Review of Peter Bourque's Tarnished Ivory

tarnished-ivory-140Tarnished Ivory: Reflections on Peace Corps and Beyond
by Peter Bourque (Ivory Coast (1973–75)
224 pages

Reviewed by P. David Searles (PC staff/Philippines CD 1971–74; PC Dep Dir 1974–76)

TARNISHED IVORY REALLY HAS TWO AUTHORS — one is twenty-something-year-old Peter Bourque, who provides the main text, and the other is sixty-year-old Peter Bourque, who provides editing and commentary. That would be a more accurate description of who wrote what in this fascinating look at Peace Corps service in Ivory Coast in the 1970s.  During his service in Ivory Coast Bourque kept a journal and a diary and also wrote “hundreds of pages” (his count) to friends and family in the U.S., especially to a “significant other” back at the University of Michigan. Thirty-five years later the now older, more mature, and wiser Bourque has edited this material, made interesting and revealing comments on it, and provided some apt observations about poverty, the development process, and the current situation in Ivory Coast. His inclusion of a pronunciation guide is most welcome.

Much of the material in the book comes from Bourque’s letters to his significant other. These verbatim accounts reveal a young man striving (desperately striving?) to understand the meaning of life, his struggles in Ivory Coast, the wide range of humanity he encounters daily, and his relationship with a woman who may or may not continue to be in his future. He is hard on himself, his Peace Corps colleagues, French civil servants, and Ivorian workers — everyone, it seems, except the significant other. His negativity is a burden, especially for a reader whose glass is always half full. Still, as the older Bourque says, “age has taught me to be less critical,” and at the book’s end there is a welcome sense that Bourque now finds room in his life for a variety of people, even those whose life expectancies are different from his own.

It takes a bit of courage for a older man to lay out thoughts and deeds from his youth for all to read, given the fact that “youth” is generally a period of trial and error. The sixty-year-old Bourque’s comments on these thoughts and deeds are stimulating to read, and he is remarkably honest and incisive in doing so.

One of the most valuable aspects of the book, particularly for a reader like me who has little firsthand experience in West Africa, is the young Bourque’s description of daily life in a society still virtually under the thumb of its former colonizers, the French. Even though Ivory Coast is advanced economically compared to its neighbors, poverty is endemic, bureaucratic nonsense abounds, and planning for the future is an unknown concept. Bourque does battle daily with the French fonctionaires still around from colonial days and their Ivorian allies as he tries to turn local teenagers into elementary school teachers capable of using school land to grow vegetables for their own and the community’s consumption. The program’s main goal is to provide alternate sources of food in a country where traditional foods are lacking in nutritional values. He is successful in his first year, and does even better in his second. All is not smooth sailing, of course, but job satisfaction is commendably high.

The problem Bourque meets daily is his inability (or unwillingness) to make friends with his French colleagues and Ivorian counterparts. His relationship with the French, and his thoughts about them, are dreadful (more on this below) but his real problem is making meaningful contact with local people. His language skills are good (although not in the local dialect), he gets out and about, avoids the all-too-available Western venues, yet, as he says, makes virtually no close friends in his two-year stay. This is the first time I have encountered this situation in my reading of Peace Corps memoirs. I wonder if Bourque is being overly critical about his own experience. Or is this typical of the West Africa experience? Comments, anyone?

Bourque’s comments about the French, not only the fonctionaires he works with but also the French in general, are more than a bit off-putting. The young Bourque condemns the colonial French in every conceivable way, and the older Bourque seems to go along with him, even though he mentions current-day French friends. Perhaps my reaction is due in part to my having just read David McCullough’s paean to all things French in his new book The Greater Journey, and his op ed piece in the New York Times of July 14, 2011 (Bastille Day). In those two works the French are on the top rung!  The colonial powers (French, Spanish, British, German, American, et al) did leave behind vestiges of their presence.  But were the French in West Africa as bad as Bourque portrays? Again, comments, please.

Among the most interesting parts of the book are the older Bourque’s comments on poverty, development, and the pangs of guilt experienced from time to time by thinking Americans. His comments are based on his life-long struggle to understand and help alleviate the dire situation most of the human race finds itself in. He pays tribute to the role of Peace Corps in the work of combating poverty but, quite properly, acknowledges that the task is so large that it may never be possible to isolate the Peace Corp’s unique contribution to the ongoing effort. Still, like the majority of Peace Corps veterans he looks back on his service with pride, pleasure and a sense of accomplishment — a conclusion both the twenty-something author and the sixty-year-old author agree upon!

P. David Searles served three years as the Country Director for the Peace Corps in the Philippines from 1971 to 1974, and then spent two years at Peace Corps headquarters as Regional Director for NANEAP and as Deputy Director of the agency under John Dellenback (1974-76).  His career has included work in international business, government service and education.  In 1993 David earned a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College for Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience (1997) both published by The University Press of Kentucky.

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One Comment

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  • Two decades after my Peace Corps service in Colombia (1961-63), I spent many years working with French professionals on development projects in Francophone West Africa. Most had decades of experience in Africa, were effective and respected technical advisors, and welcomed Americans who spoke French.

    My wife and I now live in France where all our neighbors and most of our friends are French; best decision we ever made.

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