From Microsoft to Malawi: Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer
by Michael L. Buckler (Malawi, 2006–08)
Reviewed by Lawrence F. Lihosit (Honduras, 1975-77)
FOR ANYONE INTERESTED IN CURRENT AFRICAN AFFAIRS, this is the book for you. Another valuable addition to Peace Corps Experience literature, it was written and published only two years after the author hugged his African family and returned. Not a timid soul, Michael L. Buckler describes his home in Malawi, and explores several controversial topics such as the overlap of services offered by the Peace Corps and non-governmental agencies, the U.S. foreign aid package, American subsidies and their effect upon other nations, Volunteer use of anti-depressants and Volunteer sexual debauchery. He does something else that reminded me of the infamous postcard incident so long ago. He published a book with an unflattering portrait of a current member of the Malawi Parliament, accusing her of abuse of power. This could have interesting repercussions.
Ironically, Buckler joined the Peace Corps after practicing law for a few years. At the age of 32, he was a bit older than the average Volunteer. He describes his difficulty learning a foreign language (Chichewi), adjusting to a new life cooking over an open flame, using an outhouse and riding a bicycle not for leisure but necessity. There were, of course, other nuisances like a black mambo snake and those pesky bats. A teacher assigned to a remote Khawala village (45 miles from Blantyre) usually reserved to punish undisciplined government teachers, he was befriended by the school headmaster who guided him with praise and sage advice (“None of this is your fault . . . You are full of blessings.”). Aside from teaching, Buckler coordinated a school campus reforestry program, planting fruit trees, and also began the construction of a girl’s dormitory on campus. The latter proved difficult.
Mr. Zimbota, the school headmaster, not only mentored the young Peace Corps Volunteer but literally welcomed him into his family (“If you need anything, I live next door.”). His own children called Buckler “uncle.” A government employee banished to the hinterland years before, he had personally supervised the expansion of a one-room school house to a campus. His wisdom not only guided the author but stimulated him to complete his service. At each stumble, Zimbota was there to lean over and whisper, “Are you ready to begin?” It was a bittersweet relationship. As a consequence to Buckler’s success, Zimbota was first demoted, then transferred to another post where he died.
Buckler was fortunate enough to create another African family when he invited three male commuter students to share his teacher’s house where they not only lived together but he also tutored them. Prior to Buckler’s service, no graduate of the Khawala school had ever passed university entrance exams. All three passed. One has aspirations to be a businessman, another yearns to be a nurse and the third a teacher. All they lack are the funds to continue their education. So, Buckler wrote and published this book. All royalties and reader donations will be used for that purpose. Don’t hesitate — buy this book!
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Lawrence F. Lihosit is an urban planner and author of eight books and seven pamphlets. His latest book titled Peace Corps Chronology: 1961–2010 will be released for Christmas, 2010.