EDITOR’S NOTE: From the book description of The Marble Room: “At 27 years of age, Bill Hatcher was at crossroads. Brought up in an evangelical household in the Bible Belt, his religion had provided no answers to his parents’ broken marriage, or, indeed, his own divorce. The key to his salvation would come from a most unlikely source: a Peace Corps flyer!
A year later, Hatcher was in Tanzania as a geography teacher at an all-girls’ boarding school. It was here that he “challenged” himself by engaging in dangerous ascents on Mount Kenya, Kilimanjaro, and Mount Meru, and through tragedy and triumph, questioned the core of his being and he managed to escape the confines of his “marble room” and gain a new understanding of himself and God.”
This memoir is the story one PCV’s self-discovery and proof that, as he says, “even the most naïve and insular American can achieve a spiritual awakening.”
Since the Peace Corps, Bill Hatcher has led wilderness courses for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Mexico, Kenya, Tanzania, and the western U.S. He writes for Colorado Central Magazine from his home in rural Colorado, where he lives with his wife and two cats. He can be contacted through his website at www.billhatcherbooks.com.
The Marble Room: How I Lost God and Found Myself in Africa
by Bill Hatcher (Tanzania 1994–96)
Reviewed by Eric Lax (Micronesia 1966–68)
ALL PEACE CORPS STORIES resemble one another: young idealistic American goes to foreign land and finds very different world. All Peace Corps stories are different from each other: what one experiences leads to singular outcomes. Bill Hatcher got about as much from his experience as any Volunteer could hope for — accomplishment, challenge, adventure; new eyes and ears as well as a close call with death; education, heartbreak, and through it all, a changing relationship with God. Not a bad two years, all beautifully recalled in The Marble Room: How I Lost God and Found Myself in Africa.
When Hatcher, a child of the Bible Belt, landed in Tanzania in 1997, he was a self-described “racist, camo-ballcap wearin’, born-again Christian” who believed in heaven and hell and that most Africans shared beliefs that were not going to land them in a golden chariot after death. But despite his upbringing and a faith that was firm, if only from ossification, Hatcher brought an adventurous spirit in both senses of the word. His delight in climbing mountains — dangerous ascents on treacherous peaks in dismal conditions with seemingly far too little food and water — leaves a non-climbing reader breathless from the sheer terror of it all, not to mention inferred vertigo. But like that mountaineer Moses, Hatcher has other reasons for his ascent: he, too, hopes to meet God. His willingness, his determination even, to climb beyond his life-long belief to a new summit is a companion to his rock jock delight in slab-climbing and navigating pitches. Some might prefer a comparative religions course to try to sort things out, but it is the physical effort and the geographical goal that drives Hatcher, even if a summit turns out to be simply the top of a mountain where God is nowhere to be found.
Our individual religious quests and journeys are so personal that it is generally unwise to ask strangers along for the ride. Hatcher, however, weaves grail-hunting with geography, sociology, anthropology, and the messiness, strangeness, and unexpected pleasures of daily life a Volunteer experiences into a story in which the right hand really does wash the left, one that shows the Peace Corps at its best. The families he lives with, the friends he makes, the students he teaches, are vividly brought to life. Hatcher is posted to a girls’ school to teach geography and is “amazed at how advanced fifteen and sixteen-year-old Tanzanian students could be. But I shouldn’t have been . . . the conception of ‘Darkest Africa’ that I had grown up with was based on grainy black-and-white Johnny Weismuller reruns . . . I recalled some of my high school peers thinking Africa was a country located somewhere in South America.” He acknowledges the abuses of equally ignorant Westerners on Africans, citing Bishop Desmond Tutu quoting a popular proverb of the continent: “When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ We closed out eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.”
Hatcher hoped that as a teacher he would inspire his students to “look past rote memorization of facts and figures . . . [and] see their place in the world with new eyes, discover for themselves what was true, and break through their myths and become whole.” This is, of course, exactly what happens to him as he breaks free of his rote faith and prejudices and sees the world new. Hatcher comes across as an able and inspiring teacher, and as is often the case (when a teacher is lucky) it is the wisdom of his students — and in his case one in particular named Farida who is an emotional lynchpin to this story — who help him find his way along the spiritual path. Every Volunteer should be so fortunate, and so ultimately open to circumstances, as Hatcher is in this honest, earnest, deeply-felt, and wonderfully told account of the education of a lifetime.
Eric Lax (Micronesia 1966-68) is the winner of the 2010 Paul Cowan Non-Fiction Award for his book Faith, Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2010. Lax, who was born in British Columbia and grew up in San Diego, is a graduate of Hobart College and served in Truk (now Chuuk), Eastern Caroline Islands, Micronesia. In 1968-69 he was a Peace Corps Fellow, and later held several posts in Peace Corps/Washington Headquarters.
He is the author of eight books. Other recent books include Conversations with Woody Allen: His Films, the Movies, and Moviemaking, and The Mold In Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Making of the Penicillin Miracle (a Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2004). Others include the international best seller Woody Allen: A Biography and Life and Death on 10 West (both New York Times Notable Books). His books have been translated into 18 languages. His articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times Magazine, the book review sections of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post; the Atlantic Monthly; the Washington Monthly; Vanity Fair; and Esquire, where he was a contributing editor. He is a past president of PEN Center USA, and currently is the Treasurer of International PEN, the world-wide writers organization based in London.