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Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Paul Theroux
In nearly forty years of writing, Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365) has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written. He began by writing about the life he knew in Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a country then known as Nyasaland. Three of his first four novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. And two of his later novels, My Secret History and My Other Life, recast his Peace Corps tour as fiction. This month Houghton Mifflin published Therouxs Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, which details a 2001 trip that he had wanted to make since leaving Africa.
For this issue of Peace Corps Writers, I interviewed Paul about his recent book and his life as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Those interested in why he was terminated from the agency, might also want to read an article I wrote several years entitled, Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux that is available on this site.
Dont miss Therouxs interview. It is the first he has given to a Peace Corps publication.
Journals of Peace
In 1988 Tim Carroll (Nigeria 1963-65), the first Director of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, staged an event in Washington, D.C. that would prove to be the most newsworthy and significant reminder of the Peace Corps connection with President John F. Kennedy.
Named Journals of Peace, this event consisted of continual readings by RPCVs for twenty-four hours in the U.S. Capital Rotunda. The Journals of Peace began at mid-day on the 21st of November in 1988 and continued through mid-day on the 22nd ending with a memorial Mass at St. Matthews Cathedral, the site of Kennedys funeral. Similar, smaller, memorial services were also held in other parts of the country on this anniversary of the assassination of JFK, but the Washington Journals of Peace readings in the U.S. Capital Rotunda drew hundreds and hundreds of RPCVs to the nations capital and caught the attention of the world.
In summoning RPCVs to Washington, Carroll wrote, All Volunteers who served in the Peace Corps are invited to submit a passage from their letters home, their Peace Corps journals or their best recollection about the single experience that crystallizes what the Peace Corps meant to them. The readings were to be no longer than 500 words, or three minutes long when read.
Carroll went on to write that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers represented a unique legacy of the Kennedy years. Woven back into the fabric of hometown communities across the nation, they continue to keep the spirit of their commitment alive through their work in development education. He reminded all Volunteers that promoting a greater understanding on the part of Americans of other people was one of the goals Kennedy articulated in his 1961 legislation. In 1988, it had been 27 years since Kennedy created the Peace Corps and over 120,000 Americans have already served in 94 developing countries.
Through special arrangements facilitated by Senator Christopher J. Dodd (Dominican Republic 196668), the readings by former Volunteers took place in the U.S. Capital, and this was the first time such permission had ever been granted to keep the Capital open all night. No other event like this one has since been held in the Capital Rotunda.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers began stepping up to the microphone located in the Rotunda at mid-afternoon on the 21st. They read while the Senate conducted business in the conference rooms and offices around them; they read while visitors toured the echoing marble hallways; they read while staff assistants, secretaries, Senators and Congressmen went home after work. They kept reading, one after the other, through the quiet evening hours and then all night long in the silence of the vast Rotunda. At times, the Rotunda was ablaze with t.v. camera lights and crowded with the curious and other RPCVs.
RPCVs read non-stop into the morning rush hour when this Vigil became national news and was broadcast live on morning news hours of NBC, CBS and ABC. They kept reading until noon on the 22nd when the last RPCVs left the Capital and crossed downtown Washington to join 1,500 others in filling the Cathedral of St. Matthews for Kennedys memorial mass. They then heard homilies about the President from Father Theodore Hesbergh; Bill Moyers, Loret Miller Ruppe, Sargent Shriver, and several RPCVs.
While it was the hope and dream of Tim Carroll and the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to publish these journals, funds were never available and over time several hundred of the original journals came into my possession. Beginning with this issue of Peace Corps Writers, we will publish the journals as they were read in 1988. Then we will send the original documents to the permanent Peace Corps Collection at the Kennedy Library. One request. If you read at the Journals of Peace and you think I might not have your reading, please forward a copy to me at firstname.lastname@example.org so your remembrance can be included and published on line.
A Writer Writes
From the fall of 1965 until the summer of 1967, Rich Wandschneider did community development work and lived in a small village in southeastern Turkey close to the borders of Syria and Iraq. Rich remembers those years and the country in a very timely essay entitled Turks and Kurds one that illustrates the depth of insight that Peace Corps Volunteers bring back to share with their fellow Americans.
When The Right Hand Washes the Left
David Schickele (Nigeria 196163) first presented his retrospective view of early service in the Peace Corps in a speech entitled When the Right Hand Washes the Left given at his alma mater, Swarthmore College, in 1963. It was then printed in the Swarthmore alumni magazine.
The Peace Corps reprinted Schickeles essay in its first Point of View, a short-lived series of discussion papers about Volunteer service. Long out of print, we are publishing Schickeles essay to save another part of Peace Corps history.
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits written by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 196163) and Eugene C. Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. The book was reviewed positively by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 196668) at our site last year. But with many things Jesuit, theres another story. Read the latest from Peter McDonough about his book and how it is stirring up Jesuits passions among the Orders spin doctors.
There are 22 new books listed in Recent books by Peace Corps writers for this issue and quite a few are by our best writers. Six of these books are reviewed in this issue.
These new books can be found at your local bookstore. But better yet buy them through our website from Amazon.com (by double-clicking on the book covers) and we will receive a % of the sale to support this website.
Either way, buy one, two, or all of the following and read the reviews in this issue of: How the Water Feels by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 197678); Shes Not There by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567); Tongue Tied by Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-62) writing as Richard Stevenson; Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365); Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana Cajun Coast by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587). And for poetry lovers, theres a review of Sandra Meeks (Botswana 198991) wonderful collection of poems, Nomadic Foundations.
And, of course, there is more in this issue . . .
Check out Literary Type and read about Norm Rushs (CD Botswana 197883) massive new novel Mortals; Nancy Forsythe Farmer (India 196365) who has won the prestigious 2003 Newbery Honor for the third time, and Edward Mycue (Ghana 1961) who is one of many RPCV poets to write poems against the war. Andy Trincia (Romania 2002 ) is back with another tale from his tour of service. Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 199496), who has been writing and teaching in a new place every year since her service ended, sent us a travel essay about the Monkey Gardens on the Malaysia island of Penang. And Miriam Carroll (Gabon 1996-98) contributes a Letter from Nyanga, Congo written on April 7, 1997.
For all that is in this issue . . .
Recent books by Peace Corps writers
by D.J. (Don and Joyce) Arneson (Jamaica 1989)
Heart of Forgiveness
A Practical Path to Healing
by Madeline Ko-I Bastis (Ethiopia 196264)
Peace Corps Pioneer
Or The Perils of Pauline
by Pauline Birky-Kreutzer (Pakistan Staff 196163)
685B S La Posada Cir, Unit 2201
Green Valley, AZ 85614
Uncle John's Necessary Numbers
An Everyday Guide to Sizes, Measures, and More
(Bathroom Reader Series)
by Mary Blocksma (Nigeria 196567)
Portable Press, $12.00
by Waris Dirie and Jeanne D'Haem (Somalia 196870)
England: Virago Press
Chicken Soup for The Mother & Daughter Soul
Stories to Warm the Heart and Honor the Relationship
edited by Jack Canfield
contributor: Paul Karrer (Western Samoa 197880)
The Emergence of African American Culture
by Howard Dodson (Ecuador 196466)
Washington: National Geographic Books
The House of the Scorpion
(young adult novel)
(National Book Award winner, Newbery Honor Book)
by Nancy Farmer (India 196365)
Waking Up in Nashville
by Stephen Foehr (Ethiopia 196566)
Sanctuary Publisher, Ltd
Letters from Afghanistan
(Peace Corps experience)
by Eloise Hanner (Afghanistan 197173, Paraguay 19992000)
Branden Publisheing Co.
The Ordeal of the African Writer
by Charles R. Larson (Nigeria 196264)
Her Life, Letters, and Legacy
co-authored by David B. Maattern (Mali 197678) and Holly Shulman
New York: Powerkids Press
by Jerry D. Mohrlang (Malaysia 196567)
by Palmer Owyoung (Namibia 199395)
Village Market Press
Yakabou Must Choose
by Dennis Perry (Benin 197274)
Chicago Spectrum Press
The Black Nationalist Writings of John Edward Bruce
by William Seraile (Ethiopia 196365)
The University of Tennessee Press
A Donald Strachey Mystery
by Richard Stevenson
aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264)
New York: St. Martins Press
She's Not There
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
Henry Holt & Co.
Leaving the House of Ghosts:
Cambodian Refugees in the Midwest
by Sarah Streed (Morocco 198486)
McFarland & Company
Dark Star Safari
Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
by Paul Theroux (Malawi 196365)
The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisianas Cajun Coast
by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
The Japanese Americans
(Immigrants in America)
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 196466)
Norman Rushs (CD Botswana 197883) greatly anticipated new book, Mortals, will be published in June by Knopf. This long (592 pages) novel chronicles the misadventures of three ex-pat Americans: a contract CIA agent operating undercover as an English instructor in a private school; his beloved but disaffected wife; and an iconoclastic black holistic physician on a personal mission to lift the yoke of Christian belief from Africa. According to the flap copy, The passions of these three entangle them with a local populist leader whose purposes are grotesquely misconstrued by the CIA. And when a violent but pathetic insurrection erupts stoked in part by the erotic and political intrigues of the American trio the outcome is both explosive and explosively funny.
Nancy Forsythe Farmer (India 196365) has won the prestigious 2003 Newbery Honor for the third time with her sci-fi novel for young adults The House of the Scorpion. This novel also won the 2002 National Book for young adult (YA) readers and the 2003 Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in young adult literature. The novels lead character is a smart boy who is created to use as spare parts for his father, a 143-year-old drug lord. Clones are only one of the sinister attributes of this futuristic society, in a country called Opium that is carved out along the border between Mexico and the United States.
Nancy grew up on the Arizona-Mexico border and now lives in Menlo Park, California.
Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264) has a new mystery out this month from St. Martins Press. The novel, Tongue Tied, is written under the name Richard Stevenson. Its the eighth in Lipezs Donald Strachey PI series. In this one, Strachey becomes involved with a radio talk show host who is being harassed by a group calling itself the Forces of Free Faggotry.
In the Book Review section of The New York Times on March 23, 2003, reviewer Marilyn Stasio labels Stevensons books a sophisticated series, and adds, Stevenson smoothly engineers the action into smartly entertaining investigation that also makes a serious point about the uneasy lives of gay cops: The out cops get beat up on, and the nonout cops beat up on themselves.
In the spring edition of American Legacy magazine, Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 196365) explores the roots of the back-to-Africa, or colonization, movement which began sending free blacks to settle in West Africa in the early 1800s. To Leave or Not to Leave recalls the intense national debate at the time, among both whites and blacks, over the place if any of the mounting free black population in American society. One organized response by influential whites, was to send willing blacks back to Africa, which led to an abortive settlement in Sierra Leone and then to the establishment of Liberia.
Lowther remains engaged in African affairs as the Regional Director for Southern Africa at Africare. He and C. Payne Lucas (Staff: Togo, Niger, Washington 196471) recently republished their 1978 critique of the Peace Corps first 15 years, Keeping Kennedys Promise. The book is available for $17.50 postpaid by writing to Kevin at email@example.com.
Teaching Right From Wrong: 40 Things You Can Do to Raise a Moral Child, by Arthur Dobrin (Kenya 196567) and published by Berkely Publishing Group has been translated into Chinese and published by CITIC Publishing House of Beijing. It is also being translated into Korean and published in Seoul. Dobrins other new book, Ethics for Everyone: How to Increase Your Moral Intelligence, published by John Wiley last year, is also being translated into Chinese.
Worlds Smallest Essay on the Coming Miniaturization of Literature by Jason Sanford (Thailand 199496) appears in the current Flak Magazine. You can read it online at: www.flakmag.com/opinion/minutia.html
Poet Jacqueline Lyons (Losotho 199295) has a collection of poems I Am Missing Your Voice coming out in late 2003 from Hanging Loose Press. Jacqueline has published poems and essays in a wide range of literary journals including Florida Review, Grain, Phoebe, Quarter After Eight, Puerto del Sol, and Sonora Review.
Ronald Wheatley (Nigeria 196365), a Boston lawyer, as well as an army draftee in Vietnam from 1967-68, has written a play about Phillis Wheatley, a young Boston slave girl brought to trial in 1771 for claiming to have written poems that were so brilliantly written that she was compared to Englands Poet Laureate, Alexander Pope. The poet was defended in her trial by the brilliant John Hancock, who, with the governor of Massachusetts, signed a document attesting that the poems were, in fact, hers.
The play, entitled The Trail of Phillis Wheatley, had its first performance recently at the Bridgewater State College during Black History Month and received standing ovations at its initial performances. (Anyone wishing to produce this play [great for high school and college audiences] can contact John Coyne for Wheatleys address.)
D.C. resident and bibliophile Joe Kovacs (Sri Lanka 199798) has a piece online at the Literary Traveler website on Langston Hughes. Entitled, The Harlem Renaissance, Washington, DC and the Rise of Langston Hughes, it can be found at: www.literarytraveler.com/langstonhughes/langstonhughes.htm
Kristi Ragans (Fiji 197982, Tanzania 198485; PC/Staff: CD Cote dIvoire 2002) article Cote dIvoire Evacuation: The Peace Corps Component appeared in the February 2003 issue of the Foreign Service Journal. Ragan, a veteran of 15 years of working in developing countries of Africa, was appointed in June 2002 to be the next Peace Corps Country Director for Cote dIvorie and was working at the Peace Corps Headquarters in D.C. and was scheduled to depart for Abidjan in late October when an attempted coup happened in-country of September 19. In the Journal article, she recounts her experience as the Peace Corps representative on the State Department task force that managed the evacuation of Cote dIvoire and tells the amusing story of the final Peace Corps Volunteer to be evacuated on October 2, 2002.
The woman, who was affectionately referred to as the Lady of the Lake by the members of the State Department Operations Center that monitored the evacuation of Americans, had been stranded by herself on the side of a lake with no transport for over a week. She had finished reading all the books she had and sat at an abandoned Shell station on the main road out of town, hoping to catch a ride with departing expatriates. When no one came by, she started writing a movie script about her ideal rescue, which would involve handsome French military troopers landing on the towns soccer field and whisking her away in their helicopter. In the end, and in real life, that is exactly what happened.
In an OpEd piece in the January 25th issue of the Washington Post, Joanne Omang (Turkey 196466) celebrated being a woman turning 60 with Older and So Much Better. She closed the essay with a call to her aging sisters: Geezerettes, crones, grandmas and blue-haired goddesses unite! Our time has come at last.
George Packer (Togo 198283) wrote the cover story for the New York Times Magazine Section on Sunday, March 2, 2003. Entitled, The Morning After: Does Democracy in Iraq stand a chance? Packer details the struggles inside the Administration between the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as the failure of the Future of Iraq Project, the utopian dreams of Kanan Makiya, and how it now appears that no one in the current Administration has read Graham Greenes The Quiet American or seen the movie, or to quote The Christian Science Monitor: of the 18 regime changes forced by the United States in the 20th century, only 5 resulted in democracy, and in the case of wars fought unilaterally, the number goes down to one Panama.
When Jerry Mohrlang (Malaysia 196567) went to Malaysia he was assigned to Sarawak and there discovered the little known story of James Brooke, an early 19th century English adventurer who eventually became the first white Rajah of the territory of Sarawak (currently the 14 states comprising the Federation of Malaysia). Since publishing Sarawak, his novel about Brooke, Jerry has received numerous emails from relatives of James Brooke, from relatives of administrators of the Brooke Rajahs, and from readers in Borneo. Mohrlang didnt realize it at the time, but of the many books and articles that have been written about the era of the Brookes, his novel, Sarawak, is the only fictionalized account of the tumultuous period of history in northwest Borneo.
Edward Mycue (Ghana 1961) is one of many RPCV poets who have written poems against the war. His and other anti-war poems can be read at the website: www.poetsagainstthewar.org. Mycues poem is entitled, The Homeland Seduction.
Maureen Orth (Colombia 196466) appeared on the Today Show on March 4th to talk about her article on Michael Jackson that appeared in Vanity Fair.
. . . an interview by John Coyne (Ethiopia 196264)
PAUL THEROUX (Malawi 1963-65) has produced some of the most wicked, funny, sad, bitter, readable, knowledgeable, rude, contemptuous, ruthless, arrogant, moving, brilliant and quotable books ever written. In doing so, he has been in all regards the most successful literary and commercial writer to come out of the Peace Corps.
For those not familiar with Therouxs life, he was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1941, one of seven children, and studied premed at the University of Maine before transferring to the University of Massachusetts and taking his first creative writing class from the poet Joseph Langland. He graduated in 1963 from the U. of Massachusetts and went into Peace Corps training at Camp Radley, Puerto Rico in October of that year and finished his training at Syracuse University before departing for Malawi (then called the Nyasaland Protectorate) where he taught English at Soche Hill College.
His successful writing (i.e. getting paid for what he wrote) began in the Peace Corps in 1964 and his early published works were about the experience of being overseas in Africa. Three of his early novels are set in Africa: Fong and the Indians, Girls at Play, and Jungle Lovers. He has written directly about his Peace Corps experience in My Secret History and My Other Life.
In an article I wrote for our newsletter and website, I detailed Therouxs fight with the U.S. Ambassador to Malawi over the anti-Vietnam war editorials that Paul published in the Peace Corps newsletter, and Therouxs involvement with a failed coup detat which led to him being declared persona non grata by Malawi Prime Minister, Hastings Banta, and his termination from the Peace Corps.
Kicked out of the Peace Corps and Malawi, Theroux went to teach English at the famed Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Here he met not only his future wife, Anne Castle, but also V.S. Naipaul. His first son, Marcel, who is today a novelist, was born in Uganda in 1968. It was at this time that an angry mob at a demonstration threatened to overturn the car in which Anne, then pregnant with Marcel, was riding, and Theroux made the decision to leave Africa.
But in many ways he has never left the continent and has written often about Africa and has traveled back several times to write travel pieces. Now he has written a wonderful travel book about Africa and a trip he took two years ago, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town.
When the book was published in England several months ago, I contacted Paul in Hawaii, where he spends half the year, and we corresponded by email for several weeks. This interview is the first one Paul has done for a Peace Corps publication and it gave me the opportunity to ask some of the questions I have been wanting to ask him for years. Paul was quick to reply.
You've written that you had trouble being cleared by the FBI when you applied for the Peace Corps. Do you know why they had a hold on you?
Yes, they told me Get this: In the summer of 1961 I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I worked at the Caribe Hilton and I put this fact down on my PC application. FBI agents in San Juan checked out my employer and also went to my old address in San Juan, where the landlady innocently reported that I was living with a woman upstairs. This irregularity meant that I did not meet the PC standard of morality and my application was turned down. I got a phone call. Too bad, Paul. I said, May I write you a letter? The man said okay, and I did, and was accepted at the last moment.
What was your Volunteer assignment?
My group was Nyasaland III altered to Malawi III after independence. I was a teacher in a rural school.
When you stepped off the plane in 1963, what was your first reaction to Africa?
Great happiness, intense excitement, boundless hope.
You were in country when Nyasaland became Malawi. What were those days like?
Very exciting to be present at Malawis independence. Remember, this was a time when people had no intention of emigrating leaving their country and going to work in the USA. Malawians were committed to staying, working, building the nation. All that changed in the 1970s.
- What was the biggest contribution that you made as a Volunteer?
I dont know. I had lots of very good students. Last year, traveling to write Dark Star Safari, I stopped in Malawi and bumped into Sam Mpechetula. I had last seen him as a little barefoot kid in my English class. He was now a big gray-haired man, wearing nice shoes, married, and with three or four children. He was a teacher. He clearly remembered me and our classes and he said that other students had done well. I suppose thats something.
When you came to Africa, were you thinking then that you would be a writer?
I had written a great deal while I was in college stories, poems, plays, and had started a novel.
Youve written a great deal about Africa and the Peace Corps. Your first published writings were letters home from overseas. Can you remember the first essay (letter?) that you had published?
First essay Letter from Africa was in The Christian Science Monitor in 1964. First poem in The Central African Examiner in June, 1964. I remember the dates well because I was eager to be published.
Your first three books were set in Africa: Waldo, Fong and the Indians, and Girls at Play. If Im correct, Girls at Play is the first novel by a PCV that has a Peace Corps Volunteer as a character. Can you describe the backgrounds on these books?
Waldo was a novel I had started before going to Africa. I finished it in Malawi in 1965. I got the idea for Fong & the Indians in Kampala and was influenced by having met V S Naipaul there, as well as by the fact that Indians were being persecuted in Kenya.
Though I denied it at the time, for legal reasons, I based Girls at Play on a school in Kenya where my then fiancée was teaching. I wrote it in 1968 in Kampala and it was published in 1969, when I was living in Singapore. One of the main characters (who gets raped and murdered) is a PCV.
Did you base that character in Girls at Play on any particular PCV?
No, only on the sort of innocence and naiveté that led some PCVs, including me, into dangerous territory.
For a time, the Peace Corps staff in Ethiopia used your essay Tarzan is an Expatriate as training material for new PCVs. How did you come to publish that, and where was it published?
In March 1967 at Makerere University I was asked to give a lecture to the new VSOs. My subject was how Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe were models for the expatriate-in-Africa experience. The Tarzan essay was published in Transition magazine later that year and caused a fuss.
Speaking of expatriates have you ever been taken with the Isak Dinesen myth and wanted to write about her and Happy Valley? And with Tom Dooley who was perhaps metaphorically speaking the first Peace Corps Volunteer.
There is something about Africa that makes it a breeding ground for mythomaniacs like Blixen/Dinesen and Hemingway and all the rest of them. I cant stand their purple prose and their patronizing attitudes. I have written about this weirdness in Dark Star Safari.
I have researched the life of Tom Dooley and wrote a screenplay for Oliver Stone on the subject (the movie has not been made). A very complex person, Dooley was booted out of the US Navy for being gay, reinvented himself as a missionary and anti-communist, and was a consummate narcissist, self-promoter and political lobbyist whose ideas helped start the Peace Corps (he was not, of course, a PCV), and also start the Vietnam War. A typical Dooley quote from his hospital in Laos: Here I am, at the rim of Red Hell (China).
How did you come to write The Lepers of Moyo? Did you work with lepers as a secondary project when you were in the Peace Corps?
On school vacations in Malawi we teachers were supposed to do something useful. I found a leprosarium by the shore of Lake Malawi and worked there it was called Mua, at Ntakataka. 1,500 people families of sufferers. It was in many respects a very happy place, though all the people were outcasts.
Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) has been more or less cured in Malawi, though when it was beset by AIDS I wrote the story, as a reminder of this earlier scourge. The story is based on fact, the setting is actual, but the narrative is fiction.
You taught in Africa in the early 1960s. Why did you decide to return after almost 40 years?
Since leaving Africa in October 1968 I thought of the places I had worked, the people I had known, and the hope we all had. I constantly thought: What happened? I longed to return, and I thought I would do it in the year I turned 60. Dark Star Safari represents one mans road. Another person could take the same trip and would have different experiences. Thats a truism, of course. This trip was special to me because the road was in part Memory Lane and because I loved the challenges. There is nothing in the world more vitalizing to me that traveling in the African bush.
It is wonderful for a teacher to meet a former student and see that he or she is gainfully employed perhaps as a teacher; and is a responsible parent and homeowner. This happened to me in Malawi and Uganda wonderful memories. My old friend Apolo Nsibambi we used to drink and argue in the 1960s is now Prime Minister of Uganda. I loved seeing him after 30 years. The passage of time is more dramatic in Africa amazing to witness its effects, for I first set foot there in 1963, which was another age altogether.
You traveled from Cairo to Cape Town by train, bus, taxi, kayak, and often by foot. Why didnt you fly?
Flying from one capital city to another is not travel to me. Travel, especially in Africa, must be overland and must involve the crossing of borders negotiating on land, usually on foot, the national frontier. That experience teaches a great deal about the state of the country. Of course, its sometimes dangerous and always time-consuming.
Anyone who has traveled in Africa and not crossed a national frontier has truly missed the necessary misery and splendor of the journey. Crossing an African frontier alone suggests why any sort of development is so difficult. I do not recommend this to the faint of heart even traveling by road from South Africa to Mozambique is no picnic; but from Ethiopia to Kenya, Kenya to Uganda, Tanzania to Malawi, and Malawi into Mozambique (customs post under a mango tree on the Shire River) you learn a great deal.
Also, I dont fit in. I am a traveler, a stranger, an eavesdropper. I have no status and do not want any. I have an aversion to being an official visitor. I had to borrow a necktie in order to see the US Ambassador in Kampala. I hate official visits being an honored guest at factories and schools. I often feel like the king or prince in an Elizabethan drama, who puts on a cloak and wanders anonymously in the marketplaces of his kingdom to find out what people really think.
Kenya was in a horrible state when you visited, with widespread government corruption under Daniel Arap Moi and a dejected populace affected by years of corruption and terror. Do you see hope for Kenya after their free elections in December 2002 and the defeat of Kenyatta, Mois handpicked successor?
Kenyas government has been deeply corrupt. Mois government tortured friends of mine. Everyone knew it was horribly governed.
I heard the other day that a man in Mois government had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars. Imagine that amount of money and the thief who took it. So, now that Mwai Kibaki has won the election and is in power do we say, Well, all that money was stolen and squirreled away looks like well have to give you some more. I dont think so. My solution would be to forgive the debts of these countries and then after a suitable period of time, make them account for every penny they are given.
You encounter foreign aid workers throughout your journey yet the typical African lives you describe are plagued by what has become routine desperation. What has been the benefit of 40 years of foreign aid?
Not much which is why the whole issue needs rethinking. My answer about begging [just below] has larger implications in the aid industry, which is a begging-and-donating mechanism. I would distinguish between emergency aid (flood in Mozambique, famine in Zambia, earthquake in Rwanda) and the routine dumping-food-in-the-trough that many agencies practice. Such agencies have taken over the care and welfare of people from governments. Malawi is an example. Foreign agencies run hospitals, schools, orphanages etc., while the politicians pretend to govern. I am in favor of making people responsible for their own problems. You have floods because you cut down all your trees. You have a famine because the minister sold the grain stocks and stole the money. Unprotected sex causes AIDS. Pointing out the obvious, perhaps, but not many people do it.
As a white man and an obvious traveler you were constantly approached even harassed by beggars. You write about the many times you fled them or turned a blind eye. What are your thoughts on begging?
I am not intolerant of beggars, but maybe a little skeptical sometimes. Even here at home I say to panhandlers, Why are you asking me for money for nothing? You want fifty cents? If you wash my car I will give you twenty dollars. The offer of work usually drives them away. Obviously there are many deserving destitutes. But for many others, begging is a career. In all cases, handing money over is not a solution.
When you were in Africa in the 1960s many countries, including Kenya and Mozambique, were forming their own governments after centuries of colonial rule. As a traveling observer, how do you think those countries have fared since the end of colonialism?
They have fared badly because of poor leadership, lack of resources, the colonial hangover, the subversion of foreign institutions.
In Malawi and Zimbabwe, Africans told me that when they tried to start a business like a shop, or a farm, or a bar they failed because at the first sign of success their relatives showed up and cadged from them, or implored them to pay their relatives school fees. Thats a common tale of woe.
But I noticed something else, as well. In the past, people tried to make things work and struggled in hard times in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. In the past 15 years people have given up struggling at home and tried to emigrate. During my trip I heard many stories of emigration. People failing in rural Tanzania do not think of making a new life elsewhere in East Africa. They are headed for South Africa and the promise of work, or else seeking a visa to Britain or the United States. I met many people who wanted a ticket out so economic failure could be tied to people disgusted with their prospects and wanting to leave. As a traveler in Africa my traveling companions were often Africans heading elsewhere. Often I said to them, Why dont you stay home and fix the problem? They said: Let someone else do it. And I said: Its not going to be me.
You mentioned crossing African borders and how necessary the misery and splendor of the journey is. How about the danger? Did you have any experience where you really thought your life was in danger?
I was certain my life was in danger when bandits fired at the cattle truck I was riding in from the Ethiopian border through the northern Kenyan desert. I was assured by a man ducking next to me, They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes. I also felt my life was in jeopardy in every chicken bus and old car I rode in at great speed, on bad roads, with a young reckless driver at the wheel.
Traveling in Africa, I had to learn patience, humility, survival skills, and to keep reminding myself that I was prey To most people I representing Money-on-Two-Legs. I am as risk averse as anyone else also, arent I a wealthy, middle-aged, semi-well-known American writer who doesnt need to put up with this crap? The answer is yes and no. I did need to put up with this crap or else theres no insight and no book.
You describe cities in South Africa and even Harare, Zimbabwe, as relatively orderly with reliable public transportation and a working class. Why is there such a big difference between the cities in the south and the sub-Saharan cities further north like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, and Mbeya?
All African cities I have seen are a horror. I tried to avoid them, by traveling in the bush.
Africa is a separate place. Traveling in it, I seemed to be on another planet. I liked this feeling because the world has shrunk and you often meet people in South America and Asia who regard themselves as living in a suburb or satellite city of the United States.
By having been largely ignored and neglected, Africa has remained itself. Who would want to visit China now that it is an overheated economy of consumer goods and greedy materialists? Pacific islands have remained culturally interesting by being so far away and neglected. Whatever was hoped for Africa in the 1960s that it would become materially better off, better educated, and healthier has not come about. But whose hopes were these?
What impresses me about the many African countries that I traveled through from Cairo to Cape Town was how people have survived tyrannical governments, food shortages, disease and poor or no infrastructure bad roads, no phones, etc. Of course, the governments need the people to be poor and to look distressed in order to get donor money. Malawi is a great example of that. Nothing positive has happened to Malawi since I left there in 1965. Yet in the villages and by the lakeshore and in the bush people go on.
What part of your trip filled you with the greatest hope for Africas future?
The knowledge that African friends of mine who were educated with good jobs in education or health were encouraging their children (in some cases American educated) to remain in Uganda, Kenya, or Malawi to work to be part of the process as one mother said to me without relying on the Peace Corps or USAID or other foreign donors.
Was there a pivotal moment when you felt utter despair for the African situation?
I dont feel despair. But it sometimes seems that Africa exists in a sort of shadow cast by the outer world. But Africa is not darker or crueler or harder than other places. Prisoners are tortured by the Israeli government. China interferes with peoples private lives. Women are treated like a separate and inferior species in Saudi Arabia. There is starvation in North Korea. Brazils slums are worse than anything in the world. Until recently you could not buy condoms or get a divorce or an abortion in Ireland: maybe still true? There are plenty of barbarities in the world that make Africa seem serene and civilized.
One last question about Africa. Do you think there is still a place in Africa for Peace Corps Volunteers?
Definitely. But it seems to me that every African country should match the program by pairing a local volunteer with a PCV.
Have you thought of a book about traveling in the U.S.?
The hardest place to write about is ones own country. A man from my home town of Medford, a forgotten writer named Nathaniel Bishop wrote two wonderful books about the US in one he paddled a canoe from NY to New Orleans, in the second he rowed a small boat. I like solo travel under my own steam. Maybe I will write Travels with Charly after all.
Finally. What about vacation for yourself. With all of your travels is a vacation just impossible for you?
I go for vacations with my wife or kids to such lovely places as the Maine coast or to Madrid to look at the Prado. Last year I went on a cruise. Vacations are usually enjoyable, which translates as nothing to write home about.
A Donald Strachey Mystery
by Richard Stevenson
aka Richard Lipez (Ethiopia 196264)
New York: St. Martins Press
Reviewed by Mike Learned (Malawi 196365)
I HAVE LONG BEEN ADDICTED to good mystery series. My tastes have progressed over the years. Today its less blood and guts. More social commentary, interesting characters, and contemporary political and social life are what catch my eye. For twenty years my evolving mystery tastes have been refined by Donald Strachey, a gay private eye based in Albany, New York. As interesting as Strachey is his longtime partner/lover, Timmy Callahan, a witty, righteous, bordering on the prim, former Peace Corps Volunteer. Tongue Tied is the eighth volume the Donald Strachey series that Im banking on continuing for another twenty years.
Strachey is the creation of Dick Lipez who writes the Strachey series under the name of Richard Stevenson. Dick explains that when he started writing the series in the late 70s, he was going through a personal sea change. His identity as an out gay man was emerging, his marriage was ending and he had two kids in grade school in a small Western Massachusetts community. He decided to use his first and middle names, and leave his last name out. He continued his life in journalism as Dick Lipez.
One of the reasons I have long read mysteries is for their social and cultural observations. I have a job that requires travel much of the time. I spend many hours in airports, on airplanes and in hotel rooms in not very glamorous communities around the country. Id croak without something fast and energizing to read along the way. A series like Stracheys provides me with a sense of continuity and ongoing structure. Current events, gay and human rights issues, progressive politics, social values, pop music are all an important part of the Strachey scene. Friends, clients and characters from earlier volumes in the series show up in later ones. People age, mature, stabilize, or in some cases get crazier. Over the years Strachey has become more domesticated, tied to and awed by Timmy, a political operative working in New York State politics and a very smart man.
Tongue Tied tells the story of Stracheys taking on as a client, right-wing radio talk show host Jay Plankton, know as J-Bird. J-Bird is a smarmy take-off on any number of current FM shock jocks around the country. An obscure gay rights group thats been out of the scene for more than 20 years is harassing poor J-Bird. This group and some of its members were last heard from in Death Trick, Lipezs first volume in the series set in 1979. As in real-life, those faces from the past keep turning up, sometimes surprisingly. Pranks rapidly progress to kidnappings and the threat of death. Strachey is dealing with people from all edges of the political/social spectrum. What are the relationships and whos doing what to whom?
The real magic of this latest volume is its setting in time. Tongue Tied takes place during the late summer of 2000. Hilary and Rick are slugging it out in New York. Al and George W are slugging it out nationally. Reality TV is yet to come American Idol, Joe Millionaire, The Bachelorette are mere crazy-ass ideas in some television producers mind. And the reality TV of the November 2000 presidential elections, the un-reality TV of the following September 11, and now Iraq; all beyond my imagination back then. A time so close, two and half years ago, yet so far. That hectic summer and fall now seem like an amazingly innocent, carefree time, ancient history. If only we knew. Im glad I didnt.
The Mystery has become an extraordinary agile and creative literary genre, popular and important. Mysteries are set in almost every society and sub-culture, in countries on six continents. There are historical mysteries and science fiction mysteries. The best describe cultural idiosyncrasies and social values, and give the reader a sense of recognition and learning. And there are always new additions to the genre, something intriguing, an arresting new protagonist, a distinct new location. Alexander McCall Smiths, Mma Ramotswe, and her No.1 Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana being only one of the more recent and delightful additions to this ever-expanding literary family.
Lipez is socially, politically, and musically astute, well read and a fine writer. As a result, Stracheys dialogue is sharp, snappy, hip and very knowing. Hes also become more introspective over the years. Hes grown up; well almost. Timmy still has some work to do. After reading Tongue Tied I decided to go back and re-read the previous seven Strachey volumes. Im about half way through. Tongue Tied is but the current chapter in one of the best chronicles of rapidly changing American social history and its all wrapped up in a series of tales told by a gay private eye.
Mike Learned is a technical trainer specializing in web content and other forms of complex documentation. He is active in Peace Corps politics. Currently he is the Group President and Newsletter Editor of the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs (www.lgbrpcv.org), a long-time affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA). You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
She's Not There
by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 196567)
Henry Holt & Co.
Reviewed by Mishelle Shepard (Czech Republic 199496)
MARY-ANN TIRONE SMITHS sequel to the popular Love Her Madly proves to be another exciting page-turner.
The compelling scenario is set on small Block Island off the coast of Rhode Island, where Poppy Rice has reluctantly agreed to vacation with her occasional lover Joe. Their relaxation is abruptly interrupted when Poppy stumbles upon the first young victim of a terrible crime. Poppy calls her vacation short, changes out of her bikini and gets ready to solve her newest mystery.
Subsequently the reader is introduced to an intriguing group of characters, which makes the setting resemble an isle of misfits. Theres the well-portrayed autistic Jake, the misogynist artist Esther, the once-good-cop-turned-alcoholic, Fitzy with his naïve rookie, the camp director/con man, and the typified sassy-yet-caring group of overweight teenage girls. Unsuspectingly, the girls have come to the recently opened fat farm camp to lose weight, but instead they are mentally, if not physically, abused by the camp director and seek solace in their secret stashes of sweets, each others company and the strength of their heroine, Poppy. The camp director is revealed to be a con artist who describes his military-style camp as one that includes: Discipline that replaces sloth with self-esteem. Discipline that includes orders to be followed rather than benevolent advice. Tough love, as some would call the method. Since teenagers are impervious to advice, after all.
The author wastes no time in grabbing the readers attention, already by page five the first dead body is found. Poppy, a cynical and often brash workaholic, is now able to substantiate her self-proclaimed irrational fear of vacation, while manifesting a supportive compassion for the teenage girls who seem to have few others on their side. The alienated girls, most of them seemingly discarded to the island by their parents, muster little authentic concern on the part of the locals; they are not day-trippers, who are ridiculed but at least come with the welcomed tourist dollars. The locals are initially convinced the death of the girl must be a sex crime, a drug overdose, or both, and are relieved to discover the victim is not one of our own.
Each subsequent gruesome murder is bizarrely identical. The girls are found naked; there is neither blood nor visible wound. The pathologist soon discovers another odd similarity between them the girls eardrums have been ruptured. In search of method and motive, the plot becomes a who-dunnit through and through. Joe leaves the island suddenly and Poppy is left to solve the mystery with nearly every character seeming to be a possible suspect, even him. Through Poppys keen power of observation the story forges ahead and the race begins to identify the killer before the next girl is found, and its hard to turn the pages fast enough to keep up with Poppy.
If on occasion bordering on cliché, it is nonetheless the dialogue that illuminates the stereotypes of small town folk versus city slicker and also manages to sound sadly realistic. The surplus of dialogue also contributes to the quick read aspect of the book, and sometimes lends itself to poignant social observations or cultural criticisms, as in the ironic but valid comment made by both Poppy and Joe at different times; Cant be overweight in America, can you? And again when Poppy talks about her assistant, mirroring Americas contemporary child care crisis: When Delby went looking for child care, she found out you could be a hooker with a sixth-grade education and a history of schizophrenia and still get a license to run a day-care center.
The theme of denial becomes a leitmotif also paralleling societies tendencies. Joes contribution to discovering the truth is shadowed by his refusal to taint the image of his idealized small town retreat. The reader is confronted with the characters general belief that it is OK for teenage girls to die from drugs but not from murder. Fitzy escapes into his bottle, the island doctor into his Demerol. Finally, in the concluding scene, some of the locals admit they had an idea who the murderer was, but ulterior motives kept them all from speaking out. It reminds the reader of that distressingly popular modern adage denial is a beautiful thing.
The authors third in the Poppy Rice mysteries is already in the works and it will be interesting to see what adventures await this daring FBI agent.
Mishelle Shepard nurtured her childhood love of books by earning an MA in French Literature and becoming a language teacher and a writer. She has published dozens of articles, ghostwritten a book, and is completing her fist novel. Shes currently living in Girona, Spain.
by Sandra Meek (Botswana 198991)
Minneapolis: Elixir Press
Reviewed by Margaret Szumowski (Zaire 197374, Ethiopia 197475)
OUTH AFRICAN PLAYWRIGHT Athol Fugard, passionate about apartheid, shows us in Master Harold and the Boys, a world that separates those who in a different setting, might love one another, or at least avoid collisions. Collisions are everywhere in the Africa poet Sandra Meek describes in Nomadic Foundations. The world of Cecil Rhodes and his hegemony is coming to an end. In Meeks Possession lizards swarm Rhodes grave, yet the mining company and its powerful presence still dominates the landscape. This is a world stagnant, sunk in sorrow, battered, nearly destroyed:
Tonight, what have we left of ourselves/
to excavate? The arch of surviving night/
spanning the stars
Botswana is finally independent. Men leave their families and work in the mines in South Africa, still under apartheid. A Peace Corps Volunteer is a privileged person: passes are required from anyone who is not by definition white. Nelson Mandela has yet to step out of prison and burn his pass.
Right away, Meek shows us that we are in a sorrowful place. My blue country wins me border stamps, crossings that are not available to Africans. Apartheid and passes and fear are woven into the often beautiful landscapes she describes. Beneath her exquisite language, lies desperation and the stark facts of existence, the greed of shovels.
This is an Africa different from what the tourists or the folks at home expect. In Reply Without Gazelles the person at home naively writes What is it like to wake to gazelles every morning tell me about Africa. Death seems to be everywhere, in the faces coming off on our hands, on the pamphlets being passed around, to the digging of graves, and the grief of the black widow shaving childrens heads. This is the month for funerals.
Sandra Meek calls her writing about Africa Deep Travel. She looks intently at landscape for its mystery and its truth. And she is brilliant at description. Sometimes the landscape seems surreal, and the reader has to rub her eyes to remember that Meek is talking about a real landscape. In the poem Toward Gestures, she refers to Luderitz, Namibia: In streets/bare of trees and shrubs is the finest collection of German/colonial architecture in the world. In front of the town,/the Atlantic ocean; behind it, the Namib desert.
In the poem Refugee, Meek departs from her usual visionary glimpses and gives us a complicated story about how violence is passed along. First, she shows us the division of schoolchildren by race at the beach:
The White children had embroidered emblems like shields/
on their uniform breast. When the Black children/
went by in their solid blue, no emblem,/
no shield over their hearts, I saw/
you at 10 . . before Soweto, before you joined the wave/
of children spilling out of the schools, before/
solid rows of soldiers, shored up with guns,/
suddenly lunged forward like a law of nature?
The breaking of human beings and the passing along of terror to the weak and innocent underlies Meeks poem, one of the most affecting in the book. But even what seems beautiful is deathly. In Evolution:
A girl scoops up a barnacle still/
sealed, sleek as liver, glossy-black./
Her fingers trace its ear-like curve, wrench it open.
Joy makes its welcome appearance in In Translation:
In the village, children practice for Independence./
Girls clap and stamp, strung ankles rattling/
dry pods of seeds. Even herd boys/
sing, one ear tuned/
to the bell-pitch of their goats, their music.
Something is coming to pass that will change everything, all the suffering ("The Way We Used to Believe"):
Deep in this earth, always a mother lies/
curling into a black fist, ancient heart, and Im not/
listening for the child/
but for the mother cradled in her grave;/
if death is a shell to split open, I want to hear?/
the rocking inside.
The mothers are rising from their graves, and we can hear the rocking. With the end of apartheid, death is a shell . . .split open. The war, over. All those broken bodies spill whats left of light. Submerged under nearly every scene of Nomadic Foundations is the pain of apartheid and the longing for freedom. Meek has given us an enigmatic book that cries out for clarity where there can be none. She shows us the shadowy and terrifying history of Southern Africa printed on its earth and its people.
Margaret Szumowski is working on a new manuscript, Night of the Lunar Eclipse.
How the Water Feels
by Paul Eggers (Malaysia 197678)
Southern Methodist University Press
Reviewed by Jim Toner (Sri Lanka 198890)
I have high hopes for an author who can write a sentence like this: In the afternoon, the heat soaked into his pores and pressed for hours like a hand, a womans soft, insistent hand, against his skin. This is beautiful and fresh and lyrical, and when the same author can write imaginative and graceful similes a face as serene and open as a parasol and the air was heavy as a paw you feel youre in the presence of the real thing. Here is a writer who knows how to push his writing to the sensual details (At night the empty streets echoed with shouts a block away or six blocks away, it was so cavernous you couldnt really tell and newsprint scudded across the pavement and blew rattling into your face.); he knows about dashes and elegant sentences (He was long-limbed but slight, and despite his layers of clothing jean jacket, flannel logger shirt, white T-shirt his hunched way of sitting made him look mushroomy and soft.); and even rarer, this author knows about the hard truths of character (I lied because I was ashamed, but more than that: I lied because I saw what I was becoming. I was aimless, slick in a petty way, my spirit seeping out of me in small gasps.) This is good writing, and the setting for half of the short stories is a Malaysian refugee camp, a setting that appeals to my appetite for culture and exoticism and sorrow around the edges.
Why amid such promise, then, is Paul Eggers collection of short stories, How the Water Feels, such a disappointment? In a word it has to do with unevenness. The same mind that gave us the parasol simile also gives us a dozen duds: he looked as though he had just ponied up a turd; . . . a graceful, tiny frame erupting in the middle, as if an epidermic seal had broken and organs surged against his shirt; he would have been safe as a Pope buckled up in his Popemobile; the pavement was straight and flat as a summer waterway; a million thoughts went through Garys head, and they all seemed to circle like bees. The same mind that brought us the lovely womans soft, insistent hand also gives us such jagged sentences as I had never touched the thing. It gave me the creeps.; and As he gingerly made his way down the steps, burdened with his clanking briefcase, his legs seemed to bow, and he rubbed the fingers of his free hand together vigorously, a sure sign he was still angry with her." In one story he even resorts to fragments for no particular reason: Then other people stopped, too. Two boys in dirty jeans. A black man in a green suit.
Im focusing on style because what happens to Eggers on a small scale is what happens on a larger one, too. His unevenness in style at times brilliant, usually ordinary, too often dull and obvious is matched by the stories. These eight stories in How the Water Feels alternate between a refugee camp in Malaysia and a chess culture near Seattle. One of the stories, Anything You Want, Please, is brilliant: a story of depth and surprise and insight, a story in which the main character (a Peace Corps Volunteer who leaves his girlfriend behind in America) is complex and engaging. There is humor and delicacy (Madeline, said Reuben. He patted the sides of this cauldron in invitation. Come simmer with me.) and there is the recurrence of a single word, titillation, to stitch together different parts of the story. These devices, along with artful writing (They passed piles of rotting foliage in a clearing and, farther back, a circle of shacks on stilts, lit by lanterns.) and emotions that range from love to savagery, combine to create a story that stayed with me after I was finished.
Not so with any other story. All of the chess stories are dismal and uninspired, occupied by characters who go nowhere and who speak in ways Ive never heard humans speak: I think youre painting your dick red and calling it a charlie pole; Im calm. Thats the trouble. I let you get away with everything. Do you want me to spank your bottom? I think you do. The characters live on the fringes and aspire to some kind of chess recognition, but in the end they gain no insight, gain no job, gain no trophies. The storytelling is very poor no suspense, long digressions at odd points and the one chance to infuse them with power and irony is missed. That chance comes from juxtaposing these stories next to the horrors of Malaysia, with its Thai pirates who kill and rape, with all the rats, with all the sorrow of Vietnamese refugees eating dirt. To go from there to chess in Tacoma is shocking, and in the hands of a good writer, that shock couldve been exploited through irony to underscore the narrow and self-serving lives of these chess hobbyists.
But Eggers is not that caliber of writer, the kind with the instincts of a storyteller and a musician, the kind who, in an observation by Saul Bellow, excels in what he leaves out as much as what he leaves in. One particular story needs mention in this regard. Its The Year Five, a story that is over sixty pages long and fills up one-third of the book. Thats a lot, and you would think that all that ink would be allocated to an exceptional story, especially when it plays to Eggers strength: life in Malaysia. In fact I found it dreadful and untruthful, a story that flinches at the harder story in favor of a dull character with a dull agenda. For a while we are invested in the life of the Viet refugee, Trinh, but only partially invested. We are told he wrote poems in margins, but Eggers never provides one of those poems to help us develop Trinh in our minds. When he kills himself after twenty pages, we do care, and we care enough to be astonished that the remaining forty pages drop Trinh almost entirely. Instead we are given a new character, an Indian Sikh, whose agenda is to acquire four signatures that verify some wrong in the refugee camp. I know what Eggers was doing two types of refugees united in the end but its a stretch, and in the end I wanted to toss the book across the room.
Why? Because here and all throughout the book Eggers keeps breaking an unspoken contract with his reader. The contract is this: I will give you a chunk of my time in exchange for stories that will move you, entertain you, perhaps change you, amuse you, elevate you. He keeps the contract when he writes lovely sentences the contract that says the writer will spend a lot of time shaping his words into crystal but then breaks it with an indulgent story like The Year Five that is fifty pages too long. He breaks it when his characters dont ring true and are one dimensional; he breaks it when a character we care about is dropped from the story; he breaks it when Im never amused, not once; and he breaks it when he lacks the courage to leap.
By courage to leap I mean that Eggers never ventures very far beyond himself to touch the universal in things that bind all humans together. Eggers, a chess master who worked in a Malaysian refugee camp, writes about chess and a Malaysian refugee camp, and then calls these stories fiction. That type of hiding behind fiction runs throughout the stories a hiding, a flinching. I kept feeling that he wrote the wrong and much easier story why, for example, dont we get a story on one of those horrific refugee boats and I kept feeling that this writer, for all his gifts for an occasionally lovely sentence, just doesnt have that rare gift I want in writers: the gift to drill down deeper and deeper to the secret things. Rilke wrote, I want to be with those who know secret things, or else be alone, and thats why I gave up on Eggers. Just when I thought he was venturing toward the secret of a man who chooses chess over love, of dreams, of agony he flinched and opted for the safe and known surface.
Its disappointing. Eggers has talent and, in the ways that writing can be taught, can craft a nice sentence. But thats not enough to sustain me. I never felt Eggers reach deep within me and unite my life with the life of his characters, and even though I love reading about other cultures and other characters far beyond my experience, I was bored with Malaysia and especially bored with Tacoma. With the one exception of Anything You Want, Please, every ending was a disappointment, and every story left me unmoved and unchanged. I was happy I had my month-old boy to turn to, whose screams and gurgles contain more truth and insistence than anything to be found in How the Water Feels.
Jim Toner is an English teacher at Columbia College in California. He is the author of Serendib (University of Georgia Press, 2001), a memoir about his Peace Corps experiences.
Dark Star Safari
Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
by Paul Theroux (Malawi: 196365)
Houghton Mifflin Co.
Reviewed by Sharon Dirlam (Russian Far East 199698)
PAUL THEROUX HAS DEVELOPED a reputation as a travel writer who informs and entertains while being acutely perceptive and at the same time coldly judgmental.
In Dark Star Safari, he sets out to travel the length of Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, staying as far as possible off the tourist trail. From the chaos and filth of urban slums to small isolated villages, Theroux listens to peoples stories, argues with bureaucrats, rides hideously derelict buses and trains, and records his impressions.
He rounds out his account with descriptions written by earlier travelers, Flaubert and Rimbaud in particular. And his narrative includes extensive reporting from political and historical records, contextualizing his personal observations.
Theroux proudly describes his own sense of adventure: They said the road was the most dangerous in Africa, and so, of course, I wanted to go there.
Hes at his best when he gets people along the way to tell him their stories; he captures the tone of their personalities and the substance of their experiences. These include Africans who spent years as political prisoners, old friends from his days in the Peace Corps, a couple of young prostitutes, taxi drivers, and white settlers whose lives have been defined by decades of turbulence and insecurity.
He spends time with Nadine Gordimer, whose writing he praises, and talks about other national writers he admires, including Naguib Mahfouz, writing about Egypt, Shusaku Endo in Japan and R. K. Narayan in India. He faults the writing of his old friend, Nobel prize winner V.S. Naipaul, saying everything Naipaul wrote about Africa was informed by the fear that he had known as an isolated Hindu child in black Trinidad, so that Naipaul wrote as an outsider who feels weak.
Therouxs metaphors and images are captivating: wooden plows shaped like wishbones, the mud stink rose like part of the darkness, and fingerless lepers screeching for alms like a procession of tax collectors.
He reports dispassionately about a woman cowering in a doorway as she is beaten with a heavy stick by a turbaned older man, and, later, about a naked man chased down by a howling mob that caught and killed him. Theroux lists some of the reason he likes Africa: the lepers, hyenas, ivory tusks, and garbage; the complaining donkeys, the open drains, the tang of spices, the moans of peoples prayers, the dark-eyed invitation to a shadowy hut.
Theroux finds tourists beneath contempt, and sets forth his scorn in deliciously wry detail, describing their African tours as safari-as-charade in which safari geeks wearing whipcord jodhpurs and pith helmets, jog along in a Land Rover. He contrasts this with his own safari-as-struggle, including public transport, fungal infections, petty extortion, mocking lepers, dreary bedrooms, bad food, exploding bowels, fleeing animals, rotting schoolrooms, meaningless delays, and blunt threats.
Humanitarian aid workers incur his scorn as well; he blames them for causing more problems in Africa than they ever solved. Foreign charities had been at it for decades, and the situation was more pathetic than ever, he writes. Some charity workers remind him of people herding animals and throwing food to them.
He called a pair of aid workers who refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover selfish, self-dramatizing prigs, and he described a pair of missionaries he noticed on the train as cookie-eating, Christ-bitten evangelists, pale, blotchy, sunburned and bulky.
Theroux said he dislikes Ernest Hemingway, from his shotgun to his mannered prose, calling him both a tourist and a big-game hunter.
As for the future of Africa, Theroux finds hope not in the urban slums, relief projects or political change, but in the daily struggle of the subsistence farmers in the bush, growing enough to feed their families, managing to survive on their own.
Theroux admires and exemplifies the disconnection of the lone traveler: The best writers were scrupulous, pitiless observers. Still, he is aware of his impact on the reader. He ruminates on how nice it would be if someone reading the narrative of his African trip and felt that it was the next best thing to being there or even better, because reading about being shot at and poisoned and insulted was in general less upsetting than the real thing. Except, of course, for Theroux himself, who wouldnt miss such experiences for the world.
Sharon Dirlam, a former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is the author of Beyond Siberia, a yet-to-be-published nonfiction narrative about her Peace Corps service, and two stories published in Travelers Tales: A Womans World.
The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana Cajun Coast
By Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 196264)
MIKE TIDWELL'S IMPORTANT and enjoyable book about the disappearance of the Southern Louisiana bayous reads like a novel as he relates his exploration of the coastal lowlands. He reveals the alarming disintegration of this vast wetlands, which yields nearly 30% of the nations shrimp and crab. He provides a candid look at the mostly Cajun people of the bayous in their own voices to which he adds his own curiosity and research.
Tidwell begins his journey with a note on accents that explains how he has attempted to preserve The true color and dignity of their (Cajun) speech . . . by a more limited portrayal, faithfully omitting the th sound and including some of the altered grammar without laying things on too thick. Using the suggestion of accents, plus writing in the present tense, Tidwell renders his many conversations with the Bayou people in the immediacy of the local lingo.
The Louisiana wetlands are sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most incredible revelations is that the destruction of this thriving fishing industry is a mere 20 years from becoming irreversible. As it is, the sinking of the bayou wetlands is happening at a rate of 25 sq. miles per year. The Mississippi River has not been allowed to flood for more than 70 years due to a series of dams and levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers. Thus the yearly deposit of silt is no longer being added to the wetlands at the mouth of the Mississippi. This interruption of thousands of years of flooding has taken its toll on the fragile marshes which feed and shelter the tremendous bounty of shrimp, crabs, oysters and other fish. In addition, underwater gas and oil pipelines along the bottom of the bayous have increased the erosion factor.
Bayou Farewell is foremost a travel book which explores several major bayous and their inhabitants with a sensitivity that also penetrates to the problems of the disappearing wetlands. Tidwell also catches the poetic specialness of the sunsets and the waterfowl and the sad ghosts of sinking cemeteries and forests that dot the marshlands. The adventure comes out of the exotic locale, but also out of Tidwells willingness to get out on the water to talk to the shrimpers and fishermen and record what these people have to say about their history and their present life.
In his first trip down the bayou, Tidwell thumbs rides on several shrimping boats and crabbing skiffs. Papoose Lewdet, a shrimper, agrees to take Tidwell downstream.
You ever been down de baya before? Papoose asks in his heavy Cajun accent. Down here the word bayou comes out baya and down de baya means, in effect, our home, chez nous, that watery rural Louisiana place located at the very end of the world just the way locals like it. Not too many outsiders, lost or otherwise, wander this deep into the region. And certainly none walk up asking for rides aboard working shrimp boats . . .
No, I tell Papoose, lowering my backpack to the wharf. This is my first trip down here.
What about shrimpin? he asks. You know anyting about shrimpin?
No, I say again, confessing my knowledge of Cajun fishing customs is nil . . . I just want to float down the bayou with you, I say. Thats all. It doesnt matter how far youre going. Im just traveling. I just want to get downstream.
Suddenly he looks a bit less confused. He doesnt exactly smile, but the idea starts to sink in.
Just travelin, huh? Like a tourist?
Well, okay den. Why didnt you say so? Put your pack in de cabin.
I see his hand, still stained with engine grease, suddenly outstretched toward mine. I cross the wharf and shake it. I can take you as far as Leeville, an hour and a half down stream. Im going shrimpin down dere right now.
Throughout the book, Tidwell meets Cajun, American Indian and Vietnamese fishermen as well as oil and gas workers, all of whom provide hospitality and interesting conversation. At every turn of these incredibly beautiful waterways, which are described with a delicate appreciation, we learn the specifics of how and why these marshlands are disappearing.
Further down the bayou in Leeville, Tidwell meets up with Tim Melancon and his son Tee Tim (Tee is a sort of designation of Junior), a teenager who is a crabber and will ferry Tidwell further down the bayou.
After just one day on the marsh Im starting to understand just how bountiful this waterscape called the Louisiana bayou country really is. Drop a hook off Tims wharf, he tells me and youll reel in a speckled trout or redfish or black drum for the skillet. Lower a baited crab cage and youll come back tomorrow to find a half dozed of the most succulent blue crabs the world has to offer. From spring to fall you can trawl for brown shrimp, white shrimp and sea bass, then hunt to your stomachs content from November to January when the blue-winged teal and gray ducks darken the sky in their annual migration. Not to mention alligator hunting in September, trapping otters and muskrats for fur in the winter . . . .
Were de last of de Mohicans, Tim tells me. We still live off de land. Everting we need is right here. To be honest, I never had a job in my life.
When Tidwell asks about losing the land, Tim replies:
Losing it? Hell, here in Leeville, we done already lost it . . . Look around. Later we pile into Tee Tims crab boat and . . . . A few hundred feet away, just before Route 1 crosses Bayou Lafourche atop the rusting Leeville Bridge, Tim points toward a watery stretch of marsh grass oddly littered with bricks and concrete.
Its a cemetery, he [Tim] says.
There, shockingly, along the grassy bayou bank, I can now make out a dozen or [so] old tombs, all in different stages of submersion, tumbling brick by brick into the bayou water . . .
After his first trip to the region, Tidwell returns in the early spring to go out on the shrimpers, witness the Cajun festival that opens shrimping season and live on the water for a time. He also goes deeper into his own reasons for writing the book, If one of Americas greatest riches was about to perish, I wanted at the very least to help sound the trumpets of its passing and maybe, just maybe, bring into sharper focus the possibility of its last-minute rescue.
Further on we get casual snapshots of the plant and wild life, as Tidwell drives further back into bayou country and encounters Indians who are members of the United Houma Nation. Later he visits a village and spends time with a native healer among these Indians who were pushed from the mainland to the furthest reaches of the swamps.
Another cause of the sinking land and fragile condition of the coast are the number and extent of the trenches dug throughout the bayou country to accommodate the huge oil and gas drilling the goes ever deeper and further into the Gulf of Mexico.
In the 1930s, at almost the exact same time the lower Mississippi River was finally conquered for good with levees, oil exploitation began in earnest throughout the bayou region . . . . Early on, the big companies Texaco, Amoco and others launched the practice of extensive canal dredging . . . . As a result, there are few stretches of Louisiana marsh today that are not scissored by at least one or two canals . . . (which) trigger disastrous erosion.
Near the end of the book, the author manages a trip on an oilrig service boat where we get a full picture of the huge oil and gas operation that rims the Louisiana coast and continues far, far out into the gulf.
The main remedy to preserve the bayou seems to be to allow the Mississippi to flood in a controlled manner. Several smaller experiments exist. Tidwell visits the Caenarvon Freshwater Diversion Project for a first hand account of how the land can be restored in a relative short time. The plan is there, the will is there, but the politics remain to be played out.
Bayou Farewell is a great travel book and a sobering look at a land that is nearly lost. Tidwells ingenious spirit and curiosity allow the people of the region to speak for themselves while he provides an honest glimpse into their lives. We also hear the voices of those who are working to save the Louisiana wetlands. This book richly informs those of us who had no idea that this area of the country is in such desperate shape, and should inspire many more people to work to save the bayous of the Southern Louisiana coast. Mike Tidwell has done his part by sounding the trumpet in a very clear and compelling voice.
Will Siegel works as a technical writer in Boston. He is completing a novel Kennedy in the Land of the Dead, which begins in the Peace Corps.
A letter from . . .
April 7, 1997
My dear Roommates
The sun has moved. Im sure that all of my life, at each change of season, the sun has moved, but never before had I noticed. Yet this evening, as usual, I pulled my rattan chair onto the porch to watch the sunset, and the sun was not where it should have been. For months I had seen it descend gracefully into the night to the left of the palm tree behind the Mauritanians store. Now, apparently, our faithful bearer of daylight has moved several meters to the right so far so, that my next door neighbors mango bush hides the final descent. I am afraid that by the Spring Equinox, West will have moved all the way behind my house. Ill be forced to pull my chair out the back door and send my well-wishes west over the roof of Monsieur Calebs latrine.
Funny how west should move north like that. I guess it makes sense. As the Southern Hemisphere prepares for winter, the northern world leans in toward the sun and summer leaving those of us in the middle to watch a solar tug-of-war.
But how then, did ancient travelers ever go due West? Due anything? Maybe thats how Columbus found American; Vespucci gave him directions for the wrong season.
Logic tells me that at home the sun moves north and south, too. But why have I never noticed before? Perhaps its because Ive never had a single land-mark for 4 seasons like my Mauritanian palm tree here. In the summers, I relished sunsets over the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean (which shouldnt make sense because its to the east, but from the Vineyard coast, you can look west over water. Get a map out if you dont believe me.) And in the winter, I . . . well, I basically ignored them on the streets of Cambridge, or on the train home from Boston, or while making dinner in Walpole. Or perhaps its because in our land of high-tech wonders and high-stress lives, we just dont notice small details like that.
Or perhaps my astronomy just sucks and the damn orb doesnt move at all when youre up north. Anyway, life continues here in the Congo. Last week I took a 185 km motorcycle ride which was way cool from the nearest big city (Dolisie) home (Nyanga) because none of the public transport was running no gas. Consequently, this week has seemed rather slow and dull. I took care of a lot of administrative paper work quarterly report, long range strategic plan, ripping up old memos to use as toilet paper which kept me house-bound for most of the time. The upcoming week promises to be more interesting. I have to find someone to dig me a new latrine. Dont laugh, it will be more interesting because it will mean a little exploring. Not just anyone digs latrines, you know, especially since I live in the heart of white-collar world (or the Congo equivalent thereof). I will have to comb local villages to find someone to dig for a good price. Ah, the excitement.
Before signing off, folks, I want to make one last stab at profundity along the lines of observations: I dont know how we as a group seem to you over there, but from here when I am not privy to the daily drudges of job-hunts, bill-paying, broken-hearts, etc., we are currently a pretty amazing bunch of people. Jon is working at Lucas Films, Jason for a start-up Internet company, Glenn at a start-up computer games gig after a year at York. Elie came back from Israel and is doing legal journalistic type stuff. Nao and Rich are floating around Asia and Australia doing legal/touristy type stuff. Anne, Ken, and Josh all have one foot towards being a doctor of letters, Jenna towards being a doctor of medicine. Todd and Justin have a leg-up on being millionaire/business-tycoons. And Im in Africa. Watching west move north.
My love to you all,
Miriam Carroll served in Congo 199697 and Gabon 199798.
A Volunteer's life in Romania
Partying with peasants
and a letter to America
by Andy Trincia (Romania 2002 )
ONE SIMPLE ERRAND a spontaneous beer run in the boondocks turned into one of the most poignant moments of my life.
For a few days around New Years, I stayed in an itty-bitty Romanian village, an ethnic Hungarian one at that, tucked away in Transylvania, literally and figuratively many miles away from civilization and the cover-charged, champagne-packaged revelry usually associated with ushering in another year.
Miclosoara, population 500, has no running water, only one paved street, electricity but no gas lines, and is heated only by wood the burning smell of which fills the country air. Chickens, horses and other animals seem to outnumber its poor residents, who speak Hungarian first, Romanian second. Despite their Romanian citizenship and great distance from the Hungarian border most have never been to Hungary they proudly proclaim their Magyar heritage. This remnant of history, and longtime source of nationalistic rivalry and conflict, is part of what makes the Transylvania region so interesting.
My girlfriend and I were staying at the rustic but charming inn in town, and we met a British guy also named Andy and doing humanitarian work in Romania and his visiting girlfriend. The inn had no beer, so Andy and I headed to the towns lone market only to find it closed. So we tried one of the three yes, three tiny watering holes in the village. Using a flashlight to navigate the dark streets, sliding through an icy, muddy mix, we found a log cabin-like pub about the size of an American living room. The patrons were all men, peasants wearing soiled rubber boots and the evidence of a long days work. We received odd stares when we entered, our only goal to buy some beers to take back to the inn.
As we started to leave the smoky den, one of the men spoke to us in Hungarian. I replied that I dont understand, but I speak some Romanian. The guy looked shocked and they all start to tell us to stay and drink with them. Whats the big hurry? Tomorrow night is New Years Eve. Sit down and relax.
We said, sure, well stay for one, but after that, we should rejoin our girlfriends back at the inn. Within a few minutes, the outspoken one, Gheorghe, or Gyuri in Magyar, and his cohorts were surrounding our table, grilling us with questions and ordering up shots of palinca, a fruit brandy that could strip paint off a wall. They were fascinated by the presence of an American and a Brit in their isolated village. Since Andy had been in Romania only a few weeks, I served as a so-so interpreter. Gheorghe had leathered hands and a face revealing some tough years. He told us that he is the village blacksmith. I didnt know that word in Romanian, but understood once he explained, charades-like, how he makes shoes for horses. We all laughed over this. He also delighted in telling me that he shares a name with the President of the United States. Next time I come to Miclosoara (or Miklosvar in Magyar), he said, I should stay with his family and save my money.
After another round or two, more laughs and some confusing conversations, Gheorghe turned more serious. He said that his brother left for America several years ago but had since died, leaving a wife and two children, who would be in their teens now. They were near Phoenix, Arizona, but he had lost touch. The kids only speak English.
Could you write a letter to them for me?
We agreed that Id visit his home the next day. He gave me a double-cheek kiss, a sign of affection that doesnt normally occur until much later in a friendship, and off we went back to the inn. Andy and I endured some teasing from our girlfriends and the innkeeper, whod already heard we were the hit of the pub. The entire village was talking about us. Everybody at dinner enjoyed our story, especially about the letter I promised to write.
The next morning, I found the wooden gate, on the left just beyond the creek, as I was instructed. Peering in, I saw Gheorghe and his father working in the dirt courtyard filled with chickens and junk. The surprised yet happy look on his face was priceless. I could tell he thought I wasnt really going to show up. He quickly invited me inside the house.
I have never been in a simpler, poorer home. It was just a couple of small but well-heated rooms, the wood burning smell almost overpowering. His wife, traditionally dressed with a scarf on her head, fixed a coffee for me, using well water from a bucket, and heated it on an ancient stove. The grandmother, or bunica in Romanian, was ill and covered-up on a sofa in this kitchen-living-dining room. We again spoke only Romanian though Gheorghes wife understood little. She looked down at my leather hiking boots though they were scuffed and dirty, having survived Outward Bound in Arizona and New Mexico and propelled me on hikes from the Smokies to New England, they were probably nicer than any shoes theyd ever owned.
Gheorghe pulled out a dusty envelope, though it was missing the letter the last correspondence from his nephew and niece in Arizona. The handwriting was a kids and I noticed the address, an apartment in Tempe, but my heart sank when I saw the postmark was 1995. I thought to myself, theyll probably never get this. Gheorghe didnt have the kids phone number, or I would have somebody back home make the call.
The family wasnt even sure what to say, but I jump-started them with questions on how things were, that they wanted to hear from the kids, please write, maybe they could visit someday. I began to scribble it in English, using a pencil and yellowing paper they gave me. Hello, I am an American, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, and I met your Uncle Gheorghe . . .
I asked Gheorghe for his phone number for the letter, not sure they even had one. They did, but when I wanted the area code, Gheorghe reached for a small phone book and searched throughout. Im not even sure he could read, but I found the code on the cover. I also thought if the kids are Americans, they probably use computers and have email. I figured it was a long shot, but began to explain about computers and that I could . . . just blank stares.
I then took out my digital camera and took a few shots. I felt sheepish about displaying such an expensive item, but they marveled at seeing their photos instantly. I promised to send the photos to America, with the letter. When I said goodbye, the bunica extended her cold hand, tightly gripped mine, and pulled me down for a hug. Her eyes were welling with tears. She thanked me and wished me a healthy life. I promised to send the letter.
As I walked through the village, I was in my own zone, let alone the time warp that surrounded me. What I had just seen, just experienced, was unforgettable. A few villagers stared at me, probably thinking, What is this guy doing here? I sloshed through the muddy streets, dodging mangy stray dogs and horse-drawn carts trotting through the village, contemplating the letter to America. This, I thought, was a Peace Corps moment.
When I arrived back in Timisoara, I searched the Internet for the lost family, but had no success. Then I had the photos printed and air mailed them with the letter, all the way to Tempe, Arizona. I put Gheorghes return address on the envelope, in case the kids had moved, maybe the U.S. Postal Service would be kind enough to send it back at least he would know I tried. I put my address and email in the letter. I also sent a note and the same photos back to the family in Miclosoara. Then I waited. And hoped.
Ive since called Gheorghe. He received my letter, but hes still waiting for a reply from the kids. I hope one of us hears something, someday.
A Writer Writes
Turks and Kurds
by Rich Wandschneider (Turkey 196567)
FROM THE FALL OF 1965 until the summer of 1967, I lived in a small village about twenty kilometers from Diyarbakir, an ancient walled city in southeastern Turkey that is close by the borders of Syria and Iraq. It is a predominantly Kurdish region of the country. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer doing community development work for the Department of Rural Education. I had a woman partner, and together we worked on clean water, irrigation, health, and village economic development projects.
It was a grand time in my life: the excitement of learning a new language; the chalvars [loose pants], swaddling clothes, scarfed women, huge watermelons, juicy tomatoes, bulgur pilaf, fresh green garlic, water buffalos, asses and oxen; evenings spent watching a starry sky from an outdoor coffee house midst the clatter of backgammon and dominoes; coffee house conversations about local gossip and world history. There were fine days when I learned new words, met new people, heard old stories, and passed a village tel village built on village on village on the way to and from the city. My days would often end with a Turkish textbook straightening out the vocabulary and grammar Id heard earlier, but also included reading Lawrence Durrell, T.E. Lawrence, and other English speakers who had fallen in love with the Middle East. And then I would fall asleep to the sounds of a short wave radio broadcast in English from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. I loved that name, Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
I later spent two years on Peace Corps staff. I was headquartered in Ankara, but I traveled the country extensively from 1968 until 1970. In that time I had a Turkish roommate, and I gradually shed all of my American clothes, and wore Turkish tailored suits and Turkish made European styled shoes the shoes would always give an American away to plays, parties, movies and events that were mostly Turkish. And then the Peace Corps was phased out of the country, as Turkish opinion joined world opinion in its distaste for American actions in Vietnam. I and many other non-military Americans left Turkey.
Thirty five years and I can still taste the lentil soup in a Diyarbakir restaurant and smell the back streets of the old town hunkered in its mediaeval walls. I can feel the small woven stools that we sat on waiting for the dolmus the non-scheduled minibus that took us to our village, can taste the sweetened chay [tea] we drank from tulip shaped glasses, and hear the clack of the dice on backgammon boards. But more than any of these sharp sensory perceptions, I remember the historical and cultural complexities of that world and ache daily with the simplifications that now drive the world towards war. I want to tell you that Turks and Kurds is much more complicated than what you hear.
The Ottoman Empire and the new Turkey
The center of my village was a cluster of about thirty single storied adobe houses with red tiled roofs set along straight dirt streets. They were mostly government built houses from the late 30s and early 40s, because the people who lived in them were gucmen, Turkish refugees from Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania who had been repatriated and sent to this Kurdish region of the country to Turkify it. When they came, they were shocked not only at having Kurdish neighbors, but also by the hot dry plateau they were given to farm and graze. Some went home, others tried to migrate to more western parts of the new Turkey, and many died.
Step back to the end of the First World War. Turkey at that time still the Ottoman Empire had sided with the Germans. On the eve of WW I, the Empire was not strong it was called the sick man of Europe at the time but its nominal holdings were still great. They included the coasts of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of Europe. In a huge and important battle at Gallipoli, Turks and Germans defended high ground against an English and Australian beach assault. An Englishman named Winston Churchill lost his job over this battle, and a Turkish general named Kemal Pasha distinguished himself. When the Germans and Turks lost the war, the English, French, and lesser allies set out to divide up the old Ottoman Empire the English and the French mandates in the Middle East that are now Iraq and Syria and Israel are a result of that process and promised pieces of the Anatolian plateau to Greece and others who had claims.
At that time Kemal Pasha stepped into power over the old Sultanate (the ruling head of the Ottoman Empire), pulled together Turkish troops and people, pushed the Greeks and their allies into the sea at Smyrna (modern Izmir), and claimed a secular nation-state with its capital in the center of Anatolia at Ankara. Kemal Pasha, who would eventually be renamed Ataturk Father of the Turks did not want the old empire, but he wanted Anatolia. He knew that there were Armenians, Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Jews, and others within the new borders, but there would have been within any borders carved from the old Empire. His model was the European nation state, a secular entity with a shared major language and culture. Everyone within the new borders, according to Ataturk, would to be a Turk. And everyone without the borders who was a Turk, whether from Central Asia or the Balkans, was welcome in the new Turkish homeland.
The Turks in our village were some of those refugees, and they spoke Greek or Bulgarian and, as they had been there since the late 1930s and early 1940s, they spoke a little bit of Kurdish. Some shared memories of another, greener home in the Balkans; all shared the Turkish language and the status of refugee. They all owned land and shared a commons pasture and hired shepherds. The Kurds were all Sunni Moslems, so they shared that with their Turkish neighbors, and the Kurdish men and a few of the women spoke Turkish.
The old religions and cultures and languages in the new Turkish state did not die, of course, but there was a great movement to modernize, and many from minority groups, who had been less than full citizens in the old Empire, rose to Ataturks invitation to create a modern state. In my village, there were two Kurdish settlements within a kilometer of the main village. Unlike the gucmen village, the adobe houses in these villages were flat roofed and had grown like Topsy so that the Anatolian wind had to slow down and creep through them. The three sections comprised one village for government purposes, but in fact they were three separate entities.
In one of the two Kurdish sections, most villagers owned their own land. In the other, they were largely sharecroppers for a wealthy Kurdish land owner, an aga. The reason some Kurdish villagers owned land was because one of them had risen to the rank of sergeant in the Turkish army in the 1930s, and as a reward had been sent to one of Ataturks Village Institutes for six months (a radical nation-building idea Ataturk developed with the help of John Dewy), and come home to build a school and teach in it. This Kurdish teacher was devoted to Ataturk and education, and when several agas were sent into exile by Ataturk, he marched villagers into town and helped them get deeds to the land they worked. Many of the exiled agas eventually found their ways back from Syria and took up their feudal roles, but they did not reclaim this village. Some Kurds from other villages told me that Ataturk only put the agas to sleep when he should have executed them.
Once I was introduced to a Kurdish aga while visiting the provincial Soil Conservation Office in Diyarbakir. He was a strikingly handsome man in his 30s, dressed well in a fitted western suit. He invited me to have lunch. When we left the office we were surrounded by a small posse of village Kurds dressed in chalvars the loose pants worn throughout the region, wearing bandoliers of ammunition and carrying guns. We marched through the old town, down narrow streets to a small hotel. In the dark lobby the aga sat me in a chair off to his side and had chay served. For the next hour I watched trembling men approach him one by one, kneel to kiss his hand, and address him with some complaint or request. The aga translated for me, explaining that he was the landowner for several villages, the leader of a clan, and that it was his job to allocate resources and adjudicate domestic matters ranging from bride prices to family disputes. A brother or cousin of this aga served in the Turkish Parliament.
Another Kurdish aga once bragged to me on the beauty of his wife. His father, he confided, owned nine villages, and he was trying to loosen the reins and modernize, but things were going slowly. His wife even remained veiled in deference to the father, but when they went to Europe, he said, it is right away, miniskirt. He waited for the time when he took over the holdings, studying ways to modernize and empower villagers.
Turkey in the 60s
I met no outspoken Kurdish nationalists that I know of, although it is likely that they would have hidden such thoughts from me. I was after all a hybrid kind of Turkish government employee, and the entire province had been closed to foreigners until a few years before the arrival of the Peace Corps due to the Kurdish problem Kurds wanting to speak their own language, Kurds interested in joining with countrymen in Iran and Iraq. There had been an easing of the problem with a more general prosperity, and the publicized fear in our time was from leftist students from Ankara who came to the region preaching against the feudal land system. I made passing acquaintance with a few such students, who talked of literacy, encouraging girls go to school, and land reform.
In my time in Diyarbakir, Kurdish radio was still illegal, but people in the village listened to the Kurdish stations from Syria and Iraq, and I had no trouble finding a couple of contraband 45 records in the market in Diyarbakir to bring back as souvenirs. Most Kurds sent their sons to the required five year elementary school (in our village, the one built by the old Kurdish teacher) and to the army, but rarely sent their daughters to school. The government winked at this. My Peace Corps colleagues who taught English in the high school in Diyarbakir told of losing students to Kurdish clan warfare a student would suddenly leave class and the country, presumably to be hidden across a border in Syria with clan members until the reasons for the feud were resolved. The Kurds in my village empathized with their countryman who lived under the stiff fist of a bad aga and praised the old teacher for giving them a better life. They spoke to me in Turkish, but my saying a few words in Kurdish always brought smiles, and often a glass of chay or piece of Turkish delight.
In two years in the village and frequent trips to Diyarbakir and other meanderings around eastern Turkey, I also met Gypsies who spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and Romani; and Shia Kurds, Zoroastrians, Armenians, Chaldean Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox Christians who had worshiped in a Diyarbakir church continuously since the seventh or eighth century. One of our village school teachers was a Turk from the Black Sea; the other a Kurdish Turkophile from a nearby village. Our mayor was a Turk who was originally from a Syrian border town. He had come to Diyarbakir to do his military service, married one of the gucmen women, and stayed on to become a mediator between the gucmen and Kurdish populations and between all villagers and the government bureaucracies in Diyarbakir. Behind his back they sometimes called him Arab, but they valued his native Turkishness and his moxy.
Language, religion, ethnicity
Turkey is well over 90 percent Moslem predominantly Sunni Moslem. But, other than religion, Turks share history and culture with Europe and Central Asia as much or more than they do with the Arab world. The Turks ruled Arabs for centuries, and they had fought against each other as recently as WW I. More primally, the Turkish language is central Asian, a Ural-Altaic language, as compared to the Semitic languages of the Arabs and the Indo-European languages of Persians and Kurds. I understand that modern Kurdish dialects are related to older Persian dialects, maybe even to the languages spoken by the Biblical Medes. Ataturk and the modernizers who followed him, rebuilt the Turkish language, took away its foreign Arabic alphabet and replaced it with a modern Latin one that made reading and writing easier. They purged the language of Arabic and Persian words and reached back to old Central Asian Turkic dialects for others.
They built alliances with Israel, because Israel, like Turkey, was a new nation-state bent on modernizing. And Turks had a history with Jews. At the time of the Inquisition in Europe, many Jews fled to the Ottoman Empire, where they were allowed to live and practice their religion as one of the many millets or peoples, of the Empire. In my time in Turkey, Turks who worked in technical fields often went to Israel for training, and sometimes Israeli agriculturalists paid return visits. I have read that the current Turkish government, considered the most religiously oriented since statehood, still has strong ties with Israel.
Commenting on current events
I know that my knowledge is more than thirty years old, that the Gulf War brought thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees across the border into Diyarbakir, and a Kurdish nationalist movement in Turkey was harshly suppressed by the Turkish government in the 90s. But I also know that my old knowledge of Turks and Kurds is relevant in a place where history is measured in decades and dynasties as easily and often as it is measured in years.
I believe that the Turks have many legitimate reasons for skepticism of this war on Iraq. The first Gulf War cost Turkey a large trading partner with oil money to pay for its agricultural and manufacturing products. And it stirred the Kurdish pot that boiled into Turkey and a nationalist uprising. Those who would say that a new stirring might lead to a real Kurdish state should know how diverse, how tribal, and how woven into the Turkish power fabric some of the Kurdish population is. They should also know that there are major divisions in the Iraqi Kurdish community as well; a problem that by news reports has been eased with the gradual withdrawal of Iraqi control of the area but that might be exacerbated by a border free-for-all. There are large Kurdish populations in Iran and Syria as well, so that a regional conflict might spread, with haves and have nots, clans and nascent political parties, religious sub groups, and nervous governments joining the fray or trying to stem it. Turkey is understandably nervous, and wants its own troops along the border. The Iraqi Kurds are nervous, because they have gained a great deal of autonomy and they dont want to lose it to a Turkish invasion.
If Turks are proud of anything, it is their military heritage. They came out of Central Asia as warriors. At one time their Empire stretched from the coasts of North Africa across the Arabian deserts and into the European heartland to the gates of Vienna. They defeated the Byzantine Empire in the fifteenth century, and ruled their vast Empire from the city of Constantinople, later Istanbul, which sits astride Asia and Europe. In modern times, Turks are proud of their service in Korea, where they fought alongside Americans. I heard the same Korean War stories with a great deal of respect from American veterans when I got back to the States. To ask the Turks to compromise their own military, to tell them that there should be 60,000 American troops on their borders should elicit a strong reaction. I liken it to the Mexicans putting troops on our northern border to deal with a problem that they have with the Canadian government.
If that is not enough, the Turkish population is opposed to the war. The populations of most European countries are opposed, but other countries are not on the border with Iraq, so the demands on Turkey from the Untied States are more strident, more specific, and primary to the execution of the impending war. The irony is that Turkey is a secular democracy (one we are proud to point to as an example to other Middle Eastern countries), and we are asking its government to disregard the opinions of 95 percent of its population.
What is there for Turkey and Turks to gain? Continued friendship with the United States? Cash? A hunk of Iraq. A piece of the oil action after the war? The latter might be the big stick that is prompting the new Turkish government to consider a new vote on allowing American troops to deploy. But the gains seem so far outweighed by the potential losses: loss of faith with voters; further loss of trade; strife in southern cities where diverse populations might get caught in some kind of Balkanized uprisings; Kurdish chaos in two, three, or even four sovereign states; and a reinforcement of European fears of warrior Turks, Moslem Turks, alien Turks there is no way that involvement in an Iraqi war will further Turkeys aspirations for entrance in the European Union.
Other than a resurgent awareness that this ancient people still exists, I see no good in this war for the Kurds either. They are a tribal people with extensive populations in four different nation states: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They have been suppressed by the Turkish government in its move towards a modern Turkish state, crushed in Iran at Mahabad in the 1940s when some of their tribes declared an independent Kurdish state, used by both sides in ongoing feuds between Iraqi Arabs and the Iranian state, and trampled and gassed by Saddam Hussein in Northern Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds have a measure of autonomy now, and have made attempts at modern political parties. A war in Iraq might give Kurds greater power there, but it might also bring a wary Turkish government into the country. Any large Kurdish nationalist movement that crosses other state lines, say into Syria or Iran, will surely bring reactions from those states.
Even if it became possible to create a new Kurdistan that would take in some of the areas from some of the four states now in play, there is no assurance that the people who would share the Kurdish language within its borders would share enough else to make a state. There are major differences in religion, education, and culture among the Kurds. And then the new state would have to deal with the Turkish, Arab, Armenian, Persian, Christian, Zoroastrian and Sunni and Shia Moslem minorities in its midst.
A central question
This gets to the crux of the problem across the Middle East. How do countries which exist on a twenty first century map due to the caprice of English and French diplomats, a persecuted peoples quest for a homeland, shrunken empires, and a Turkish war heros vision remain viable themselves and get along with each other and with the rest of the world when their citizenry flows over borders and weaves into villages, cities, and countryside along pathways of language, religion, and tribe that are as old as Western Civilization? The Kurdish cause, it seems to me, will be better served by the quiet workings of diplomacy and the furthering of education within and without the current geographic range of Kurdish peoples than it will by war. And the Turkish cause, and those of the Iraqi Arab and Persian Shiites, the Bahais, Zoroastrians, Palestinian Moslems, Arab Christians, Armenians, Druze, and the European and Sephardic Jews. War is easy; peace, civility, civilization are the difficult things. Especially now, in this part of the world that gave us much of what we now ironically call Western Civilization.
Rich Wandschneider was a Rural Development Volunteer in Turkey and then a Peace Corps Fellow in Washington before returning to Turkey in 1968 as an Associate Peace Corps Director. After the Peace Corps he moved in 1971 to Wallowa County, Oregon to work with Oregon State U Extension Service in rural community development.
His plans were to spend a year or two before moving on. He has now lived in Oregon for 23 years. In 1976, he opened a book store and owned it until 1988, and then became the founding director of Fishtrap, a writing center that produces workshops, conferences, writers residencies, etc. He writes a weekly column for the local paper and has been published, among other places, in Northern Lights, High Country News, The Oregonian, and Adoptive Families. Rich Wandschneider can be reached at email@example.com
To preserve and to learn
Peace Corps Writers March 2003 This version of the March 2003 issue of PeaceCorpsWriters.org is designed to be quickly and easily printed from any printer. It includes all articles in the issue as well as new items listed in such departments as Opportunities for Writers.
When the Right Hand Washes the Left
A Volunteer who served in Nigeria looks back on his Peace Corps experience
by David Schickele (Nigeria 196163)
David G. Schickele first presented his retrospective view of Volunteer service in a speech given at Swarthmore College in 1963 that was printed in the Swarthmore College Bulletin. At the time, there was great interest on college campuses about the Peace Corps and early RPCVs were frequently asked to write or speak on their college campuses about their experiences. A 1958 graduate of Swarthmore, Schickele worked as a freelance professional violinist before joining the Peace Corps in 1961.
After his tour, he would, with Roger Landrum make a documentary film on the Peace Corps in Nigeria called "Give Me A Riddle" that was for Peace Corps recruitment but was never really used by the agency. The film was perhaps too honest a representation of Peace Corps Volunteers life overseas and the agency couldnt handle it. However, the Peace Corps did pick up Schickeles essay in the Swarthmore College Bulletin and reprinted it in its first Point of View, a short-lived series of discussion papers that they published in the early days of the agency. This series of monographs were devoted, to the Peace Corps experience and philosophy by members of the staff, current and former Peace Corps Volunteers and qualified observers.
What is impressive about Schickeles essay is that what he said in 1963 is still valid today.
THE FAVORITE PARLOR SPORT during the Peace Corps training program was making up cocky answers to a question that was put to us 17 times a day by the professional and idle curious alike: Why did you join the Peace Corps? To the Peace Corps training official, who held the power of deciding our futures, we answered that we wanted to help; make the world a better place in which to live; but to others we were perhaps more truthful in talking about poker debts or a feeling that the Bronx Zoo wasnt enough. We resented the question because we sensed it could be answered well only in retrospect. We had no idea exactly what we were getting into, and it was less painful to be facetious than to repeat the idealistic clichés to which the question was always a veiled invitation.
I am now what is known as an ex-Volunteer (there seems to be some diffidence about the word veteran), having spent 20 months teaching at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka in West Africa. And now I am ready to answer the question.
My life at Nsukka bore little resemblance to the publicized image of Peace Corps stoicism the straw mat and kerosene lamp syndrome. The university, though 50 miles from anything that could b e called a metropolis, was a large international community unto itself, full of Englishman, Indians, Pakistani, Germans, Americans and, of course, Nigerians. I lived in a single room in a student dormitory, a modern if treacherous building with running water at least four days a week and electricity when the weather was good. I ate primarily Western food in a cafeteria. I owned a little motorcycle and did my share of traveling and roughing it, but the bulk of my life was little different from university life in the States, with a few important exceptions.
In the first place, the university was only a year old when I arrived, and a spirit of improvisation was required at all times and in all areas, particularly the teaching of literature without books. The library was still pretty much a shell, and ordered books took a minimum of six weeks to arrive if one was lucky, and I never talked to anyone who was. The happier side of this frantic coin was that in the absence of organization many of us had practically unlimited freedom in what and how we were to teach, and we made up our courses as we went along according to what materials were available and our sense of what the students needed. This was tricky freedom which I still blame, in my weaker moments, for my worst mistakes; but it allowed an organic approach to the pursuit of an idea with all its nooks and crannies, an approach long over due for students trained in the unquestioning acceptance of rigid syllabi.
The longer I was there the more I became involved with a nucleus of students, and the weaker became the impulse to disappear over the weekend on my motor cycle in search of external adventure. My social and professional lives slowly fused into one and the same thing. I shared an office with another Volunteer, and we were there almost every evening from supper until late at night, preparing classes and talking to students, who learned that we were always available for help on their work or just bulling around. We sponsored poetry and short story contests and founded a literary club which was the liveliest and most enjoyable organization Ive ever belonged to, joyfully subject to the imperative of which all remote areas have the advantage: if you want to see a Chekhov play, you have to put it on yourself.
In some ways I was more alive intellectually at Nsukka than I was at Swarthmore, due in part to the fact that I worked much harder at Nsukka, Im afraid, than I did at Swarthmore; and to the fact that one learns more from teaching than from studying. But principally it had to do with the kind of perspective necessary in the teaching of Western Literature to a people of a different tradition, and the empathy and curiosity necessary in teaching African literature to Africans. It is always an intellectual experience to cross cultural boundaries.
At the most elementary level, it is a challenge to separate thought from mechanics in the work of students who are not writing in their native language. Take, for example, the following paragraph, written, I would emphasize, not by a university student but by a cleaning man at the university in a special course:
I enjoy certain tasks in my work but others are not so enjoyable.
It sings a melody in my poor mind, when a friend came to me and said that: I enjoy certain tasks in my work, but others are not so enjoyable. I laughed and called him by his name, then I asked him what is the task in your work. He answered me and then added, for a period of five years, I have being seriously considering what to do to assist his self as an orphan, in that field of provision. That he should never play with the task of his work. But others who are not so enjoyable could not understand the bitterness to his orphanship. He said to those who are not so enjoyable that they have no bounding which hangs their thought in a dark room.
I regard this passage with joy, not to say a little awe, but beneath its exotic and largely unconscious poetic appeal there is a man trying to say something important, blown about in the wilderness of an unfamiliar language by the influences of the King James Version and the vernacular proverb. Where writing like this is concerned, it is impossible to be a Guardian of Good Grammar; one must try to confront the roots of language the relationship between thought and word, with all the problems of extraneous influences and in many cases translation from a native tongue.
They spoke what was in their heads
At another level, the intellectual excitement came from a kind of freshness of thoughts and expression in minds that have not become trapped by scholastic conventions, or the fear of them. I remember times at Swarthmore when I kept a question or thought to myself because I feared it might be in some way intellectually out of line. But most of my Nsukka students had no idea what was in or out of line, what was a cliché and what was not, what critical attitudes were forbidden or encouraged (though I did my share, I confess, of forbidding and encouraging). They were not at all calculating, in a social sense, in their thought. They spoke what was in their heads, with the result that discussion had a lively, unadulterated and personal quality which I found a relief from the more sophisticated but less spontaneously sincere manner of many young American intellectuals. It was also a little infuriating at times. I am, after all, a product of my own culture. But one has only to look at a 1908 Phoenix (the Swarthmore student newspaper) to realize how much sophistication is a thing of style and fashion, and how little any one fashion exhausts the possible ways in which the world can be confronted and apprehended.
In Nigeria literature became the line of commerce between me and my students as people, a common interest and prime mover in the coming together of white American and black African. Ours was a dialogue between equals, articulate representatives of two articulate and in many ways opposing heritages. Because literature deals more directly with life than other art forms, through it I began to know Nigeria as a country and my students as friends. An idealized case history might read something like this: A student brings me a story he has written, perhaps autobiographical, about life in his village. I harrumph my way through a number of formal criticisms and start asking questions about customs in his village that have a bearing on the story. Soon we are exchanging childhood reminiscences or talking about girls over a bottle of beer. Eventually we travel together to his home, where I meet his family and live in his house. And then what began, perhaps, as a rather bookish interest in comparative culture becomes a real involvement in that culture, so that each new insight does not merely add to a store of knowledge, but carries the power of giving pain or pleasure. If there is any lesson in this, it is simply that no real intellectual understanding can exist without a sense of identification at some deeper level. I think this is what the Peace Corps, when it is lucky, accomplishes.
This sense of identification is not a mysterious thing. Once in Nsukka, after struggling to explain the social and intellectual background of some classic Western literature, I began teaching a modern Nigerian novel, Achebes No Longer At Ease. I was struck by the concreteness of the first comments from the class: That place where the Lagos taxi driver runs over the dog because he thinks its good luck . . . its really like that. It seems that the joy of simple recognition in art is more than an accidental attribute not the recognition of universals, but of dogs and taxicabs. Before going to Africa I read another book by Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I enjoyed it and was glad to learn something about Ibo culture, but I thought it a mediocre work of art. I read the book again at the end of my stay in Nigeria and suddenly found it an exceptional work of art. It was no longer a cultural document, but a book about trees I had climbed and houses I had visited in. It is not that I now ignored artistic defects through sentimentality, but that my empathy revealed artistic virtues that had previously been hidden from me.
We in America know too much about the rest of the world. Subjected to a constant barrage of information from books, TV, photographers, we know how Eskimos catch bears and how people come of age in Samoa. We gather our images of the whole world around us and succumb to the illusion of being cosmopolitan. We study comparative literature and read books like Zen in the Art of Archery and think of ourselves as citizens of the world when actually vast reading is simply the hallmark of our parochialism. No matter how many Yoga kicks we go on, we still interpret everything through the pattern of our own American existence and intellectual traditions, gleaning only disembodied ideas from other cultures.
If, as the critics have it, ideas are inseparable from their style of expression, it is equally true in the cultural sense that ideas are inseparable from the manner and place in which they are lived. This to me is the meaning of the Peace Corps as a new frontier. It is the call to go, not where man has never been before, but where he has lived differently; the call to experience firsthand the intricacies of a different culture; to understand from the inside rather than the outside; and to test the limits of ones own way of life against another in the same manner as the original pioneer tested the limits of his endurance against the elements. This is perhaps an impossible ideal, surely impossible in the narrow scope of two years; but it was an adventure just the same. It was an adventure to realize, for instance, to what extent irony is an attribute, even a condition, of Western life and thought; and to live for nearly two years in a society in which irony as a force is practically nonexistent. But that is too complex a thing to get started on right now
Hundreds of 23-year-old spies
Life at Nsukka was not always the easiest thing in the world, and the friendships I talk of so cavalierly were not the work of a day. Our group arrived at Nsukka shortly after the Peace Corps first big publicity break, the famous Post Card Incident, which was still very much on Nigerian minds. We were always treated with a sense of natural friendliness and hospitality, but there was also quite a bit of understandable mistrust. Nigeria became a nation only in 1960, and the present university generation is one bred on the struggle for independence and the appropriate slogans and attitudes. I tended to feel guilty rather than defensive, except when the accusations were patently ridiculous, such as the idea that we were all master spires hundred of 23-year-old master spies or when facts were purposefully ignored, as in the statement that the Peace Corps was run by the CIA. America is a large, rich, powerful, feared and envied nation; Nigeria is a new country naturally jealous of its independence and autonomy. All things considered, I am a little amazed at the openness and frankness of our receptions.
There were other problems. Many Nigerians have an overdeveloped sense of status and found it hard to believe that we were paid practically nothing. Many reasoned that because we lived in the dormitories with the students instead of in big houses as the rest of the faculty, we must be second-raters, or misfits that America was fobbing off on them. But insofar as we made names for ourselves as good teachers and made ourselves accessible as people (something that few of my friends had ever known a white man to do), our eventual acceptance into the community was assured. Shortly after our arrival a petition circulated among the students asking the administration to dismiss the Peace Corps. Months later student grievances erupted into a riot that forced the school to close down for more than two weeks, but in the long list of grievances, the Peace Corp was not now mentioned.
I do not wish to imply that we won them over; indeed, I think they won us over in the final analysis. Its just that the intransigence of our preconceptions of ourselves and others gradually dissolved into a kind of affectionate confusion. Ideas often try to live a life of their own, independent of and separate from the people and objects with which they supposedly deal. In the intellect alone they are self-proliferating, like fungus under glass, without regard for what the weather is doing outside. But the kind of personal contact we had with Nigerians helped break up the false buttressing of formal thought, and when that happens, personal friction creates a warmth conducive to further understanding and not a heat with which to light incendiary fires. A glass of beer can make the difference between families and worthy opponents.
I was at first surprised by how little I felt the presence of any racial feeling in Nigeria. What little I did notice had a kind of second-hand quality, as if it were merely a principled identification with the American Negro or a historical commitment. Though well-informed about civil rights events in the United States, most Nigerians I talked to showed little understanding of the state of mind of the American Negro as differentiated from themselves. Most Nigerians have had little contact with hardcore prejudice backed by social force. They have good reason to resent, sometimes to hate, the white man in Africa, but they have never been subjected as people to the kind of daily and life-long injustice that confronts the American Negro.
Racial feeling sometimes crops up in strange circumstances. A friend writes me, Before Nsukka, the only whites I had ever known were reverend fathers in school who interpreted everything I did as a sure sign of fast-approaching eternal damnation . . . . In Africa as in America all whites are to a certain extent, guilty until proven innocent, but in a very short time we were joking about our respective colors with a freedom and levity which is not always possible in America. Color has its own pure power, too; and I soon felt ashamed of my chalky, pallid skin against the splendor of the Africans.
Much has been written recently about the contradictory feelings of the Negro toward the white man hating him and yet buying facial creams to be more like him and I think the same sort of contradictory relationship exists in Nigeria, but with a cultural rather than a racial basis. The African stands in a very delicate psychological position between Western industrial culture and his own. He is driven to a comparative evaluation and must build a society out of his decisions. America is not so much interested in changing as exporting its society; Nigeria is interested in change and is of necessity much less parochial than ourselves in the source of its inspiration.
The only thing that cuts a little ice
Africa caught between two world it is a cliché, but it is no joke. To the race problem it is at least possible to postulate an ideal resolution: racial equality and the elimination of intolerance. But in its cultural aspect the struggle between African traditions and the heritage of the West there is no indisputable resolution, not even in the mind. If I have learned anything from living in Nigeria, it is the unenviably complex and difficult position in which the young Nigerian finds himself; and if I have learned anything from the poems and stories written by my students, it is the incredible grace, honesty and sometimes power with which many Nigerians are examining themselves, their past and their future.
I dont know how friendship fits into all this, but somehow it does. My instincts revolt against the whole idea of having to prove in some mechanistic or quantitative way the value of the Peace Corps. If the aim is to help people, I understand that in the sense of the Ibo proverb which says that when the right hand washes the left hand, the right hand become clean also. E. M. Forster had said that love is a great force in private life, but in public affairs [it] does not work. The fact is we can only love what we know personally, and we cannot know much. The only thing that cuts a little ice is affection, or the possibility of affection. I only know that when I am infuriated by some article in a Nigerian newspaper, I can summon up countless images of dusty cycle rides with Paul Okpokam, reading poetry with Glory Nwanodi, dancing and drinking palm wine with Gabriel Ogar, and it suddenly matters very much that I go beyond my annoyance to some kind of understanding. That my Nigerian friends trust me is no reason for them to trust Washington or forgive Birmingham; but something is there which was not there before and which the world is the better for having.
After a long career as a songwriter, musician, filmmaker and teacher, David Schickele died of a brain tumor in 2000.
A Closer Look
by Peter McDonough
(East Pakistan/Bangladesh 196163)
Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits written by Peter McDonough and Eugene C. Bianchi, a professor emeritus of religion at Emory University, traces the transformation of the Society of Jesus [the Jesuits an order of Catholic priests] from a fairly unified organization into a smaller, looser community with disparate goals and an elusive corporate identity. The book was reviewed positively by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 196668) on our site last year. But with many things Jesuit, theres another story. Heres the latest from Peter McDonough about his book that is stirring up Jesuits passions.
AROUND THIS TIME LAST YEAR, when early copies of Passionate Uncertainty were becoming available, I received an email from Father Tom Widner, SJ, the Director of Communications at the Jesuit Conference. (The Jesuit Conference is the assembly of the 10 provincial superiors in the U.S., with staff headquartered in Washington). Widner wanted an advance copy of the book, which he said he was having trouble getting from the University of California Press. So I asked the press to ship Widner whom I had never met a copy, which they did.
The Jesuits issue some talking points
A few weeks later an Irish friend, Noel Barber, SJ, emailed me from Dublin about a statement issued by the Jesuit Conference demolishing the book, with a 3-page laundry list of talking points e.g., criticisms of the book that could be used by Jesuit superiors in case they were questioned by the press about it. This poorly done study, the statement concluded, offers us little from which to learn. Evidently, this fatwah (the term used by my colleague Gene Bianchi) was being circulated to Jesuit residences, at least in the English-speaking world, and posted on their bulletin boards.
I emailed Widner requesting a copy of all this. He responded by denying that the Jesuit Conference had issued such a statement. Within a week or so I managed to obtain copies of the non-statement and talking points from some of my moles. Widner evidently felt that the letter and appended talking points didnt constitute a statement as such. I faxed Fr. Frank Case, the American assistant at the Jesuit curia in Rome, about Widners behavior and got back the line about this not being a public statement etc. Casuistry on steroids! Mental reservation to the max!
America shops for a negative review
At about the same time, John Coleman, a prominent Jesuit sociologist, emailed me with a copy of a positive review of Passionate Uncertainty that he had written, warning me that a number of Jesuits were working over-time to discredit the book. Tom Reese, SJ, the editor of America, had approached John about doing a review, but when John said that he liked the book, Reese spiked the review and solicited one from Sr. Katarina Schuth, whose negative review, coincidentally resembling the talking points, soon appeared in America. All this maneuvering outraged John, so he alerted me to what was happening.
Colemans review finally appeared in National Jesuit News the house organ of the American Society of Jesus over the objections of Tom Widner, who also happens to be the editor in chief of NJN. He was ordered to publish Colemans review by Fr. Brad Schaeffer, the president of the Jesuit Conference. Schaeffer is no friend of mine but apparently the machinations of Widner and others were a bit too much for him.
Its important to note that the Jesuit leadership was doing all this at the same time that favorable reviews including ones by Garry Wills of the New York Review of Books and Jonathan Kirsch of the L.A.Times were coming out. One of the most laudatory pieces, a two-pager by Charles Morris, author of American Catholic, came out in the Boston College alumni magazine. This surprised the hell out of me, since these publications are usually bland fund-raising operations. Ben Birnbaum, the editor, told me that ever since Don Monan, SJ, became president of BC (hes now retired), the magazine has been given a free hand.Commonweal enters the fray
Another person who got involved in this soap opera is Peggy Steinfels, the now retired editor of Commonweal. An associate editor at America, James Martin, SJ, published a blistering review of the book in Commonweal, but when Peggy discovered the goings-on at America and the Jesuit Conference she refused to publish his reply to my response to his trashing of the book.
Fr. Richard Neuhaus, the editor of the neo-conservative monthly First Things, picked up on the orchestrated nature of the reviews in America and Commonweal and chided the Jesuits about this in his column. First Things published a review of the book by Avery Dulles, the only American Jesuit who is a cardinal. Though hardly sympathetic to some of our interpretations, Dulles called the book a wakeup call.
Well, there are a few more ins and outs to this, but it was only this past February that Noel Barbers review appeared in The Irish Catholic, a Dublin weekly. The review opens by citing the condemnation by the Jesuit Conference and the hanky-panky at America, then notes: Such news whets ones appetite. Since Noel emailed me his review, Ive been gleefully emailing it to everyone on the planet, especially to Jesuits in authority. Total silence so far from the hierarchy.
Just remembered two pieces of artistic-literary background about Noel Barber, SJ, who wrote the favorable review for The Irish Catholic.
Hes the Caravaggio guy.
A few years back, at the Jesuit house of
writers on Leeson Street in the heart of Dublin, Noel got curious about a musty old painting on the refectory wall. (Why house of writers? Thats where most of the Jesuit journalists, etc., resided, and Noel was the rector.) It was thought to be by some minor German master. It turned out to be a long-lost Caravaggio, given to the Irish province by the widow of a British officer assassinated during the Civil War in retribution for forcing Irish prisoners to parade naked in front of nurses. Why she donated the painting to the SJ Im not sure. Anyway the discovery got written up in the NY Times and the painting went on tour to the U.S., with a big exposition in Boston.
Also, Noel is a friend of John McGahern, the publication of whose first novel cost him his job as a school teacher. The archbishop of Dublin had him fired for indecency. Im guessing, though I dont know for sure, that Noel was also a friend of Sean OFaolain, who had numerous run-ins with the clergy. So hes probably more sensitive to these literary wars than your run-of-the-mill Irishman.
Any lessons from this baroque tale? The brouhaha exploded just as the scandal over clerical sexual abuse was spreading all over the media. So its understandable that, for some Jesuits, Passionate Uncertainty (as a Jesuit friend wrote me) was just another piece of bad news to break our hearts.
Still, its clear that a handful of Jesuits have lived up to the jesuitical stereotype, just as some real-life mafiosi have been said to model themselves after Hollywood depictions of gangsters. Theres precedent for this sort of intrigue on the part of Jesuits against their own colleagues. Several studies of religious life by Joe Fichter, the late Jesuit sociologist, were put on hold or otherwise stymied by his superiors. (Fichter, by the way, is one of the Jesuits to whom the book is dedicated.)
On the other hand, a number of Jesuits have been supportive and a few have stuck their necks out in defense of Passionate Uncertainty. And at least one Jesuit provincial superior has let on that the talking points business was a bad idea, though no Jesuit in the upper echelons has condemned the overkill tactics for the record. Dishonorable, no doubt, and possibly despicable. Ethically challenged. Maybe even embarrassing. But not illegal.
The University of California Press will release the paperback edition of Passionate Uncertainty this fall.
THE COOL AIR-CONDITIONED BUS is a welcome escape from the heat of the city streets crammed with a multitude of vendors, smelly exhaust from weaving mopeds, honking cars and the occasional trickshaw [three-wheeled bicycle] with their aged drivers seemingly oblivious to it all. I am anxious to arrive at my final destination, which would be the undoubted highlight of the long journey to Penang, a large island in Malaysia washed by the Straits of Malacca. I have come to the island for a glimpse of the Monkey Gardens that are famed throughout the region not only as a magnificent expanse of jungle and manicured gardens, and home to an extraordinary number of monkeys, but also are reportedly one of the better ecological efforts of the often criticized environmental policies of Southeast Asia.
Penang is an island of fascinating cultural depth. Full of color and character, the population of the capital city of Georgetown manifests an impressive ethnic diversity. The oldest British settlement in Malaysia, the city streets are shared by saffron-robed monks, veiled Muslim women, turbaned Hindu men and Chinese merchants. The cacophony of city sounds is drowned out only by the melodic Muslim prayer played ritually over loudspeakers. The visual display is as stirring as the sounds, evoking an almost theatrical atmosphere. Fantastically ornate and multi-colored Thai, Chinese and Hindu-style temples are set against the stark white Muslim mosques with their solid-colored domes, all interspersed between soot-stained shop-houses and the precise lines of traditional Colonial architecture.
The Botanical Gardens (aka The Monkey Gardens) variety seems to reflect the citys cultural diversity. Established in 1884 and sprawling over 70 acres of hilly landscaped terrain, the Garden is surrounded by dense jungle that contrasts with the meticulously manicured formal gardens. Theres a cactus house with a nearby waterfall and lily pond, herbal and medicinal gardens, an indigenous orchid house and a small shop with a huge variety of hybrid orchids for sale. All are set in such a peaceful and idyllic setting that it is difficult to conjure memories of the crowded dirty streets and resort-clad skyline of the coastal city beyond.
Once I leave the chaos of the city center and go toward the green hills beyond, I see the first evidence of the exquisite nature of this island that claims to have it all: rich culture, lush jungle, endless shopping, deliciously varied cuisine, and lovely palm-lined beaches.
The impressive main bus depot now has a mall built up around it, still in the works, but promising three vast floors of shopping and dining choices. The station appears outwardly to be well-organized, with bus numbers in clear block letters aligned in a half dozen aisles and maps showing each lines route, but there are no time schedules. Luckily, a plain-clothed attendant roams the area in search of travelers looking confusedly at the buses arriving in a completely random fashion and never parking in their marked lane. It is precisely this outward appearance of a successful strategy getting lost somewhere in its implementation that will become the leitmotif of my Monkey Garden visit.
In the Garden
Monkey watching is definitely not the only draw to this fantastic area. Serene water lilies, the exotic flowering black lily, the bluish leaves of the Peacock fern, the tiny, pale purple petals of the Limestone Kaempferia, also attract their fair share of attention. There are dynamic climbing palms, 2/3 of which are rattans recognized easily by their scaly fruited vines, and found almost exclusively in primary forests such as this one. Their impressive buttress roots hold up gigantic trunks, stretching out over boulders and down steep inclines.
The loud humming of the cicadas and crickets seem at times to mount to a deafening roar, but still it is a meditative and soothing sound far from the irregular and irritating ruckus of the nearby city.
The vast lawns are dotted with individuals and small groups both young and old, foreign and local, doing yoga and Tai Chi exercises or simply relaxing.
I recognize a young couple as being the only other Western tourists on my bus. They approach explaining to me excitedly in broken English that there is a large group of monkeys on the other side of the circular path. I make a beeline in the advised direction, not being sure exactly how common the creatures are, and knowing the nickname and even the brochures hype could easily be a gimmick to lure tourists. I see immediately the rush was unnecessary as a dozen langurs swing wildly on the nearly bare branches of two trees in the middle of a large hill surrounded by fertile green lawn.
Monkeys seemed to be coming and going in every direction. They are lining the treetops, scrambling across the lawn to join their kin. A short time later they are frightened away by a group of long-tailed macaques.
The dusky langurs, also called leaf monkeys, are easily recognizable by their cute little faces with white-ringed eyes and long tails and are best known for their death-defying leaps. So adorable, they look more like stuffed animals being tossed energetically by children between the tree limbs than living creatures. Normally this species are fairly difficult to observe by the layman because they are extremely shy. Hunted for meat and captured as pets, they face an uncertain future throughout the region. But at the Gardens they seem to proliferate unimpeded and even to flirt with the small crowd of onlookers, flying down from their branches when an offering of food is presented.
Unfortunately, as fun as it may seem, feeding the monkeys is strictly forbidden in the Gardens. Next to a large Please do not feed the monkeys sign we watch one tourist and his child doing just that. Clearly, the Gardens have had tremendous problems keeping the visitors from feeding the monkeys and have begun a massive campaign including a new book, local media coverage, thousands of pamphlets and signs galore. That day a local paper quotes a Garden official saying; We are in the process of drawing stringent rules to empower us to compound offenders on the spot.
The monkey feeding dilemma is expounded upon by a friendly retired English teacher and Georgetown native who begins chatting with me during a climb up the steep hill behind the Gardens on my way to the top of Penang Hill. He laments on the tourist practice of feeding the monkeys, explaining how it teaches the monkeys bad habits, like stealing bags, and sometimes mildly accosting visitors. More importantly, he emphasizes, are the dangers to the monkeys themselves. Over-population is one problem, but also dangerous is the overly-friendly relationship the monkeys develop with humans. Their innate fear of humans is obviously a bad instinct for them to lose considering the widespread exploitation of wildlife in countries around the world.
Climbing Panang Hill
If feeding the resident monkeys of the Gardens is not bad enough, feeding those that live in the wild is even worse, since there they have no safety zone away from poachers. If you choose to make the vigorous three hour trek up to the top of Penang Hill along one of the 20 nature trails, you will most likely have the opportunity to observe far more monkeys than in the Gardens, and this time in their more natural habitat.
Once at the top, the fabulous panorama of the island below, and the cooling breeze that makes it about nine degrees cooler than at sea level, should be enough to keep you motivated to finish the steep climb. If not, there is always the option of taking the funicular up and descending the hill on foot instead.
Halfway up the hill, where you can rest while drinking Chinese tea and munching on crackers with the locals for a small donation, is also where my chat with the friendly teacher takes place. He assures me the worst of the hill is over. Since his retirement he has made the climb daily and he laughs as he tells me he and his friends have nicknamed the first half of the hill the killing fields. As Im doubled over and exhaustedly sucking my water bottle, he talks at length about the monkeys and about life as a Buddhist in a predominantly Muslim country. After an extended rest we part and I continue my assent to the top alone.
The jungle around me is thick, but the sweltering heat is now accompanied by a cooling breeze. Suddenly I see another group of monkeys around the bend and in the middle of the road. Amazed that they should come so close to civilization out here in the wild, I approach cautiously, camera perched into position. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? Not a park official, as Im now far beyond the parks parameters, but an armed, uniformed police officer who has dismounted his motorcycle and stands with an armload of fruit, casually sectioning off small pieces and hand-feeding the large family of monkeys now encircling him. Ah, yes, I think to myself, the vigorous campaign to keep the visitors from feeding the monkeys looks like it could be a successful strategy, but it seems implementation might need to begin from the inside. As I pass I cant resist repeating the message observed so often in the gardens below, but with a slight alteration: Please do not feed the monkeys . . . Officer.
Mishelle Shepard has been writing and teaching in a new location every year since her service ended. She is currently living in Girona, Spain and working on her first novel.
Opportunities for Writers
- The National Peace Corps Associations member newsletter, 3/1/61, is looking for profiles of RPCVs doing interesting work within their communities, and stories on topics of interest to other RPCVs. While there is no pay (of course) you do get a byline and all the free copies you wish. And your articles will also appear on the NPCA website. The best length is about 800 words. If you have an interesting story to tell, contact Erica Burman (The Gambia 198789), the new 3/1/61 editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erica is also looking for RPCV news and updates for possible inclusion in the newsletter and on the NPCA website.
- Jean Hewitt (Togo 196265) is working with Borderlands in Tenants Harbor, Maine to present the second annual Conference for Writers on the St. George River. RPCV writers are invited to apply for admission which is limited to 15 writers. The 5-day program is designed for writers with an interest in developing an existing manuscript, or in starting something new. Participants are invited to bring works-in-progress to read and/or for individual consultation with the faculty. Assigned writings will be read and critiqued in small groups.
For full details, go to Borderlandsconference.com
- Peace Corps Writers will be presenting two programs at the NPCA Annual General Meeting and Weekend of Events in Portland, Oregon, August 13: How To Write a Novel in 101 Days or Less. and Publishing Your Peace Corps Story. Writers who will be attending the conference and would like to be considered for participation on the Publishing Your Peace Corps Story panel should contact John Coyne.