Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Tony D’Sousa (page 6)
 Talking with
Tony D’Sousa
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Tell us a little more about Cote d’Ivoire and your experience there as that is the central story of your novel.

I loved Cote d’Ivoire from the moment I first saw it, when the plane descended through the clouds. It was a world of green, like Conrad’s Africa. We were flying over the palm oil plantations, though I didn’t know it then. Then there was a long lagoon and a man poling a dugout canoe across it. It was a misted morning, steam coming off the trees. It is so hard to escape the West, and twenty years from now it will be completely impossible. Well of course it already is. There are televisions and cell phones in every village, even if the villages are purely mud huts. Actually, I did find a few tech-free villages here and there and they were always a treat to spend a couple nights in. But the people had all their conceptions about the West and what we have as opposed to what they perceived they did or didn’t have.

     Why did I want to live in a “reduced” state so badly? Because the people there want all the tech that we have, they think it will make them happy. Well a young adulthood in the West with all its racism, inequality, cultural arrogance, and disrespect for the environment hadn’t left me skipping through tulips. I wanted to know what it is like to grow your own food, to live by the cycles of the seasons, to see the stars in a place with no lights. I mean, I would have liked to known life as a pre-agrarian hunter-gather. Maybe [Thomas] Hobbes was right and it was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” It seemed to have worked for us for 190,000 years, and they had plenty of time to paint that outrageous stuff at Lascaux and the Matopos. I don’t know that that wasn’t better than the West’s current, “overweight, bored, dim, harried, and frightened.”

     I was sent to a Muslim village of 700 people on the edge of the forest and savannah, what would later be the war front. Cote d’Ivoire was violent all of the time that I was there, in fact I was pulled down from site twice and spent roughly four weeks on consolidation before the eventual evacuation. My regional capital, Seguela, was a particularly violent place, and Peace Corps held us Seguela region Volunteers on consolidation even after the rest of the Volunteers had returned to their sites. We had a little flop house in the city, and twice in 2000, we spent a week or so in that house with no services while the military seized the city. This was before anybody was talking about civil war. The people were so angry with the government, and we were so in tune to what was going on that we’d call Abidjan and say, “Uh, there’s probably going to be a big hullabaloo next Thursday, maybe you should pull us down,” and they’d be like, “Oh, no it’s going to be calm, go back to your site.” Then I’d sit in my village with my friends and we’d watch these heavily armed commandos march along the road with rocket launchers and all the gear. Then on Thursday, just like everybody had said, the town’s youth would kill a couple soldiers at a checkpoint and burn their bodies and liberate everybody from the jail, even the crazies, and then the soldiers would roar in on their jeeps to take the city back and one of the teachers from our school would wander into the village to my hut and hand me this note with an official stamp on it from the School’s Superintendent in Seguela, “Monsieur Tony is kindly informed by Peace Corps to appear in Abidjan for a special training meeting.” That of course was the consolidation code for me to get the heck out of there, and what could I do but just shake my head because to get out of there I had to go to Seguela, the belly of the beast. And of course the military would siege the city and we’d all get stuck in the center of the maelstrom with no food or water so that by the time we could get down to Abidjan a week later, the trouble was over and to add insult to injury, after a week of not knowing when you’d eat next or when the military or the mob would come in and kick down the door and say goodnight everybody, we then had to spend a week going to Peace Corps training meetings.
     
This happened twice within my first three months of service. So I quickly lost faith in the Peace Corps Administration, in the United States Foreign Service, and especially the CIA. The security people at the US Embassy asked us what we knew about what was going on by way of informing us about it, and they couldn’t pronounce the names of the major Ivorian political players correctly. Shameful.
     
But it liberated me, too. Before that I had been diligent about filling out all the quarterly report stuff and what not. Even when it consisted of, “The Chief asked for a tractor again. Repeated inquires to USAID reveal that there will be no tractor forthwith.” I just dropped the pretense that big things were going to happen and concentrated on learning the language and customs of the people. My days consisted of farming and hunting, my nights of story telling and talking about girls with the other young men. Now and again another Volunteer would show up at my site and I’d be shocked at how white they were. Then I’d remember that that was who I was as well, and I’d be thrown off for a few days. Then I’d ask myself all these things like, “What are you doing here? Who are you kidding?”
     
By the end of my second year I realized how comfortable I had become not just in my village, but in the Seguela region. Everyone knew me or knew of me and though I don’t know what they really thought of me, I know that they respected my ability with the language. I had good friends there and frankly, loved the place. I knew its roads, its paths, the different villages, what was unique about each one. I knew people’s genealogies and the stories that went along with them. And I felt like I had my place in it too, Adama Toubaboo-Che, “The White Worodougou.” I did a number of AIDS projects to justify my stay, including a few major ones in Seguela with the other Seg-region Volunteers. So when it was time for me to COS, I re-upped for a third year. I knew when the war would start to the day. And it did.
     
While I thought I had seen violence before the war, the war was something else, violence distilled. For two days I walked and hid in the forest and villages on the way to Seguela. All the villagers were scared in a way I hadn’t seen before. They were scared for me too. They wanted to hide me. I knew that there were a lot of very new Volunteers in the region who had been at their sites for all of a week and were still having trouble asking for a drink of water properly. Also, I just wasn’t brave enough to stay behind and cut my ties with Peace Corps. I didn’t know how bad it would get and just knew that sooner or later my currency as a whiteman would be used by someone and bad things would happen. We spent a week under siege in that house, then had to make a run for it across the war zone the same day that the rebels arrived to take the city for good. This is in my book and I neither want to relive it here in writing about it, or blow the ending of Whiteman. But it’s not a dull read, believe me.

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