a few PCVs go onto become APCDs….how difficult was the change from Volunteer to Boss, since we all know what most PCVs think of the staff?

The change was seamless for me as I was selected by other Togo PCVs to be a Volunteer Leader in my third year and during this time I acted as APCD.

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As the CD in Niger how was it like to work with Peace Corps HQ? Were they involved much in your world?

I tried to stay aloof from PC/W and maintain my independence. These Nixon Administration years were very hard on the Peace Corps. I was offered the PCD Mali position after Niger, but I turned it down because of my disagreements with Nixon-appointees.

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What skills did you gain from your Peace Corps tour that helped you later with USAID?

Knowledge of African village life, French and cross-cultural sensitivity.

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Okay, from your experience, what agency —USAID or the Peace Corps — works best overseas, i.e., does the most good?

This is like trying to compare apples to oranges. Each agency has a different mandate and works at different levels. USAID aspires to be a development assistance agency. The Peace Corps is not a development agency and tries to adhere to fundamental people-to-people principles at the community level.

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What have been some of the biggest changes in Africa that you have seen? Has technology made much of a difference in the lives of the people?

Life is basically the same for Africans living in rural areas and most average Africans are probably worse off today than 30 years ago in satisfying their basic human needs. Cell phones, internet, etc. have not delivered more food and made more potable water available. The big change is that the population has tripled since I arrived in 1970 and over 60% are under 25 years of age and the cities have grown ten-fold. The demographics of Africa are scary and coupled with the higher cost of living make for a more tense and insecure environment.

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Has the Peace Corps done any good if everything is so bad in Africa?

The main “good” Peace Corps has done is to forge lasting relationships between American volunteers and individuals and their communities. It is unfortunate that such ‘good’ is often overshadowed by “bad” events that are beyond the control of all those who wish to do good.

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What are the “bad events” done by PCVs over the years?

My reference to “bad events” was not in connection to PCVs, but to events that are larger than all of us … e.g., wars, civil unrest, bad governance, etc. Some individuals within the Peace Corps have done acts unbecoming to them and the organization they represent, but, fortunately, such acts are rare.

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You are an RPCV who has never come home? Why? Why devote your life to Africa?

Initially, it was not my plan to stay a lifetime in Africa. One thing led to another and it was always hard to anticipate what the next thing would be. I went where the jobs were and did what I saw best for my family. As the years went by, humanitarian work in Africa became my vocation and calling. All that I have done fits my personality and is in concordance with my humanitarian heart.

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So, what is your role as Plan International’s Country Director in Burkina Faso?

I oversee a humanitarian program that provides assistance to thousands of people across Burkina Faso. I have a staff of 200 people and an annual budget of $25 million.  At the center of our work is the well-being of children and we have a child sponsorship program that benefits 42,000 children. We have many activities in the areas of education, water, sanitation, health, nutrition, refugee relief, etc.

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Let’s talk about your book.  Why a novel? And why the title,  Africa’s Embrace?

africas-embraceI have written and published a number of professional articles on Africa. These articles reached a very limited audience. I thought the best way to reach more people and enable people to know better Africa and the development challenges it faces was to write a novel that not only entertains but also educates. I want the reader to be able to share in my experiences and see what it is like for a kid from Kansas to be totally immersed in Africa for over four decades. Through my book, I hope people become embraced” as I have been for so very long.

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Is this your life story?

In many ways my book is a thinly-veiled autobiography of my early years in Africa, living and working as a PCV in a rural village. I add to this some connections to my home state of Kansas. Yet, it is a work of fiction and I leave it up to the reader to determine what is true and what is not true. For me, it is all true, but I understand that there are parts of my book that cannot possibly be true.

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If you were to compare it to other novels written by RPCVs and other writers who lived in Africa which one would it be like?

My book and the African story it tells is unlike any other ever told by anyone. Therefore, it is not easy to compare my book to any novel I know about, including those written by RPCVs.

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Have you read many RPCVs novels?

Yes, of course. I read everything I can on Africa and, if any RPCV has written a book on any African subject, I take a look at it. If there is an RPCV book written on a non-African subject, I am always interested in reading the reviews it is given. If I like what I see in the reviews, I try to get a copy.

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Among the RPCV writers, who do you like?

I have been a fan of Paul Theroux for many years and I have read many of his books, including his latest one, Last Train to Zona Verde. I also like Tony de Souza’s Whiteman, and George Packer’s Village of Waiting.

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What about your family? Is your wife an RPCV? Any kids in the Peace Corps?

My wife is from Africa. All six of my children were raised in Africa. Sadly for me, not one of my children has shown any interest in the Peace Corps. My kids say that Africa is my thing—not theirs.

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It has been 50 + years for the Peace Corps. What would you suggest they do, let’s say, for the next decade to make it a better agency?

I would say continue to stick to the basics, but help introduce new technology anywhere where doing so would help poor people become less poor. Make sure the leaders of the Peace Corps are a good fit, dedicated and inspirational.

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I pulled this quote from a recent article by Paul Theroux in Departures:

Having arrived in this serene country from the violent upheavals of early 1960s America, I thought, This is the place for me. I felt lucky. I was about to be possessed, to experience the immense power of Africa. I was 22 years old, a Peace Corps teacher, and this was my first love affair with a landscape, and with people in that landscape. Letters-our only contact with home-took a month to reach us. In the post office we brushed fish glue onto postage stamps to stick them to the envelopes. At least I had the life-changing experience of something new to write about. Even years later, still in Africa, I felt the same way-blessed, inspired, liberated.
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He goes onto say:

Nowadays, Africa seems a fixed and immutable image of desperation in the travelers’ mind: the big, messy cities, the violated bush, the NGOs and persistent businesslike charities-”the gang of virtue,” as Conrad called them-making promises to fix it. And in contrast, existing in the same hungry, badly governed countries, the luxury safari camps, the excellent hotels here and there, the beach resorts with sushi on the menu.

How would you respond to Theroux’s view?

My views and Theroux’s are the same except my views are based on 43 years of “living Africa” and his are based on insightful glimpses gained from relatively short periods in Africa. I have lived Africa for decades and never thought I would write a book. Theroux experienced Africa for a few years and knew from the onset that he would be writing about what he observed.

Africa is a huge, complex mosaic where one size does not fit all. I would say Theroux and I would agree that we are both disappointed by where Africa is today. When we arrived in Africa, we had great expectations, but, sadly, few, if any, of these expectations have been achieved. I think both Theroux and I are a bit angry with Africa because it did not make as much progress it could have. Much of Africa is something of a mess and only Africans in their own immutable way can fix this mess.

Like Theroux, in spite of my disappointments, Africa continues to delight me in many ways that are hard to describe. Of course, it has become harder for me to see things objectively, as many Africans (particularly the younger ones) see me as more African than they are. After all, I have been in Africa longer than most Africans. The Africa Theroux and I knew is gone and we both are having trouble coping with the Africa that confronts us today. I am very nostalgic for the Africa I first knew in the early 1970s.

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If you could (or might) retire somewhere in Africa, where would you go?

If I was alone, and I had no health care or security concerns, I would retire to Ghana or Tanzania.

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What next for Mark Wentling? Another book?

Yes, a sequel, Africa’s Redemption has already been written, and a third book has been started. I only intended to write one book, but when I finished Africa’s Embrace I saw that there was more to the story and more lessons to learn. Thus, it will take a trilogy to tell my story and convey all of what is involved in achieving human progress over time in an African village. In subsequent books, the Kansas connection will become more prominent and the fictional element will grow. I will continue to write from the perspective of someone “born in Kansas but made in Africa.”

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Mark, Many thanks for your time. Many thanks for your exciting new novel.

Hey, it’s my pleasure. Thank you and Marian for all you do to promote Peace Corps writers.

To order Africa’s Embrace from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that will help support our annual writers awards.