Theroux's Love/Hate Relationship With The Peace Corps, Part 5

Like most RPCVs, Paul Theroux has a love/hate relationship with the Peace Corps. In the essay, “Reminiscence: Malawi,” which appeared in Making A Difference: The Peace Corps at Twenty-Fiveedited by Milton Viorst [NY: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1986], Theroux recalls, “I remembered all the official freeloaders who came out from Washington on so-called inspection tours, and how they tried to ingratiate themselves. ‘You’re doing wonderful work here. . . . It’s a great little country,’ they said; but for most of them it was merely an African safari. They hadn’t the slightest idea of what we were doing, and our revenge was to take them on long, bumpy rides through the bush.”

A lot of his reaction to the agency goes back to being kicked out of the Peace Corps and left nearly penniless on the streets of Washington, as well as to those early staffers in Africa. Bob Poole was the first CD to Malawi. Poole had gone with our group to Ethiopia in the fall of 1962 as an APCD, then by mid-winter he had been reassigned to Nyasaland to be CD for the new Malawi Peace Corps project. I remember walking into Poole’s Office in the first Peace Corps office in Addis Ababa (the old Point Four complex) and Poole was consulting a map of the Empire. He was deciding where he should travel into the provinces to see the PCVs. Not who need to see him, but what part of the county he wanted to see.

Poole had played end on the Yale football team. Short, stocky, balding and in great physical shape, he was a prep school coach when he was hired by the Peace Corps in the summer of ’62. I remember meeting him for the first time when we were in Training at Georgetown University. I was sitting with several other Trainees one warm afternoon on the Georgetown campus quadrangle early in our Training when Poole came charging across the lawn carrying a thick leather briefcase. He was heading straight for us. I thought immediately, “Wow, this guy must have some news!” He was dressed–as he was always dressed–in a polo shirt and shorts and wearing sneakers. He skidded to a stop in front of us, set down his brown leather briefcase, popped it open, and pulled out a football and asked, “anyone want to play catch?”

Welcome to Kennedy’s Peace Corps!

Theroux wrote Girls At Play, Theroux named the nasty Headmistress at the secondary school, Miss Poole. Writers always have the last word.

Among the other government types that Theroux disliked were foreign service officers, “all those whispering middle-aged aunties who couldn’t speak the language,” as Paul labeled them.

Reading his fiction and nonfiction, it is easy to see that Theroux responded best to individuals, not groups. While he might make a crudely provocative comment to a group of English settlers in a Malawi bar, (a comment like, “The Queen’s a whore,” as he passed her portrait hanging above the gin bottles), he would also befriend an English neighbor, Sir Martin Roseveare, the principal of a teacher’s college. (Roseveare died in Malawi in 1985 at the age of 86; he had been knighted in 1946 for designing the fraud-proof ration book in wartime Britain.)

During his time in Africa, Paul aimed at becoming an insider in the country. “After I lived awhile in a cozy bungalow with two servants,” he writes about his Peace Corps tour, “I moved into an African township, where I lived in a semi-slum, in a two-room hut –cold water, cracks in the walls, tin roof, music blasting all day from the other huts, shrieks, dogs, chickens. It was just the thing. The experience greatly shaped my life.” In another essay, he recalls, “In Malawi I saw my first hyena, smoked my first hashish, witnessed my first murder, caught my first case of gonorrhea.”

Welcome to Peace Corps Africa!

[Part 5]

2 Comments

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  • Where dıd Theroux and others get the idea that Foreign Service Officers don´t speak the languages of the countries where they are assigned? I learned the language of each country to which I was assigned except for Finland. However, my dırect boss, the ambassador, spoke the language as did the officer working directly under me. You may recall the Peace Corps used the Foreign Service system for teaching languages.

  • Leo–you might remember JFK’s Cow Palace speech given 10 days or so before the election where Kennedy mentioned the Peace Corps by name for the first time, and also talked about how we didnt’ have Embassy who knew the language. Take a look at this speech. That is what Theroux is talking about. Of course, the State Department is better now, thanks to RPCVs like yourself.

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