where returned Volunteers share their expertise and experiences
Over the weekend I read Paul Theroux’s latest book, The Lower River. This novel is his most direct use of his Peace Corps experience. Paul’s first three novels: Waldo, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play all were East Africa based, but not about the Peace Corps. Girls at Play, set at a girls’ school in western Kenya, has a ‘Peace Corps character,’ and unhappy, Midwest woman, as I recall. I believe this is the first use of a ‘Peace Corps character’ in a work of fiction. (Mary-Ann Tyrone Smith’s (Cameroon 1965-67) Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman published in 1987, would be the first novel about a Peace Corps Volunteers.)
Later, in his collection of nonfiction pieces, Sunrise with Seamonsters, Paul republished a few of his essays that focused on the agency and Africa, and how he was kicked out of the corps.
Theroux wrote a wonderful ‘peace corps short story’ “White Lies” first published in Playboy in 1979. I republished it in a collection of fiction by RPCV entitled Living On The Edge, (Curbstone 1999 ). The story does not name the Peace Corps, but is about a young American in Malawi, teaching at a British secondary school. Paul also wrote a very creative nonfiction piece “The Lepers of Moyo” about his “summer project” as a PCV when he taught English at a Catholic leprosarium in Ntakataka, Malawi and met up with a wacky American women named Birdie who dressed up as a nun and went around naked under her habit. (Only Theroux would think of that clever metaphor.) That story was published in Granta #48 in the summer of 1994. You should look it up.
There are also longer fictional accounts of his Peace Corps experience in his two novels: My Secret History and My Other Life.
That said, The Lower River is Theroux’s first novel that uses as material his tour. Or better said, it is a novel about an RPCV who returns to his host country. It is a terrific read. For RPCVs who has “gone home” there are many echoes that ring true. Tom Wolfe wrote, ‘you can’t go home again’…but if you go home to Africa…watch out!
The plot simply is how a 62-year-old man leaves his failed marriage and his failing business (a clothing store) to return to Malawi where he once was a PCV. As a Volunteer, he had lived in a small village without electricity or running water. He had built a school, and there in Africa, he had “found love and respect.” It was the happiest time of his life.
Now, returning to Malawi, he finds poverty and AIDS and HCNs struggling to survive. Before long, the lives of the Africans ensnare him. That’s the core of the novel. Is this Paul’s conclusion about the work of the Peace Corps?
The book is packed with references of real events of that time and place. I got caught up, for example, in the main character remembering Emperor Haile Selassie’s trip to Malawi in August 1965. Paul was a PCV at the time and would have witnessed the celebration. He has pulled back those recollections to use in the novel. There is a lot of such 1960 African references in this novel. It is ‘material’ that he had hung onto and brought back full circle. Nothing is wasted on a writer.
There is something else that is true of those early years overseas. Paul is asked how his experience working for the Peace Corps in Malawi informed his novel. He replies: “A person should join the Peace Corps to learn something not to teach–and should come away from the experience with some wisdom, not having changed anyone, but more enlightened. The world used to be disconnected–no cellphones, no computers, no Internet. This made for cultural immersion. I did not make a phone call in the six years I was in African in the 1960’s–that was great, because I had to come to terms with the culture and learn the language. I was the better for being utterly out of touch.”
Also, and rather fascinating, at the creative core of the novel is Theroux’s own brush with danger that must have sparked this plot. When he was a PCV he met a friendly couple who invited him to visit their remote village. He agreed, only to realize later that they wouldn’t let him leave the village. He only got away when a stranger driving through the village, spotted him, and helped him escape.
See what a writer can do with a nugget of experience? Enough to build a fact-pace narrative. Well, you can if you are you are another Paul Theroux.
We will publish a review of The Lower River shortly on this site in the coming weeks. It is being written now by Tony D’Souza who published White Man several years ago, his very fine novel set in the Ivory Coast, and who is a writer that many consider the next Theroux.
Meanwhile, go out an buy a copy yourself and read what happens to Ellis Hock when he went back to his site and think: there but for the grace of God go I!
I Never Intended to Be Brave: A Woman’s Bicycle Journey Through Southern Africa by Heather Andersen (Lesotho 2001-03) and published by Windy City Publishers has won the Adventure category in the sixth annual National Indie Excellence Book Awards.
Heather’s book was reviewed on our site. Check it out at:http://peacecorpsworldwide.org/pc-writers/2011/10/28/review-i-never/
The competition is judged by independent book industry publishers, writers, editors, book cover designers and professional copywriters. They selected award winners and finalists based on overall excellence of presentation.
If you had to boil down Jim McConkey’s book to a simple ‘X Meets Y’ premise, it would be “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” meets “Lost in Translation.”
By that, we mean “To the Far Side of Planet Earth” is an introspective glimpse at McConkey’s time spent serving as a member of the Peace Corps, combining bits of anthropology, mythology, psychology and a good amount of humor as culture shock gives way to new perspective.
McConkey aspired to be a writer since childhood, but made a few career stops on the way to work on a farm, wash dishes, pump gas, drive a school bus and deliver papers. After gaining a degree in journalism, McConkey joined the Peace Corps, and soon he found himself in India.
His speaking engagement on “Understanding the Philosophy and Culture of India” today at Temple University’s Harrisburg Campus is part of a World Affairs Council of Harrisburg program. And for a literal taste of another culture, the event will be catered by the Passage to India restaurant.
IF YOU GO
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. today
WHERE: Temple University Harrisburg, 2nd floor, 4th and Market streets, Harrisburg
COST: $35, $25 for WACH members for dinner and lecture; free for lecture only
INFO: www.wacharrisburg.org; 717-221-1627
A Writer Writes
[Peace Corps Volunteers often have experiences that follow them throughout their lives. Such was the case with Habib Diatta, who came into Leita Kaldi's life in 1993 to tell her he taught at a school with 800 students and no latrines! She helped him to find funding and develop the project himself, in collaboration with local villagers, to provide sanitary facilities for his students. Habib didn't stop there. In his rural school with no electricity, he dreamed of providing computers and training to schools throughout Senegal. When he was recruited to a university in Indiana, he realized his dream, founding Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that ships computers to every corner of Senegal. Nearly twenty years after meeting Habib, Leita is compelled to share his story.]
Wings for West Africa
by Leita Kaldi (Senegal 1993-96)
“At our school we have eight hundred students and no latrines!”
Habib Diatta spoke softly, with a rasp to his voice. He lowered his eyes as he spoke, then raised them to look into my face. His eyes were dark wells between furrowed eyebrows, intense, purposeful. His full mouth might have been pouting, if his jaws had not been locked. Tall and slender, his shoulders sloped with that Senegalese male grace so suited to dancing.
“Can you help us find a way to build latrines?” he asked.
I tried to imagine eight hundred kids, an army of kids at the town of Diofior’s middle school, kids who walked hours from surrounding villages to attend school, a school where there were no latrines. Did they all troop off into the fields at recess? Or did they slide out of their classrooms surreptitiously, one by one, hoping nobody would see them sneak into the bush.
My toubab voice whispered inside my head. “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout buildin’ no latrines.” I’d been in the village of Fimela for six months. Fimela, in the Delta Sine-Saloum, a place where the Sahara meets the Atlantic, where baobab trees etch spidery shapes across the horizons, where the Sérère people dwell, people who fish in the lagoons and open ocean, people who live on isolated islands, practicing Pangool - ancient animism - the last stronghold in Senegal against Islamic jihad, a place that people from other parts of the country feared for its latent occult powers. Now, however, it seems that jihad is not an issue, as most people are Muslim. Leopold Senghor was an exception, the grand poet and first President of Senegal, who was raised Catholic in nearby Djilor. The people were the most beautiful I’d ever seen, especially the women, willowy tall, fine featured, almond eyed, silky skinned. The men weren’t bad either. I never tired of staring at them. As I was staring at Habib.
“What would you like me to do?” I answered.
“Find money to build latrines for the school,” he replied simply.
Here it was; the perpetual assumption that I was a fountain of funds. “Toubab! Cadeau!” But Habib interrupted my cynical thoughts:
“I’m not asking you personally. I know what Peace Corps Volunteers do, and I’m asking you to help us find a resource, a way to get our latrines.”
I didn’t really understand what this young man was asking me to do. I didn’t know who he was, if I should trust him, if he was trying to shake me down, if he would throttle me and search my little house for money and stuff. But I didn’t feel at afraid of him. There was a reassuring gentleness in his face. He held out his hands to me, elegant hands with long fingers and smooth skin; not a farmer’s or a fisherman’s hands.
“What do you do?” I asked, “and why do you care about the kids at the school?”
Habib jolted forward. “Oh! I forgot to tell you. I’m a teacher. I teach English and French. I’m the student council sponsor.”
I smiled. “Well, that explains why we’re not speaking in Sérère or Wolof. You speak English quite well.”
He chuckled. “Yeah, I try.” The “yeah” sounded American.
“Well, I’d be glad to help you, Habib. God knows it’s a necessary cause … eight hundred kids with no latrines … I don’t even want to think about that. I wish I had enough money to give you. But perhaps I could help you to get it yourself.”
His brows creased. “How would I do that?”
I wasn’t really sure myself, but looked away, out the window, searching for an idea. “Let’s have a Coke while I think about this.”
I walked into my tiny kitchen, furnished with a hot plate, a rickety table and two chairs, a Peace Corps water filter and several plastic basins. I kept drinks in one of those basins which I half filled with well water, hoping they’d stay cool, which never happened for more than a few hours. I plucked two warm Cokes from the water and poured the foaming liquid into glasses. By the time I set them down in front of Habib I had an idea.
“Habib, do you ever go to Dakar?”
“Oh yeah, my parents live there. I visit them quite often. I was born and raised there. Teaching is what brought me here.”
“Great! I hate going to Dakar. Ten hours of bush taxis and all that hubbub in the city. Not for me. Tell you what. Next time you go to Dakar, you could go to the Peace Corps office and ask them for an application for a Small Project Assistance grant from USAID. I’ll give you a note saying that it’s for me. We could start there, trying to raise money for your latrines. You know English well enough to fill out the application, though I’ll help you with it. You’ll have to come up with a budget for the project, and raise 25%, I think, among the villagers, to get the grant.”
Habib looked at me for a long moment. “You mean you want me to do all that? I thought you might apply for a grant for us.”
“I think you can do it yourself, Habib. Do you want to try?”
“Yeah!,” he agreed. “I’ll try it.”
* * *
A few weeks later, I was sitting on a bamboo chair outside my house in the evening, watching the sun pour liquid gold over the darkening tree tops, when I heard a knock at my gate. Habib stood there, smiling widely as he greeted me. He was wearing a handsome cotton shirt and neat, belted slacks; a brief case dangled on a strap from his shoulder.
“I got it,” he announced excitedly. “The application. I even started filling it out. They were very nice to me at the Peace Corps office. Wow! It’s like being in a little piece of America over there, isn’t it. All those American people!”
I supposed that would be my impression, too, if I were Senegalese. He looked rumpled and dusty after his long trip from Dakar. He proudly pulled out the application from his briefcase and handed it to me. He had filled out most of it in pencil, including figures for labor and materials, a budget that he had already worked out. Villagers would fulfill their 25% contribution by in-kind labor, some materials, such as sea shells and sand for building blocks, and some cash. I corrected a few grammatical errors in his proposal in pencil, and handed it back to him, telling him he was good to go, as far as I could see, that he could fill it in with pen and take it back to Dakar. I loved it; he was doing the whole job.
It took a month or so for the money to be transferred to my account, but the villagers had already begun work, clearing ground in front of the school near the road, collecting crushed seashells and sand to mix with cement that they would purchase with the grant money. A technical assistant from USAID arrived to advise the villagers on the proper construction of latrines, while students were taught how to properly maintain them.
Habib invited me to have lunch with the other teachers at the school. They lived together in an old house with many small rooms, each containing a cot, a small table and whatever other piece of furniture the teacher might be able to afford. They all came from other places, and had been assigned by the Ministry of Education to Diofior. Habib showed me around and introduced me to half a dozen teachers sitting in the courtyard, where women were preparing ceeb u jeen, the tasty fish and rice dish of Senegal. The women wore brightly colored wrap-around skirts, T-shirts and patterned head wraps, below which tiny gold earrings twinkled, while delicate bracelets slid clinking up and down their slim wrists. One of the teachers was a petite young woman with a sweet face and shy expression. Her name was Korka; she was Habib’s fiancèe. We all sat on a mat around the bowl and dipped up the spicy, oily rice and chunks of fish that had sizzled in hot peppers and tamarind.
Conversation lagged while we ate. We leaned back only when the bowl was nearly empty, and satisfied burps punctuated the silence. After a while, one of the profs boiled water for foaming green tea, and the young men began to talk about their work, their families, their ambitions. Habib longed for computers in the school, which seemed like a far-fetched dream, because there was no electricity in the village. Unfazed, he insisted that one day there would be electricity and computer classes, and he wanted to teach them. He had taken a college computer course that had planted the seed of his ambition. He had learned Windows and Office programs and bought technology manuals from the United States and France. As he spoke, his brows pleated with intensity. I doubted the viability of his wishes, unable to imagine that such progress would come to this backroad town for a very long time. I didn’t say anything, though, because to dash dreams is to dash hope. I didn’t know, however, what a powerful dreamer Habib was.
* * *
Work began on the latrines. I expected a lot of noise from the construction site, but when you have no machinery and are building by hand, shoveling and mixing cement, forming blocks, then laying them in place to form walls, the sound of hammering and sawing is rare. People worked in the evening, after returning from their farms, women fetching and hauling alongside their men, children running and tumbling around this unusual activity, as if it were a fair that brought all the village people out. The buildings went up slowly, but people persevered until one after another latrine was built: six latrines on one side for boys, six on the other for girls. Finally, the bright sunny day arrived when the last touch was applied to the project: a hand-painted, round sign on the wall facing the road that read in a circle of letters, Association des Parents d’Eleves de Diofior. In the middle were the flags of Senegal and the United States with the caption in large letters, SENEGAL USA.
The village chief presided over the grand latrine opening ceremony, standing next to Habib, who looked on proudly and followed the chief’s speech with his own, expressing on behalf of all the teachers and students their gratitude for this essential sanitation facility. As I stood there grinning, he turned to me and declared that this great achievement would not have been possible without my help and that of Peace Corps and USAID. I responded that I had done nothing, actually, but just offered the people a way to do it themselves. At that moment, I was so overwhelmed with pride and joy, I felt ten feet tall.
But that’s not the end of the story. Within five years electricity came to Diofior, and Habib got donations of used computers to set up his class from two friends and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer at Intercultural Dimensions, a non-profit organization in Boston.
“I started at my own school,” Habib told me years later, “teaching word processing. I trained one or two teachers at each school, and they trained other teachers and the students. They were very curious. It was my life. I remember spending the night at the school.”
Then in 2002, following an invitation from a University in Indiana to talk about technology in West African schools, Habib was hired to teach and coach soccer in Indianapolis mostly thanks to a longtime friend and exchange partner Kathy Lattimer. He brought Korka, who had become his wife in 1996, to live there. He teamed up with Kathy Lattimer, who had travelled to Senegal with a Peace Corps group in 1998, when she first met Habib. Kathy encouraged Habib’s dream of providing computers to Senegalese schools, and together they set up Wings for West Africa, a non-profit organization that started delivering computers and other technology tools to Senegal in 2001. Habib sent me the web site he designed. When I saw it, tears welled into my eyes as I read my name there. “Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior. She taught me how to develop a project. She opened the path for me.”
“Years ago a Peace Corps Volunteer named Leita Kaldi came to Diofior. She taught me how to develop a project. She opened the path for me.”
The Indianapolis based school district’s technology department donated older computers, as did some churches. Word of mouth also helped the project grow. The Ice Miller law firm donated all of the legal services to get the nonprofit organization off the ground. Kathy and Habib used her two-car garage as a warehouse to collect computers, other technology equipment and even boxes for shipping for their one shipment per year. Today, Wings for West Africa’s computers have reached every corner of Senegal.
Recently, I received a surprise phone call from Habib. He was at Disney World in Orlando with Korka and their children. Though I could not drive over to see them, I was very touched that Habib had remembered me. I remembered my doubts about his ambitions that day in Diofior, when I thought his greatest achievement would be the building of latrines. I had underestimated the great ambition, determination and vision that would unfurl into wings for Habib.
Wings for West Africa has three goals:
To promote and support education in rural schools in West Africa — beginning with Senegal.
To create educational and cultural exchanges between American and African school.
To foster respect for the environment by recycling used computers and keeping hazardous materials out of landfills.
How to help
To donate computers or other equipment, contact Kathy Lattimer or Habib Diatta. Send e-mail to email@example.com or call (317) 407-8289. Visit their Web site, www. wafwings.org
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal from 1993-96, then worked for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. Kaldi published a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, (amazon.com/Publishamerica) and is working on a memoir of Haiti.
by Will Lutwick (Fiji 1968-70)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
MR. LUTWICK HAS SUCCEEDED in creating an entertaining and thought provoking Peace Corps memoir. This is a fine example of what a memoir can be for those willing to invest in writing rather than type-writing. Although ostensibly a love story, the author explores military conscription, discrimination and guilt. Written with episodic, fast paced chapters it is intriguing. Once I started, I could not stop and yet, found myself thinking about his story and its themes long after the highlighted passages began to fade.
Twenty-two year old Lutwick arrived in Fiji in November, 1968, part of the third group of Volunteers. The program had begun only eleven months before, the same month that the tone of the Vietnam War changed and the anti-war movement became more vocal. For younger readers, North Vietnam began a major offensive (the Tet Offensive) in the south, attacking more than 100 towns, cities and American military bases. Although the attacks were smothered, their early successes surprised and angered many. It also stimulated an intense national introspection about the war.
Lutwick (and all your American men between the ages of 18 ½ and 25) was eligible for military conscription (the draft). Military service could be deferred for those in college or serving in the Peace Corps. This policy resulted in social tension since both deferments were not accessible to the majority. Local draft boards around the nation began to reconsider the Peace Corps deferment. In 1967, Volunteers in Honduras complained that of the 90 males serving, two had received a Final Induction Notice and two others a Preliminary Induction Notice within one month. All four expected to be recalled home and immediately pressed into military service. Jane Albritton (series editor for Peace Corps at 50) recalled that during the same period a volunteer finishing Peace Corps service in India was intercepted and arrested in Hawaii while on his way home. He was consequently pressed into military service. Lutwick expected a similar fate. A male Volunteer in Fiji’s first group of Volunteers had his draft deferment revoked, was recalled to the United States, drafted, trained and sent to Vietnam where he died.
Two important things happened during 1969 that altered Lutwick’s fate: the inception of a draft lottery system and meeting a beautiful Indian woman in Fiji. The lottery system consisted of picking dates. The armed forces only needed a fraction. For instance, in 1969 of the 365 days they expected to draft those born on the first 195 days chosen at random. Lutwick’s birthday was chosen as the 149th pick “so barring the sudden cessation of what had become a military quagmire, I was a goner,” he explained. About the same time, he switched sites and jobs, meeting a ravishingly beautiful young Indian woman at work. His Fijian boss advised him to “stay away, stay as far away as you can possibly get, from the Indian girls.” An adherent to Woody Guthrie’s hate for signs (except for the sign that don’t say nothin’), Lutwick began to woo the beauty.
Indian immigrants in Fiji represented the majority of the population. They practiced arranged marriages and honor killings for scoffers. Lutwick was intimately aware of this. During his first year of service, he lived in a bachelor dormitory, cleaned by a single thirtyish Indian woman. After being caught making love with a married construction worker who boarded there, they were both found hanged in her room. Fellow bachelors at the dormitory laughed and explained that “The whore was lucky they let her go out the easy way.” Unfortunately, Lutwick’s genes were jumping after he met Rani and biology trumped common sense.
Lutwick explains that as an orphaned American of the Jewish faith, he understood discrimination. However, he underestimated its ferocity in this foreign land. Rani’s brother beat her. Her parents advised her to stop seeing the Foreign Devil. On the streets, she was called a “whore.” During a trip to the beach, Lutwick and Rani were nearly caught by a group of hooligans armed with machetes. Finally, her family planned her kidnapping and forced marriage to an Indian. The ironic part is that the Fijian Indian community did not like him because of their own mores which had little to do with him per se. For example, “They thought Judaism was a type of Islam” since “both religions are from the same part of the world, so they must be very similar.” Lutwick was just another white face and not one of them. A close Fijian friend advised him that there were two viable alternatives; to “end the relationship, which would probably be best . . . or, marry her.” You will have to read this superb book to find out which of the two he chose and after, whether he was drafted.
Aside from the great storytelling, I appreciated how he interspersed his adventure tale with descriptions of the Peace Corps experience between 1968 and 1970. He touches on important topics like the Nixon Administration’s efforts to eliminate the Corps, attrition which (in his group) was 43% by the reporting date and obviously much higher two years hence, the misdiagnosis by psychiatrists and possibly, the lack of Volunteer supervision. Peace Corps/Fiji began in 1968 and included 250 Volunteers within two years. Apparently, it suffered from growing pains and it was common to find Volunteers with too much time on their hands. Peace Corps Director Joseph Blanchford addressed this in 1969 with his New Directions plan — placing Volunteers more directly under the auspices of their host countries and recruiting specialists instead of generalists. Blanchford also minimized the use of psychiatric evaluation during training the following year.
If you enjoy a roller-coaster memoir, you’ll love Dodging Machetes. It will probably win awards. Five stars.
Lawrence F. Lihosit, author of ten books, has been very active with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community, offering writing workshops, writing book reviews and articles as well as championing the creation of a permanent Peace Corps Experience collection at the Library of Congress. Peace Corps Chronology; 1961-2010 was nominated for the 2010 Peace Corps Writer’s Special Publisher Award and South of the Frontera; A Peace Corps Memoir received a commendation from U.S. Congressman John Garamendi (CA, 10th District).His latest book, Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir, has been well received.
Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership For A Multiculural Age
by Juana Bordas (Chile 1964–66)
Berrett-Koehler Publishers [Second Edition, Updated and Expanded]
$22.95 (paperback); $11.62 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Bob Arias (Colombia 1964–66)
I WAS PREPARED that Juana’s book would read like a text . . . so I got ready to prep myself like any good student.
Wrong — from the first page this “text” read like a novel, excitement and adventure on every page . . . I stopped underlining her quotes with my yellow pen, and just started reading what felt like another beautiful novel from Isabel Allende, same colorful and intense style. Surely they must have been childhood friends! I began to see myself, and my Mexican heritage, as Juana opened doors for me to appreciate the beauty of who we are . . . a “text” of a different nature.
There is more to Juana’s quest for leadership from within the Black, Native American, and Latino communities . . . we bring traditions that have formed our families, and can bring values to the American way of life . . . our country is changing. In Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, Juana shows us where those changes are taking place, and why. Learning from our past brings my grandmother, Julia, to me in full detail. She would be making tortillas and telling us what we must do to fulfill our dreams in this new country. Why not, as Juana says . . . we have a responsibility to reach down to help others, bring them up to join us as we take our place in this society. Juana moved me with her I to We message, as Blacks, Native Peoples, or Hispanics we must stand together to build the new community, working together like we did in the fields . . . making our lives better.
Juana Bordas hits you with information that has to impact where we will be in the next ten or twenty years, her Preface is a wake up call: “In just one decade, a majority of Americans under age eighteen will be non-white.” If you are planning to retire soon, who will be paying into Social Security to fund your nest? Bordas shocks you but opens the door to solutions that challenge your common bias toward the Western or European influenced way of life. But then her experience comes back to us with solutions gained from her family and extended family of friends . . . and from her time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chile. She has a beautiful way of bringing us together with this experience. She follows us and does not lead us forward.
I ask you to read and then read again what Juana tells us about the Iroquois Seventh Generation Rule. I hope we can share this with our current and future leaders — to always consider the impact of our decisions on our children, their children’s children, and unto seven generations. It is so little to ask, as Juana tells us. The Iroquois have given us something to bring to the next generation; a generation that will soon be mostly non-white and under eighteen!
There is so much to gain from Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, a manual to find a means for us to work together looking for solutions to challenges that face us. As Juana says, “Mi Casa es su Casa” which really means sharing, being one with our communities. The new generation of Americans are changing and may not be aware of Juana Bordas or the impact that the Black, Native American, and Hispanic culturals are having on their lives, what they take as American may really be from Mexico. I was at a birthday celebration recently with a group of young Peace Corps Volunteers in Barranquilla, Colombia. These Volunteers were mostly white, mid-western, and teachers. Being homesick was solved when I brought out bottles of Corona with lime wedges, and chips and lots of salsa! They were in tears, it felt like being home, what a birthday for the Volunteers. I mentioned Juana’s book and that we were doing something very Mexican — and now American! You are making the change possible, Juana. These Volunteers felt it!
Our paths must have crossed, Peace Corps, Civil Rights, issues facing our Native American brothers and sisters, and the quite leaders of our Black and Latino communities as they influenced our lives. We may not have met, but I now consider you a close friend and spirit.
Bob Arias (Colombia 1964-66; Trainer at Camp Radley 1966-68; APCD Colombia 1968-70; Language Director for the Peace Corps in Latin America 1971-73; CD Argentina and Uruguay 1993-95; Response Volunteer to Panama 2009-10, Paraguay 2010-11; currently in Colombia with Peace Corps Response) has also worked as the State Director for ACTION, 1973–75, and retired from the position of County of Los Angeles Affirmative Action Compliance Officer in 1993.
[Charles Larson (Nigeria 1962-64) who has written some fine books on Africa, is an African scholar himself, and now a Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. has published a very good review of Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) new novel The Lower River. It is in the weekend edition ( June 8-10, 2012) of Counterpunch, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. The review is reprinted with Charles permission. You can reach Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
by Charles R. Larson (Nigeria 1962-64)
Paul Theroux’s early novels (Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play and Jungle Lovers) drew on the writer’s years in the Peace Corps, in Malawi, where he began teaching in 1963. These works were generally comic, satiric, even hopeful-not the bleakness about Africa revealed in his most recent novel, The Lower River. When Ellis Hock, the main character in the latest work, contemplates returning to Malabo-the village in Malawi where he taught forty years ago, and after a recent divorce and a closing of his men’s store in Medford, Massachusetts-his random thoughts are nostalgic and, therefore, suspect: “The happiest years of his life…Africa cast a green glow in his memory…the joy he’d known as a young man in Africa.” Moreover-with the nasty divorce behind him-Hock’s expectations are impossible to fulfill: “The Lower River remained in his mind in the way that the notion of home might persist in someone else’s. When all hope is lost and everything is up the wall, he thought, reassuring himself, I can always go back there.”
Before Hock even arrives at Malabo, there are plenty of warnings that the Africa of forty years ago is not what it is today: “None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the Africa of people, not of animals. And that was its oddity, because it looked chewed, bitten, burned, deforested, and dug up. A heard of elephants could eat an acre of trees in a day, leaving behind a mass of trampled and splintered limbs, yet that acre stayed green and grew back. But this human settlement was befouled, the greenery slashed and burned, or dragged away until only dirt and stones remained-a blight, a permanent disfigurement.”
He should have turned around and gone back to Massachusetts. But instead, his American idealism tells him that the people in the village need him the way they needed him forty years ago, about the time of the country’s independence, when he built a school and fell in love with the village and its people. Hock enjoyed life so much that after the two year commitment to the Peace Corps had been fulfilled, he stayed on two more. Only when word arrived that his father was dying did Hock leave, abruptly without really saying goodbye.
Hock’s marriage was so-so, never more than that-never as passionate as the love he had felt for a village girl, named Gala, but been reluctant to seduce. Selling men’s clothing in the store he inherited from his father was not much better, but he endured these things until his wife looked through his email and discovered some playful emails back and forth with several women. So she and their daughter fleeced him, at which point Hock knew he had to return to Malabo.
Even his early days back in Malabo do not deter him, though the school that he built and where he taught has been abandoned. Assisted by the headman, Festus Manyenga, Hoch believes the school can be restored and the village revived. And since he’s brought plenty of money, Hock remains hopeful. But after a couple of weeks-constantly supplying Manyenga with bundles of money-Hock realizes that he “had been asked to be fleeced by simply showing up.” Worse, after his discovery that Gala is still alive and then finally meeting her, she provides him with all he needs to know about the village’s decline: “They will eat your money…. When your money is gone, they will eat you.” The village is so poor, the expectations of the country’s potential greatness so compromised, the poverty of the people in such a remote area so extreme that they are virtually living a hand-to-mouth existence-all these aspects of Malabo’s and Malawi’s decline are so acute that Hock understands that Gala’s predictions are coming true. He’s got to get out of Malabo quickly, black to Blantyre, the country’s capital, and then back to the United States.
This is where The Lower River soars as a narrative. Everyone in Malabo expects money from him, for the simplest little act. Everyone except for Zizi, who is Gala’s sixteen-year-old granddaughter, who has been assigned to cook for Hock, boil his water, wash his clothing. Hock is repeatedly fleeced, charged outrageous sums for insignificant acts by everyone else, but not by Zizi. He finally realizes that Manyenga is holding him a prisoner until the last drop of his livelihood is sucked out of him. Even attempts to escape the village (so remote that no public transportation ever comes there) are unsuccessful. The obsequious Manyenga captures Hock and brings him back. Finally, when Hock has nothing more to offer, Manyenga plans to sell him to three young punks who will take him away and do with him what they want.
There is no humanity in Hock’s Malawi, forty years after his love affair with the country. Before he left Blantyre to travel to Malabo, the American Consul told him, “It’s a failed state.” Worse, the culture has broken down so much-in part because of the devastation of an entire generation by AIDS-that children often run the show. In one of his attempted escapes, Hock ends up in a village of feral children, who would torture him to see his reaction. Their parents have all been killed by AIDS; their actions remind one of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. If he tries to escape, he’s told they will bite him.
The second half of the story replicates Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, without a Marlow to rescue Kurtz. Malabo is Hock’s prison and up until the last few pages it appears-because of the third-person narration-that Hock will die in the village he loved so much forty years earlier. His situation is hopeless. And Paul Theroux (who knows Africa as well as anyone else) even takes a swipe at international donors, rock stars, and rescue workers who helicopter in for food drops and then quickly fly away, washing their hands of what they have seen.
Is all of Africa this bad? No, but the countries that have been successful are few in number and the conditions under which so many Africans live no better-in fact often worse-than they were in the early 1960s when most became independent. My own recent experiences in Zimbabwe confirm everything that Theroux says about Malawi, except that Zimbabwe is worse. If you look at Festus Manyenga as the head of an African state, a dictator who keeps his people totally under his control, you realize that flying into a country in Africa for a quick safari is as deceptive about the realities of the continent as Hock’s memories of the place where he experienced “the happiest days of his life.”
If you have any interest in Africa at all or are simply trying to understand the lives of people in a huge part of the world, then read Paul Theroux’s The Lower River. It’s his best novel in years. The man’s honesty will make you flinch.
Every morning when I wake up to make coffee I flip on Morning Joe and wait for the failed congressman to stop yapping so I can see if new rioting has taken place in downtown Cairo, and find out what’s new in Peter Hessler’s (China 1996-98) world.
Where’s Peter, I’m thinking, as I watch the rioting in Tahrir or Abbasiya. Peter, I know, lives within blocks of city central, and I know he is just a crazy enough RPCV to get close enough to the action to get into real trouble.
Well, the new New Yorker (June 18, 2012) has him alive and well and reporting on the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and what it means for Egyptians and the rest of us. The long article (it wouldn’t be a New Yorker article if it wasn’t long) has Peter and his translator Mohamed calmly walking toward another demonstration in Abbasiya where there were no cars in the streets, and the shutters on most buildings are drawn. Gunfire crackles in the distance, and men on motorbikes speed past, their shirts soaked with blood. Another summer evening in Cairo.
Still Peter writes,….”And yet it was rare to feel unsafe. My wife and I both spent a lot of time out in the city, often separately, and neither of us had problems; the same was true of almost all my friends.”
So after reading his current piece in The New Yorker, I feel better about his situation, and finishing my first cup of coffee, I think: Well, at least he doesn’t have to endure Joe Scarborough early in the morning back here in the good old U.S.A.!
by Timothy Jay Smith (Program Consultant: Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Ukraine and Armenia)
COOPER’S PROMISE (reviewed on July 15, 2012)
In Smith’s debut novel, a former American soldier hiding out in a small African country can’t escape the ghosts of his past.
Sgt. Cooper, an Army deserter, spends his days in Lalanga drinking cheap gin in a dive. He makes a promise to Lulay, a young girl who sells herself each night, to someday take her away. What little money Cooper makes comes from buying smuggled diamonds from a blind boy and his sister, and turning a meager profit at an Arab merchant’s shop. There, he meets the merchant’s son, Sadiq, with whom he becomes quickly enamored; he longs to accidentally run into him at a local hammam (a bathhouse and massage parlor). But Cooper’s life is confounded by a strange man named Sam Brown, who offers him a way to return to the United States with an honorable discharge-if he’ll use his sharpshooter skills again. Smith’s first effort is a poignant experience. He wastes no time in deftly establishing the atmosphere: ice-cold glasses set against sweaty brows in the blistering heat, with frequent power outages that leave Cooper lying on the bed as he waits for the ceiling fan to come back to life. Characters are enhanced by their association with Cooper’s past: His need to save Lulay recalls his kid sister being tormented by their father, while his wariness of forming affection for Sadiq echoes a horribly failed relationship in the Army. At its best, the book is slightly refitted yet indomitable noir: the protagonist knocked out cold and tossed in jail; Lulay’s constant pleading for help like a vulnerable dame “hiring” Cooper; and the mysterious Sadiq calling to mind a femme-or homme-fatale. The novel, a quick read at a little over 200 pages, is rounded out by sharp, cynical dialogue: “Where’s this?” Cooper asks, pointing to a postcard; “Somewhere else,” he’s told.
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All Peace Corps, all the time — book reviews, author interviews, essays, new books, scoops, resources for readers and writers. In other words — just what we’ve been doing with our newsletter RPCV Writers & Readers from 1989 to 1996, and our website Peace Corps Writers from 1997 to 2008! — John Coyne, editor; and Marian Haley Beil, publisher (both Ethiopia 1962–64)