What Did You Read In The Peace Corps, Mommy?

Tina Thuermer (Zaire 1973-75) grew up in India, Africa and Germany, and was at the airport in Ghana in 1961, aged 10, to greet the first Volunteers who arrived to serve there.  That inspired her to join the Peace Corps after she finished college at Bard. She served as a PCV English teacher at a Protestant mission in Zaire after only  two weeks of pedagogical training. Today, Tina teaches journalism and Theory of Knowledge at the Washington International School in Washington D.C. and is considering rejoining the Peace Corps when she retires, assuming she can ever afford to retire.

Having read about PCVs and what they are reading (or read) on this website, Tina sent me the following account of  her reading time in Zaire, back in the day.

 One of the wonderful things about being in Peace Corps back in the day was that without the internet, a phone, TV, or even mail, one was left with a lot of time to do things like bake bread, sew clothes from scratch, learn to make yogurt, write the Great American Novel, drink copious amounts of beer, sleep 12 hours a day and, in particular, read.  Based in Zaire as an English teacher (with no qualifications) from 1973 to ’75, and being a reader of at least three books a week, I look back on my time there with wonder at how I managed to feed my habit.

Books were in short supply in this French-speaking country no matter what, but books in English were particularly hard to come by, especially if you lived in a village.  At first I resolved to continue to improve my language skills by reading more in French, and also to give myself a wider stream of reading material — surely I could get more of my particular drug that way?  That resolution didn’t last long because reading even Hemingway in French felt more like work than pleasure, especially when Mort Dans L’Après-Midi almost lead to my own mort dans l’après-midi when I snoozed off and fell out of my chair.

Next I got inspired when I found Cosmopolitan in French.  That worked much better since, at the age of 21, I was still interested in how to curl a man’s toes with tricks known only to the Amazons, and other such nonsense.  Plus there were a lot of pictures.  When I realized that I had got my hands on the only copy of Cosmo in the country, however, I passed it along with a sigh to the next volunteer who came along, and that was that.

Being a literature major and still interested in the life of the mind, something I have long left behind me, I just read whatever I could get my hands on.  It was some pretty heavy going, but rather than being left with my own thoughts, a fate worse than death, or with more lesson planning, a fate worse than a fate worse than death, I read whatever came my way.

Proust became my best friend for a few weeks, not only because someone sent me his books, but because he was the 19th century equivalent of Steven King in terms of production, having had diarrhea of the mind.  His major seven-volume oeuvre, Remembrance of Things Past, runs to 3200 pages and has 2000 characters, and kept me absorbed in musings over madeleines and memory for some time.  On top of that, I somehow got hold of Jean Santeuil, in English, his unfinished novel that someone had thoughtfully completed for us posthumously, which gave me a few more days before facing the void-without-books.

Probably the most esoteric thing I found myself reading, and not out of choice, of course, because not even a PhD student in literature would read this, was The Art of Andrew Marvell’s Poetry.  Now I apologize, J. B Leishman, whomever and wherever you are now, but I can’t help but think you have lived a somewhat precious and extremely proscribed life, if you could put so much of yourself into analyzing Andrew Marvell’s poetry.  Especially since, when I looked Andy up again while writing this, one of the first references to him on the web was on the front page of the International Review of Psycho-Analysis (and yes, they did put the hyphen in, can you imagine the decision-making process on that one?), with an essay entitled “History, Pastoral and Desire: Andrew Marvell’s Mower Poems,” which, frankly, gave me the yawns.  Not to mention sounding as if it were written in incorrect English.  Since when was Pastoral a noun?  I mean, who are these people? At least they stay in their libraries and computers, and out of our way.  But I do have to admit that for two years I was one of them.

One reader volunteer told the story of having a young man from her village show up at her door with a book in English, offering to sell it.  She paid through the nose and grabbed it, only to find when she opened it up for a reading treat, sitting in her special chair with her bottle of eau gazeuse and her madeleines next to her, that it had been inscribed to her by her mother, who had sent it all the way to Zaire to be stolen at the local post office and then sold to the hapless daughter.

At one point, a friend of mine sent me a whole box of books published by Heinemann’s African Writers’ Series, a wonderful two weeks’ worth of reading, and an introduction to Elechi Amadi, Chinua Achebe, Camara Laye and others, which fit more perfectly with what I was going through as a person living in Zaire than most of what I was reading did.  Reading Newsweek in Zaire is mostly an out-of-body experience, and only highlights the absurdity of the divide between the “developed” and the “developing” world.  Or, as Mobutu Sésé Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the then-and-almost-forever-president of Zaire, whose photo hung in every classroom, office and meeting room throughout the country in case you forgot who was in charge, would say, the world of the “souséquipé”.  I was certainly “sous-équipé” when it came to books, so I had a lot of sympathy for that point of view.

A classic that made its way from the grimy hands of one volunteer to the other throughout the country was The Zin-Zin Road, written by Fletcher Knebel in 1966, described on the website Fantastic Fiction as “a political thriller in which the idealism of the Peace Corps clashes head-on with the harsh realities of government in the steamy West African state of Kalya.”  Since most volunteers at that time were feckless 22-year olds just out of college, they read this thinly-veiled roman à clef (sorry if I’m making you feel less educated than I, but if you don’t know what that means, you are) about service in the Peace Corps in Liberia with fascination, pride, and large doses of cynicism and kaopectate.

One of my favorite book memories of Zaire is of walking a few kilometers through the bush to a soccer game at a rival school, and meeting up there with a Jesuit priest who taught there.  The Catholics were all over Zaire like white on rice.  Huge cathedrals sprang up in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mud houses.  Some of the priests I met had napery and silver on their tables at lunch every day, not to mention wine, lettuce (lettuce!), and pork from gargantuan pigs they raised themselves.  One group even raised prize-winning rabbits that got shipped to shows in Belgium regularly.  The fact that they also grew schools made up to some extent, in my eyes, for these excrescences and excesses.  At any rate, in casual conversation, we discovered a mutual love of books, and spent two hours enthusing over Iris Murdoch.  Under what other circumstances would a 50-year old Jesuit priest and a 21-year old American girl be thrown together and so quickly find mutual love?

Looking at my very depressing journal entries from those years, I came across lists of what I was reading, and I can credit my time in Zaire for having given me a masters level course in literature, although no self-respecting college would ever allow such a catholic reading list.   There are references to Huxley’s  Point Counterpoint, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Crime and Punishment, Thus Spake Zarathustra, scruffy hippie  poetry by e.e. cummings, Isak Dinesen’s Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, For Whom the Bell Tolls (in English), Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Autobiography, The Psychology of Women (oy!), Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf, The Idiot, Mary Ellman’s Thinking About Women, Enemies a Love Story, The Sot-Weed Factor, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, On the Road, Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul, Tom Jones, and so on.  I even wrote down Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” no doubt in enthusiastic response to reading The Art of Andrew Marvell’s Poetry.  I also, inspired, made my own attempt at writing poetry in the journal, and entitled it “Collected Poem.”

So even if I were teaching English as a third or fourth language to the hapless youth of Zaire, most of whom would never encounter an English-speaking person in their lives, even if I felt sometimes as if the last thing I was doing was any good to anyone, and even if my body were slowly turning to mush, riddled by exotic diseases and beaten down by a diet almost exclusively based on papaya, mangoes, pineapple and manioc, my brain was healthy and educated, and I’m hoping that some of that love of reading and the books that fed it found their way into the psyches of my students.


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  • After my Peace Corps service in Micronesia I had taken a teaching contract and was still in the islands. I spent one school year on the outer island of Onoun (then called Ulul) and promptly contracted hepatitis, fortunately not the fatal kind (obviously). Quarantined in my house for two weeks, I read through The Tin Drum, Moby Dick, and Joyce’s Ulysses. The Tin Drum was creepy, Moby Dick probably longer than it could have been, and Ulysses completely, to me, unfathomable. I wanted to understand it because a high school literature teacher whom I greatly admired had listed it as one of the three greatest books ever written. (The other two? Not sure but I think the Illiad was one.) I’ll never forget Joyce’s last sentence. It was 40 pages long.

  • John,
    Speaking of PC reading…. In my day, 1968-1970 (Malawi) we were led to believe (our trainers were all recent RPCVs) that there were “semi-official” Peace Corps novels, that if not everybody, many many volunteers around the world were reading at once. Obviously they dealt with issues of cultural sensitivity and cross-cultural experience, and I wonder if this is something very local to Central Africa or very short-lived or entirely mythical. Just before my time, I was told THE BOOK was the wonderful Peter Mathiessen “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” And then in my time it switched to the far less inspired Heinlein “Stranger in a Strange Land.” Is this all urban (or rural as the case may be) PC myth? I’ll bet you’ve dealt with this issue before.


    John Shannon
    Author of the Jack LIffey mystery books

  • My sister Tina Thuermer is the literate one. Her introduction to Zaire consisted of being taken hostage by Idi Amin in Entebbe — so no wonder she could tolerate Andrew Marvell, quand meme.

    My own tragic Peace Corps literary trajectory headed south the minute I asked whether I should take my books to far Bamako, Mali.
    “Mais NON!” We have a superb collection in the Peace Corps headquarters (former Hanoi Embassy) library — pas de probleme!

    Alas, as i surveyed the shelves, I plucked a volume out and Voila! it was Harold Robbins The Betsy. Followed by a hundred other tawdry titles that would sustain, nay save me for the next two years….

    thus began a lifetime of trash reading…w’allahi allah!

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