Paul Theroux Reviews “A Towering Task” (Malawi)

A Towering Task
Reviewed by Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)

Paul Theroux

“A Towering Task” puts a human face on the Peace Corps – and makes sense of its history of idealism, improvisation, politics, and at times its failings. It is the most coherent and satisfying documentary I know, of the Peace Corps, and I can’t imagine a better one. For its truth and its scope, its arc is complete – from the germ of an idea to help the world, spoken late at night by JFK on his presidential campaign, to its execution later, an Act signed into law and carried out – thousands of young women and men leaving for remote places, to teach, to advise, to inspire – and to be inspired themselves by their work.


I was an early volunteer, my group was “Nyasaland III” (1963) – we went to Central Africa and saw Nyasaland become the independent republic of Malawi; so I am well aware of the many motivations that impelled people to sign up. But I was only dimly aware of how the Peace Corps had to fight for its survival, under pressure from Nixon and Reagan – who wanted to shut it down. And I knew very little of what this film bravely uncovers, the abuses that some volunteers had to endure in terms of rape and assault, by people they worked among.

The film is enlightening, too, for being in large part the portrait of a period when America was outward looking and uncynical and generous, on the occasion of his inauguration the president saying, ” How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.” It is impossible to imagine any politician – anyone at all – saying that today. But this film shows the roots of such idealism, which is why it is so enlightening and uplifting. – Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65)

8 Comments

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  • Theroux has provided a valuable perspective on what makes the Peace Corps such an important part of our country–and reminds us that this is not the only period of our history when it was literally fighting for its survival. An yes–we don’t hear many of our politicians today espousing the important message of taking our skills and wealth as a nation to serve those in need abroad.
    Mark

  • When will the general community be able to watch the documentary? I don’t see how. Even those who wanted to see it at screenings cannot because they have been postponed.

    • Hi Jon,
      We are trying to figure out a way to offer virtual screenings during this time when we cannot come together in groups. Please check in with us at http://www.peacecorpsdocumentary.com where we will announce when we have some options.
      In the meantime, the Vail Film Festival will be going virtual: https://www.vailfilmfestival.com/#home
      A Towering Task is an official selection of the festival. So that will be one way to see the film online.
      And lastly, we are in communication with Netflix and PBS to find a way to get the program out to the general public, hopefully in time for the 60th anniversary starting March 1st, 2021.
      Warm regards,
      Alana

  • Nothing better than creating an inexpensive DVD. I will watch for it should you (Alana) get it on PBS ! John Turnbull Ghana-3 Geology and Nyasaland/Malawi-2 Geology Assignment -63, -64, -65.

  • Thank you, Alana, for the update. I think 2021 would be a great year to have everyone in our country and in the world see this film. It might inspire us all, while still understanding the realities of the job. I am so thankful for a hot shower and a cup of coffee. I thank Peace Corps for teaching me to appreciate these and more. Maybe it’s time to approach Congress and suggest they support the showing of this film as a gift to our country and the state department.

  • Dear Alana, I ‘m looking forward to seeing the film. I have recently heard of some RPCVS returning and expressing their concern that Peace Corps approaches people in underdeveloped countries in a as very paternalistic way. During my and my husband’s stint in Kenya (‘65-‘67), we never got that feeling. We were in Co-op Development in the coffee, rice and tea growing area , Kirinyaga Province. My question is, have you encountered this as you interviewed a cross section of RPCVS ?

    Narda Tolentino

  • Hi Narda,
    In all the interviews we did, I found that PCVs (and RPCVs and PC staff) are some of the most thoughtful people when it comes to the challenges of grassroots development and intercultural communication. And that alone I find incredibly encouraging.
    Peace Corps as an organization over the course of its 60-year history has at times struggled with quality control from country to country and leadership to leadership in those countries (with the 5-year rule for employment with the Peace Corps, there is relatively high turnover among American staff). You’d find some RPCVs raving about the inspiring country director they had and how that set the tone for the entire program, while others found that they pretty much had to create their own jobs and were left to their own inventiveness for most of their time.
    We heard some volunteers concerned that they might have outsized influence given their limited experience. We heard some volunteers lament the challenge of being paired with the wrong counterpart and having to become a bridge between different groups of people within their host country.
    Only rarely did we hear people say that they thought Peace Corps was being paternalistic. However, there were several voices concerned about the development “industry” (for lack of a better word) in general.
    I know that “felt needs” and listening to your community have been emphasized since the beginning, and it seems that that focus is continuing.
    I found that self-reflection is one of the Peace Corps’ greatest strengths.
    One phenomenon that I found particularly interesting was that a fair amount of volunteers right out of service were initially quite critical of the agency, and then, as time passed, became more and more admiring of what the agency does. Whether this came from increased perspective or revisionist nostalgia, I don’t know.
    With warm regards,
    Alana
    P.S.: Please feel free to reach out through our website at http://www.peacecorpsdocumentary.com if you have any other questions. Or, of course, we can continue the dialogue here on John’s and Marian’s brilliant site!

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