Books

Heart. Wood.

heart-woodby Eric Torgersen (Addis Ababa 1964–66)
WordTech Communications, 2012
84 pages
$18.00

reviewed by Judy Hodges Coryell (Debre Zeit 1965–67)

THIS SLIM VOLUME OF POEMS is Eric Torgersen’s seventh. He has also written a full length study of German poets, translated poetry from German and written two books of fiction.

This erudite professor’s poetry — old and new — uses free and more structured forms in dealing with tragic or humorous vignettes. The everyday is highlighted for the reader to ponder, as in “Clearing Out Old Books”; the tragedy of pedophilia in “Believe the Children.” There are two references to Ethiopia in the book — you’ll find and enjoy them. Nature, childhood memories and friendship are important sources of inspiration in Heart.Wood.

This collection can be read many times over and give the reader something new to savor.


Enlightened Aid

U.S. Development as Foreign Policy in Ethiopia

enlightened-aidby Amanda Kay McVety
Oxford University Press, 2012
312 pages
$74.00 (cloth)

Reviewed by Ted Vestal (Peace Corps Staff, Addis Ababa 1964–1966)

McVETY, WHO IS AN ASSISTANT PROFESSOR of History at Miami University in Ohio, takes on an ambitious subject. In documenting the origins and development of U.S. aid programs, she goes back to the eighteenth century Enlightenment’s ideas of progressive change and traces how they evolved over a 200-year period into present-day U.S. government programs. U.S.-Ethiopian aid connections are used as a case study to illustrate the changing trajectory of the concept of development aid as part of American foreign policy since its beginnings in the Point Four Program of the Truman administration. In reviewing the philosophy and economic theories of Scottish, European, and American thinkers starting with Adam Smith and David Hume, McVety traverses a vast literature that lays the groundwork for current ideas about progress and development.

Readers may find challenging the opening chapters, but the pace picks up when the narrative gets beyond World War II and U.S. policy makers become concerned with a global economy and the Cold War competition between capitalist development and the Soviets’ model. Especially noteworthy is the author’s detailed explanation of the contentious genesis of Point Four and its technical assistance projects to “further the secure growth of democratic ways of life, the expansion of mutually beneficial commerce, the development of international understanding and good will, and the maintenance of world peace.” There follows a description of the programs of Point Four and its progeny, including the Technical Cooperation Administration (TCA), Foreign Operations Administration, International Cooperation Administration (ICA), and finally, John Kennedy’s U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) that strives on today.

Programs are listed, but the author does not go into details about what happened in the projects or what they produced. Much of the narrative is based on government reports, Congressional hearings, and scholarly papers delivered at academic meetings. After a two-chapter review of U.S. development programs in Ethiopia, McVety concludes that U.S. assistance fails because it invariably serves as a political instrument rather than as an agent of change. Most Ethiopians remained deeply impoverished, and aid failed to produce real improvements in Ethiopian lives.  According to the author, real economic growth must come from within impoverished countries. She recommends that the United States and other wealthy nations assist this process by curbing their own domestic agricultural subsidies, supporting global disease eradication, promoting entrepreneurship, and encouraging poorer countries’ investments in infrastructure and education. The final chapter includes a sweeping survey of the recent literature about foreign aid and the contemporary debates shaping what she proposes to be a new “American Answer” to developing programs that “transform the lives of the world’s poorest peoples.”

The book is basically a history of the macroeconomics of U.S. aid. That is fine as far as it goes. The devil is in the details, however, and McVety’s work would benefit from more devilish delving into the what’s, where’s, and when’s of aid programs. Starkly missing are the perspectives of people who worked in the field or were recipients of the assistance rendered. The Peace Corps is skipped in the analysis and does not merit a mention in the book’s index. Interviews with U.S. personnel in the field, as well as Ethiopian beneficiaries of the programs, would have provided a very different view of development efforts. Most Peace Corps and Point Four workers I knew in Ethiopia were involved in small-scale projects at the grass-roots level with a heavy emphasis on personal contacts. Ethiopians that had American teachers, especially PCVs, in these programs uniformly commend the individuals involved and the U.S. programs generally.

To my knowledge, neither the Peace Corps nor Point Four had the goal of ending poverty in the country, a goal implied in McVety’s analysis. It is doubtful that Emperor Menelik I’s father, King Solomon the Wise, would have the wisdom to achieve such an aim. More modestly, American teachers in the Ethiopian aid projects provided instruction that improved the lives of their students. As Stan Meisler points out in his history of the Peace Corps, When the World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years, the English language proficiency of educated Ethiopians improved markedly as a result of the PC education projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Likewise, American instructors and researchers at Haile Selassie I University and the Imperial Agricultural College at Alemaya raised academic standards and contributed to improvements in agriculture, public health, and education. A thriving coffee industry, new breeds of cattle, and heightened care of livestock and other animals were a few of the major accomplishments.

The U.S. investment in human capital paid off in producing, among others, Ethiopian scientists, scholars, and international civil servants. In addition, American aid worked on the premise that it would make itself unnecessary. So it was at Alemaya, where, over time, Ethiopian administrators and faculty replaced the Americans, and a thriving university there today is testimony to the efficacy of the program. A graduate of Alemaya developed a successful vaccine against Rinderpest and another was the 2009 World Food Prize Laureate. Could any Ethiopians conclude that such accomplishments facilitated by U.S. development aid had done more harm than good for their country?

The only Ethiopian quoted at length in McVety’s book is Emperor Haile Selassie. Where are comments by Ethiopian students and teachers and leaders in higher education, agriculture, and health? Where is commentary from Ethiopian and American newspaper articles about the aid programs?

One could argue that U.S. aid has kept and continues to keep repressive governments in power. On the other hand, the case can be made that in subtle ways, the American presence in Ethiopia planted seeds of doubt about the Ethiopian government’s bringing progress to the people and being outdated. By improving the English reading and writing skills of Ethiopian students, the Americans left a legacy of a generation of the country’s educated elite that was better able to grapple with the meanings of Jefferson and Lincoln as well as Marx and Lenin. The subtleties of that legacy are still being worked out today.

Enlightened Aid provides a Van Gough-like wide brush stroke appraisal of U.S. development programs. More Seurat dots or microeconomics might be more satisfying to RPCVs and others who served in Ethiopia. The book is helpful in delving into the background and theories of how the programs we worked in came to be. McVety’s plea to reconsider contemporary aid practices is timely and well taken. Her book will help inform such considerations.


Dr. Dark

dr-darkby Robert E. Hamilton (Ethiopia 1964–66)
Amazon Digital
356 pages
October 2012
$0.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Ted Wells (Rural Gemu Gofa, 1968-71)

THIS IS A SUBTLE but very captivating novel about power and ambition among mid-level bureaucrats in a mid-sized American university. It is set in the heat of Florida, which helps simmer its understated tension. The story is told through an intricate, concisely written series of vignettes; crisp, sometimes quirky descriptions of the musings and activities of the two main characters; Dr Karl Dark, Director of the University’s African Studies Program and one of his assistants, Dr. Barbara Kelly, the program’s Outreach Director.

With intrigue but without haste, the story soon engulfs other university staff who through the novelists omnipotent eye help explain the one sided conflict that develops between the two main characters. Before long it becomes evident that Dr Dark, a very capable director, is easily threatened by the success of anyone who works for him. Highly motivated Barbara Kelly is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. From a corporate point of view, Dr Dark’s heart is in the right place, but unfortunately for his staff he is the typical self-serving empire builder found in many large corporations and corporatized universities today.

Nothing is quite as it seems, however. The plot continually twists and turns in directions that, like a well crafted crime novel, could possibly have been deduced if inflections between the lines had been carefully read, but each, including the ending, still comes as a surprise.

The author clearly knows the intimate details of corporate university politics, and although there is a loud disclaimer at the beginning of the book that it is “a work of fiction,” it is difficult to imagine that there aren’t many autobiographical bits in it.

I could have used more story behind the anomaly of a white man (and his white assistants) running an African Studies Program, particularly given the director’s name. “Dr Dark” may be a catchy book title, but it seemed to me a little trite, given the quality of the writing otherwise. I also thought the dust jacket description of the book somewhat off-putting with its over stated reference to Dr. Dark as a “continent” that “believeth” in his own genius.

But don’t let such minor niggles put you off. Robert E. Hamilton’s novel about corporate university intrigue is very much worth downloading.


The Old Man in the Bag

And Other True Stories of Good Intentions

old-man-bagby Ted Wells (Shileh, Kelam 1968–71)
CreateSpace, November 2012
$12.95 (paperback); $2.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Mike O’Brien (Grawa, Ethiopia 1967-69)

AFTER MY WIFE VANA AND I returned to the U. S. from teaching in an elementary school in Grawa, a rural town high in the mountains of Gara Muleta, we had a hard time re-adapting into our American lives. Our society seemed overwhelming — too fast-paced, too much stuff, wasteful, and obsessed with war and money. We soon realized that we had been changed by Ethiopia much more than we were aware while we were there. Every single day of life in our little town had been intensely direct, purposeful, and full of strange new and unexpected encounters. One might say, packed with life. And, as it turned out, it was a life beyond our power to describe back here at home. We weren’t able to condense our experiences and emotions to provide a tidy version that would be comprehensible to our stay-at-home family and friends. We tended to speak in headlines, like “I learned more than they did” or “Every day was a roller coaster.” We could only hint at the incredible highs and heart-staggering lows of our two-year immersion. I think only our grown children, one of whom has visited Ethiopia, have heard and seen enough to begin to understand our experience.

So when I read Ted Wells’ new memoir of his and his wife Helen’s 1967-69 life and work in Shileh in the far southern Rift Valley of Ethiopia, I was struck by how artfully and precisely he has captured its everyday wonder and weirdness. He combines conversations in halting Amharic and English with descriptions of places, people and events, and with photos, and facsimiles of letters home, to build up an engaging read — alternately funny, charming, horrifying and painfully truthful. As a reader I felt like I was right there with him and Helen, looking over their shoulder, encountering each amazing day just as they did. And time and again, I found myself nodding my head in recognition. Ted’s book accomplishes what I thought impossible, it takes a reader along on a story of life in Ethiopia so unlikely that it reads like melodramatic fiction — except, of course, it’s all true.

Arriving in Addis Ababa after training in the Virgin Islands, already an odd but engaging adventure in itself, Ted and Helen were steered into their new assignment by this pitch from Peace Corps staffer David Levine:

“Anyway, there’s a place called Shileh next to a couple of rivers near Lake Chamo where they could really use your help. The Ethiopian government wants to build a new town and start farming in the valley using irrigation from the rivers, only it’s down in the Rift Valley where the malaria is really bad . . . have you been taking your malaria pills?” asked Dave suddenly.

This quote — so appealing yet foreshadowing — brought back my own memory of a similar conversation in 1967 with Marc Scott, also a Peace Corps staffer in Addis Ababa, about a small town in the mountains of Gara Muleta that really needed a married couple to help turn around an elementary school. Of course Vana and I, despite our reservations as to our qualifications and some hints of problems to come, accepted eagerly, as did Ted and Helen. From this point in the book I was hooked, cheering them on, compelled by their fascinating story, with nearly every page a reminder of our own experiences.

As you can guess, their formal assignment didn’t begin to cover the realities of life in a “new town” that only existed in the mind’s eye of government planners. To start with, Shileh was only accessible during the dry season via a track that crossed two rivers, was partly submerged by a lake, and otherwise was impassibly muddy during the rainy season. They were warned about hazards, like Gugi tribesmen who still liked to present their bride-to-be with the penis and testicles of slain enemies, and crocodiles known to snatch unwary humans — which had actually happened to a Peace Corps Volunteer in Gambela. Arriving, they realized no one living in Shileh knew they were coming, or why. Ted introduced himself and Helen to curious townspeople in this brave speech:

We are volunteers from overseas. Your Government wants us to live here and help you make your new town. We can help you survey your new house sites and your new fields. We can help you treat your malaria and your sick animals. We want to help you help yourselves.

Which drew this reaction:

Although my speech was all in crude Amharic, it was clear neither the old man nor anyone else around us had understood a single word, or if they had, they gave us absolutely no hint of it. The old man just stood there silently staring at us, with an increasingly perplexed look on his face. All the villagers stood there silently staring too.

Change the wording slightly, and I made a similar first-day speech in Grawa to townspeople who, while politely welcoming, were incredulous and disbelieving that rich foreigners with university degrees were actually going to live there and teach at the school. In crude Amharic and simple English, I tried to explain about opposing the Vietnam war and choosing Peace Corps service. Heads nodding, my lame speech was understood as “He has been banished by his government,” something all too familiar to Ethiopians.

So began Ted and Helen’s adventure. Suffice to say, they quickly began to adapt, learn what needed to be done and got to work. Ted’s writing captures their life vividly — when the shinta bet catches fire while Ted is in it, it’s funny; when a new baby can’t make it after its weak and undernourished mother dies, it’s grievously sad. Ethical dilemmas are an everyday matter, like having to help poison a baboon family to prevent them destroying the farmers’ hard-won corn crop. To deal with it all, Ted and Helen have to rethink their initial assumptions and expectations, about Ethiopia, their work, and even about their own relationship and marriage.

Perhaps all married Volunteers went through a crisis such as Ted and Helen experienced. The repeated challenges of daily life finally force you to ask frank questions and reveal previously hidden thoughts to each other. Although naked honesty can be hard to take, some things come out that might never have been revealed in “normal” life back home, so being truly open and vulnerable with each other ultimately strengthens love and respect.

I especially appreciated Ted’s use of conversations — how he remembered or recorded these I don’t know, but they sound authentic — for creating a sense for the reader of actually being there with him. We all struggled with getting across any complex idea in a second language, and the conversations here are touching reminders of how we hoped our good intentions could overcome our limited speech.

There is no philosophizing, rather just candidly honest observations from which the reader may draw their own conclusions. Ted skillfully weaves memory into a story so real and compelling that I read the book in a single night. I think you will too.

. . . and also by Ted

Power, Chaos and Consensus

Consocratic Theory

power-consensusCreateSpace, November 2012
$14.95 (paperback); $3.99 (Kindle)

IN TED’S WORDS,  The Old Man in the Bag is a “prequel” to Power, Chaos & Consensus: Consocratic Theory because his Peace Corps experiences in the 1960s set in motion years of thinking and practice that shaped the second book, an essay on radical change.

While in Ethiopia, Ted realized that sincere goodwill alone could not overcome barriers between people: “What I learned was that sometimes even peaceful selfless good intentions can have a serious downside to them, generating anger and hatred between people rather than love and understanding.” My guess is, most of us who have worked in service organizations like Peace Corps have grappled with this reality. For me as a school teacher in Grawa, for example, it was the futility of teaching an academic curriculum, mandated by the Ministry of Education, to rural kids who needed practical life skills but all too often ended up in the city: graduates, yes, but unemployed, frustrated and sometimes angry.

This book addresses nothing less than our fundamental human dilemma: “We have still not figured out how to ensure social equity between people under a market economy, how to live in the natural environment that surrounds us without abusing it, how to resolve serious conflicts with our neighbors without going to war.” Here Ted has articulated his vision in a thoughtful assessment of humanity’s essential character, our intractable problems, and how they might realistically be addressed. When he began thinking about these issues he believed his ideas were original, as he grew older he realized he was following a path blazed by earlier thinkers ranging from E. F. Schumacher to Arizmendi to Sir Patrick Geddes, who all originated creative yet practical solutions to difficult problems. His ideas also remind me of Rob Hopkins and the Transition Towns movement.

Following their Peace Corps service in Ethiopia, Ted and Helen returned to the U. S. where he began a career as a town planner. In the early 1970s they moved their family to New Zealand, and Ted began working with communities across Asia helping them to plan for growth and to achieve goals like social equity. Based on his experiences in Ethiopia, the U. .S and Asia with community planning and making complex decisions and investments using truly democratic processes, he has synthesized his thinking into a guidebook for a “realistic way we might achieve peace, social justice and environmental sustainability on this planet without having to resort to further violence, terrorism or war.” To an RPCV reader, these words bring up mixed reactions: hope that he is right, and fear that the problems are too great for rational solutions.

Perhaps the book’s core idea of “consensus” and “democaracy” or “consocracy” is summed up in this recollection of Ethiopians he knew during Peace Corps:

They intuitively recognize that despite their differences, whatever the cost, they need the support of everyone to live together in peace. They need to reach consensus among themselves to survive.

But how did they reach consensus? Ted goes on to explain in more detail a practical method for small-group consensus decision-making that could realistically be applied across our modern world and its many diverse and conflicted societies. His suggested process is based on some core realities:

  • Humans have much in common. At the same time, no two people think alike. Decision making must take this reality into account.
  • Democratic decision-making in western societies is frequently in name only, tends to be patriarchal, and to exclude dissenters, which may lead to “winners and losers,” or resentment and resistance.
  • Market economies lack moral values to guide decisions that are fair and equitable.
  • Governments waste economic wealth on wars and ill-considered schemes.
  • We need new ways to achieve social equity, environmental health and a fair economy. Consensus must be used to achieve workable solutions to a wide range of problems.
  • Consensus can work in small groups. We have the technology and capability to organize and involve small groups, and aggregate their choices into a truly democratic process.
  • Consensus does not mean everyone agrees. It is better defined as a democratic process in which:
    • All are welcome to participate.
    • All ideas are heard and understood.
    • Reasons for decisions are clearly stated.

These key factors can ensure that minorities are heard and their ideas are addressed. They do not guarantee unanimity, rather, comprehension, mutual respect and ultimately acceptance of decisions. Ted draws on the example of a Samoan community’s decision-making ceremony to illustrate how they work “inclusively rather than divisively.”

When someone in a Samoan community raised an opposing idea to something that already seemed to have the backing of most at the meeting, the immediate response of everyone was attentive rather than dismissive.

The first thing that happened was someone supportive of the original idea would thank the “opponent” for bringing the alternative idea to the meeting’s attention. He . . . would then ask for more details about the new idea and what might make it better than the one already on the table.

In Samoa this process works for most decisions, in the sense that it respects minority views and ensures a fair hearing. It sometimes fails, in that opponents may experience social pressure to go along, but it suggests a workable model for other small groups. In this essay, Ted is seeking a way forward toward change that is radical, but not revolutionary.

As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, I found I concurred with passages describing our current problems. For that reason alone, I think Ted’s ideas for change are worthy alternatives to today’s authoritarian dictatorships and wars. I’m not sure how practical they really might be, but they would be a huge improvement over the chaos and destruction we take for granted today. For example, Ted does not really come to grips with troublesome issues like violent men who exploit and abuse women and girls.

The last section is a “Consocratic Plan” for addressing fifty of the world’s most pressing problems, wherein Ted proposes specific ways he would address problems. The plan has much in common with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  If, like me, you are feeling a bit overwhelmed by the gravity of our current situation, Ted’s recommendations will definitely impel you to articulate your own ideas. Whether you agree with his recommendations, his ideas will challenge your own thinking.


To order a book or film from Amazon.com that has been reviewed here click on the cover or the price, and Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCVs, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance to support its RPCV Legacy Program.

End of Issue 14 — April 13, 2013



 

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