"Selling children was clearly against the laws of even the Congo, and no person would ever admit to having done it. Certainly not a policeman. But when a child was turned into servitude in exchange for food and a place to sleep, I only knew of one word to desribe it." This is one of the many observations recounted by Frederick Pitts, a retired biologist who chucked it all in back in the 1990s to go a round with the U.S. Peace Corps. Pitts was watching the scene at his neighbor's house, noting that the policeman's family had "adopted" a little girl who seemed to spend all of her time engaged in chores. When he gave her a piece of candy, her foster mother took it away.
Pitts was never quite sure where he should take a moral stand as he tried to settle in to his African village. Left on his own by the PC higher-ups, he knew he was supposed to figure things out for himself. But some issues weren't in the manual, and no one was willing to address them. "Pressure was always on male volunteers to take African wives and father children..." He was accompanied to a local bar by a girl in her teens who grew fractious when he didn't pay her sufficient attention. Later he realized that she was pregnant and that her parents had decided an American would make a good father, if only he could be tricked into an affair.
Pitts had money problems, too, and when he tried to get them sorted out by his supervisor, who visited rarely, "I showed him the damage done to my table and chairs, since good American money had gone to pay for them, but he was not interested. Nor for that matter, did he seem to care much that I was still having to live out of boxes...but he did seem angry with me personally..."
Lacking affirmation from his sending agency, "...some serious thinking was done about what I was actually accomplishing in Makoua and whether or not the mindless difficulties would ever end." His mandate was to initiate fish-farming projects. This program has a high failure rate, according to Pitts, and almost no such projects had taken hold in the Congo. The requirements were that local farmers do the start-up work -- thus signifying their intention to follow through -- but the reality was that for the most part, once they learned that the Americans weren't going to supply tools and labor, most quickly lost interest.
But Pitts did begin to experience small successes. Some farmers got on the bandwagon, and Pitts was even recognized by his supervisor. A meeting at which the farmers were given "buttons and stickers" highlights the extent to which these poor peasants were willing to try to better their lot. Their pride in these tokens, not unlike what an American kid is given when he goes to the dentist, struck this reader.
The author was in the Congo during a time of growing unrest. He had a nasty motorcycle accident, nursing a broken leg without proper medical attention mainly for lack of good communication and transportation, partly because of his entrenched stubbornness and his cynicism about the potential futility of asking for help. In the end he was mustered out with all the Peace Corps staff in the face of increasing violence in a country that even now, more than a decade on, can boast an average life expectancy of only 47 years.
This book would have benefitted from judicious editing, but it is a good portrait of the isolation and indeed the terror of living in the so-called Third World. It raises fair questions about Peace Corps policy, and whether these were unique to the time and place is something that could have been addressed. As a former overseas volunteer myself, I recognized the symptoms of culture shock and wondered if Pitts ever completely got beyond his initial impressions of his village.
Pitts characterizes his book as "politcally incorrect" and I would agree. But over and above these factors, it put me in the Congo -- and made me glad I was somewhere else.