The Barrios of Manta: A Personal Account of the Peace Corps in Ecuador
by Rhoda and Earle Brooks (Ecuador 1962–64)
324 pages (estimated print length)
Reviewed by Jeff Fearnside (Kazakhstan 2002–04)
Originally published by New American Library in 1965, The Barrios of Manta was republished last year as an eBook in honor of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. It remains not only an important document of the Peace Corps’ first work in Ecuador but also an engaging portrait of a fascinating couple, Rhoda and Earle Brooks, the married Volunteers who lived in one of the poorest barrios in the drought-stricken fishing port of Manta from 1962 to 1964. The problems the Brookses faced, the many resourceful ways they solved them, and the occasional failures they met are all relevant to the work of Volunteers today, and should be of interest to anyone who has lived abroad (or is considering doing so) in vastly different conditions than their own.
The book begins with a brand-new foreword written in 2012 by Rhoda, who also added a new afterword. In-between are the original prologue, epilogue, and sixteen chapters, for which the Brookses split writing duties. Rhoda took the prologue and chapters nine, eleven, fifteen, and sixteen; additionally, she kept the bulk of their diary which formed the basis of the book. Earle wrote the rest. While it might seem jumping back and forth between two different authors would lead to unevenness, their writing styles are so similar that this isn’t an issue at all. Nor is an approach that isn’t strictly chronological. They wisely chose to focus on long, extended scenes of particularly striking events or linked sequences of events rather than skimming through all the many happenings of two years, and the book’s sixteen chapters are logically oriented to this, with catchy (or chilling) thematic titles such as “From Bricks to Hot Lunches” and “The Bubonic Plague.”
The prologue by Rhoda pulls the reader immediately into the vivid story of a dying baby who hadn’t eaten for weeks and a place that hadn’t seen rain in years. The prose here as elsewhere is direct and bracing as salt air. The Brookses skillfully intertwine numerous statistics with writing in scene that places the reader in the midst of the heartwarming chaos that generally surrounded them.
They describe the usual challenges-the continual obstacles to their work, the strain of continually speaking a foreign language, the difficulty of getting used to the lack of privacy-as well as challenges specific to their assignment, such as sweeping out dead rats “by the dozen” in their new home, living through an epidemic of bubonic plague, and daily facing the threat of intestinal parasites, dysentery, and hepatitis.
Earle and Rhoda’s life together in Manta clearly wasn’t easy, but they never come across as complaining, and they make it clear at every turn that most of the locals definitely have it tougher: we meet a waiter who worked from eight in the morning to eleven at night every day of the week, with only every other Wednesday evening off, for the equivalent of about ten dollars a month. (By comparison, the Brooks’ rent alone was about twenty-five dollars a month.) And the fishermen: “When luck is good, they make fifty cents a day, but sometimes they fish fifteen hours a day and catch nothing for days at a time.”
The citizens of Manta come alive, through well-chosen details and telling dialogue: Viliulfo Cedeño, their unceasingly energetic counterpart, “one of the few people who had realistically come to grips with the plight of his country and had determined to do something about it”; Don César, their grumpy old landlord, who at first seemed annoyed at any disturbance of his solitude but by the end not only accepted the gringos but welcomed the nonstop stream of neighbors who visited; Otto Schwarz, the second-generation Latin-German shipping agent who “helped the Peace Corps more than any other single national”; and many others.
Even those who make fleeting appearances receive their vivid due, such as Earle’s carpentry students, fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys who “leave the shop for an hour or two to ‘run an errand’” — and later develop a venereal disease. Without judgment, Earle explains that “there were many women, usually older and generally deserted by their husbands, who were willing to pay these boys . . .. The expense for the required treatment was one that I always deducted from the boys’ pay!”
This journalistic attention to detail and lack of judgment invites a sense of trust in the reader, as does their open honesty, all on display in this passage from Rhoda:
Inside the sleepy-looking little bamboo houses I visited, I found people struggling with the cruel realities of life: a child crippled by polio who had never received any physical therapy; a woman suffering from severe burns from a pan of spilled boiling water; a family of nine living and sleeping in one room and eating on the floor; children defecating in their own yards; half a dozen babies on the brink of death, pigs and flies in the kitchen, sharing the family’s food; a wife in tears because her husband was sleeping with the girl next door; a deaf-mute girl who had never had a physical examination; children with skin diseases and eye infections; and on and on-all this just a few steps from our door.
I would return home, sick with my inability to be of real help. Deeply depressed, I’d tell Earle of my experiences, and the well-known wave of futility would sweep over us as we asked ourselves what we could really do.”
It’s a refrain throughout the book; the Brookses genuinely seemed to question how much good they did. Yet they clearly did so much: starting and teaching classes on mechanics, first-aid, nutrition and child care, basketball, and swimming; organizing garbage collection days and participating in street clean-ups; initiating and running a program of building stoves for schools that, as a fellow volunteer noted, “helped provide the kitchen facilities to feed over two thousand children a square meal every day”; spearheading an intensive two-week “de-ratting” program to help mitigate effects of the annual bubonic plague epidemic in Manta; and providing help informally on countless occasions to anyone who asked at any time of the day or night, seven days a week. And that’s just a partial list.
It sounds exhausting, and even the optimistic Brookses had to admit that it was at times. They had already been in Peace Corps for more than a year when the long-delayed “cultural shock” they had been warned about hit them: “Many hours later we finally fell asleep in an exhausted stupor,” Earle writes. “The next day we felt tired and drawn. I had lost thirty pounds since entering the Peace Corps and we had both been pushing ourselves to the point of real fatigue.”
Naturally, much of the book covers their Peace Corps community development work, but they also spend significant time describing other aspects of their time overseas, such as their friendships, their travels around Latin America after their first year of service, and what they did in their free time (what little they had), as in this quietly lyrical passage:
One evening, after a particularly strenuous day of work on the anti-plague campaign, I flopped into the hammock in our front yard just as the sun was beginning to drop behind the church steeple across the bay. I caught Rhoda’s hand and pulled her down into the hammock beside me. The air was still except for the crashing of the surf and the sounds of the Franco family cooking supper next door-the crackle of their wood fire in the kitchen and the ruffle of their hens going to roost for the night. I pushed the ground with my toe and made the hammock swing just a little and pulled Rhoda close against me. We silently watched the changing sky.
Occasionally, the book shows that it is a product of its time: the mid-1960s, when American idealism was at its final zenith before several wars and the slow spiraling downward of the economy took their toll. “Large industrial organizations and mass-produced goods are the solutions to the problem of supply and demand in the United States, and, as a bonus, they also create more jobs for more people,” Earle writes. Such a statement today no longer sounds so noble, with our large industrial organizations producing too many minimum-wage jobs, and many people finding small-scale, locally oriented commerce a better solution to our problems.
There are a number of discussions about communism with a distinct Cold War-era feeling to them, and a long section in chapter eight that contemporary readers may find discomforting, where Earle and Rhoda encourage friends of theirs to remain together, even though the woman was being physically abused by the man. However, these sections provide a revealing glimpse into a different era, and as much insight into a past America as they do Ecuador.
Above all else throughout the narrative, there is a sense that the reader is there, as in the opening to chapter seven:
In a helter-skelter pattern along the fine sand beach, and extending inland for a quarter of a mile on the gently rolling dust dunes, stood the matchbox bamboo houses of these amazing and amiable people, our neighbors. The one- and two-room crowded houses were backed and squeezed together on unnamed streets. Yards were thick dust patches without vegetation. Absolutely nothing grew here and only the clusters of houses directly on the beach were left uninvaded by the billowing afternoon dust.
Children were playing in the yards. With great contentment, one of them grabbed the haunches of a pig, and as it squealed and dragged the child forward, he shrieked with delight. On the damp beach boys were playing soccer with a wad of rolled-up paper. At the bottom of a bamboo ladder leading into the dim interior of a slit-bamboo house, a young boy, about two and a half years old, sat strumming an imaginary guitar and singing simple Spanish songs.
A particularly poignant section occurs in chapter thirteen, when the Brookses learn that President Kennedy had been killed. What an odd, terrible, unsettling sadness they felt being among the very first groups of volunteers in the program Kennedy championed and then learning of his death while serving overseas in that program. Even in those days long before the Internet, this was news of such import that it came to them within half an hour of it breaking. This section also shows the deep connection they had with the Ecuadorian people:
All afternoon the neighbors came. Friends from town walked down the beach to our house; students and other acquaintances stopped at the door. They came in silence, some weeping, to share their sympathy and grief. They stroked our arms, patted our shoulders, and squeezed our hands. Raul’s aged father fell into my arms, sobbing shamelessly. “It is as if he were our own,” he wept. “He was president of the world.”
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid The Barrios of Manta is that by the time it is finished, it leaves a clear sense of who Rhoda and Earle Brooks were, and they come across as people worth knowing. They share of themselves so freely in telling their story that it’s difficult for a reader not to feel as if invited into their circle of friends. Only the most jaded or stoic will be able to read without being emotionally moved at some point, for anguish and for joy, mainly joy.
Writer Jeff Fearnside lived in Central Asia for four years and traveled widely along the Silk Road. He has published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently About Place Journal, Verseweavers (poetry), the Potomac Review and ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment (creative nonfiction), with work forthcoming in Ontologica. He currently lives with his Kazakhstani wife Valentina in Corvallis, Oregon. You can visit his website at Jeff-Fearnside.com.