Maria Thomas: A Life Cut Short
A review of her collective works by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974–76)
In an email, Dinaw Mengestu, author of The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, wrote to me, “As always, thank you for your exceptional support of the book. There is nothing like individual support from readers to keep a book alive.”
These words become a challenge, a duty, a promise as I discover, by chance, a posting on our group Facebook page by E & E RPCV President Marian Haley Beil alerting Ethiopia and Eritrean RPCVs to the book African Visas by Maria Thomas (Roberta Worrick, Addis Ababa 1971-73), published posthumously in 1991. The discovery of her work is a cause for celebration tempered by a profound sense of loss, the loss of what could have been. Although much has been written about her life, her work, and her death (see RPCV Writers, October 1989, p. 7) , it is time for a new generation of Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia to become familiar with her work and keep her books alive.
Roberta, her husband Thomas, and their young son Raphael left Ethiopia a year before I arrived so we did not have the good fortune to meet. Even so, there is a sense of familiarity as she writes about experiences of the day, whether they are about the downfall of His Imperial Majesty, the rise of the military junta and the surrounding terror, smallpox eradication, dietary limitations, frustration with the Peace Corps administration, and projects that seemed to go nowhere. Ethiopia remained her “favorite place on the continent,“ (blurb) just as it has for so many of us who one time served there. In a report in Harper’s Magazine, she wrote, “If you’ve ever lived in Ethiopia, you never really put it behind you. You follow the news, any you can get, avidly. You look for people who have just been there. You find Ethiopians on the outside, or they find you. You collect stories. You wait for any chance to go back.” As you are reading this, you are probably nodding your head in agreement. Who of us has not spoken to a complete stranger, be he a taxi driver or a shuttle driver at the airport, a baggage handler, or a convenience store clerk? It was definitely evidenced as 100 RPCVs and family returned to Ethiopia during the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps just a year or so ago.
Seventeen years after their close of service, Roberta and her husband were once again posted in Ethiopia, where Thomas served as the deputy director of the Ethiopian mission of USAID. In 1989, they accompanied a group headed by Texas Democratic Congressman Mickey Leland to a refugee camp on the Sudanese border. The plane crashed 45 miles short of its destination on a mountain at 4,300 feet, missing the top of the mountain peak by 300 feet. There were no survivors. This was Congressman Leland’s sixth trip to Ethiopia. He was reported to have been especially eager to inspect the camp because half of the 50,000 refugees there were orphaned boys from Sudan (NYT obituary). Roberta accompanied her husband and the Congressman on that last fateful trip because of her fluency in Amharic.
The Worricks were part of a very short trend in the Peace Corps in that day to encourage the recruiting of skilled Volunteers (unlike the many of us “BA Generalists”) by actively recruiting married couples with children. One of the couple would be a Volunteer and the other a “non-matrixed” spouse. Remember this is in the early ’70s, leaving one to wonder if the “non-matrixed” generally received a fulfilling assignment and the accompanying sense of accomplishment. The Worricks had been married six years when they had joined the Peace Corps. He had been an agricultural economist and she had been teaching English, math and art in a private school in Vermont. Roberta went to Ethiopia as a technical writer for the dairy development agency in Addis Ababa. The agency was developing a program to educate dairy farmers with the concepts of modern dairy, including crossbreeding and hygiene, to increase milk production. Her role was in the development of a textbook, in consultation with World Bank technicians, to be given to agricultural extension agents and then interpreted for farmers. Of her early experience in Ethiopia she recalls, “Culture shock is a real thing, and going into Ethiopia, it was really enormous. When we joined the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, the Volunteers had the highest fallout rate and the highest extension rate — if you made it through the beginning, it was likely that you would want to stay a long time.”
After their Peace Corps service Roberta and her husband Thomas would live and work in Africa, including Tanzania, Liberia, Nigeria, and Kenya for seventeen years and return to Ethiopia. During those intervening years, she collected stories and memories that would become the basis for her future novel, Antonia Saw the Oryx First, and both of her collections of stories, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, and African Visas.
A 1963 graduate of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA, she honed her skills as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University (1986–87), a prestigious creative writing program. Her writing has appeared in Redbook, Story Quarterly, Harper’s Magazine and North American Review. Her prizes for short fiction include the Chicago Review Annual Fiction Award, the National Magazine Award, and the Story Quarterly Fiction Prize. Her books were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review and she, herself, had been called upon to write reviews in the NYTBR on books of African interest. Of particular note is a report she wrote for Harper’s Magazine in January 1987, “A State of Permanent Revolution: Ethiopia Bleeds Red” relating her experience returning to Ethiopia, then still under Mengistu’s rule.
Shortly after her death, Peace Corps Worldwide (then Peace Corps Writers) instituted the Maria Thomas Fiction Award commemorating her legacy as a noted fiction writer. The award has been given annually since 1990 and has honored the likes of Paul Theroux and Bob Shachochis.
Both the novel, Antonia Saw the Oryx First, and her first book of stories, Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage, were published in 1987. African Visas was published posthumously in 1991.
Antonia Saw the Oryx First, the story of a young doctor born in East Africa of American parents during the late colonial period, received high acclaim by prominent critics. But I would like to focus this essay on her short stories and novella, especially those set in Ethiopia.
There are two stories in Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage with an Ethiopian theme. “Why the Sky is so Far Away” reveals a more raw and graphic side of life in Ethiopia through the sensibilities of a group of male smallpox eradication Volunteers, Ethiopia being the last country to have active cases of smallpox in the late ’60s early ’70s. It was a rough and tumble existence traveling to the most rural parts of Ethiopia, where tribesmen are “armed to the teeth” with guns, spears balanced across their shoulders, big knives at their waists, and small knives stuck in their afros. The PCVs questioned the futility of vaccinating against this dreaded disease only to lose those lives to starvation due to a drought that no one will acknowledge. There are more questions than answers and there is no tidy ending.
On the other end of the spectrum, is “Second Rains” a love story of sorts where the central character, Charlotte Renoir, a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Ethiopia in 1972 as a secretary. She becomes involved with and later marries Kassahun Afewerk, who had a stunning face “a Byzantine face of ancient proportions — the high-domed forehead, the long, straight nose, the aristocratic mouth, the graceful cheeks, and the large, mystical eyes of an icon.” This was a marriage of convenience, which she embraced wholeheartedly. He was from the wrong tribe and knew that the overthrow of the Emperor was inevitable and that he would be put to death. Through this marriage, he would enlist Charlotte’s support in secreting his young sons out of Ethiopia when the time proved ripe.
“The Jiru Road,” the novella in African Visas, does not name its setting in Ethiopia (although it is so named in the blurb), but there is no doubt that this is Ethiopia. The novella opens with the motive for its protagonist, Sarah Easterday, in joining the Peace Corps, “I reckon I joined the Peace Corps because I was trying to avoid conscription . . . conscription into American life.” She wanted to go to Bengal, but was assigned to East Africa by the Peace Corps recruiter. “But (like the Spanish speaking applicants from the Southwest, who’d pleaded for Latin America) I got sent to Africa.” Roberta Worrick, had hoped to go to Latin American because of her Spanish skills, but she, too, was sent to Ethiopia. And like so many of us who couldn’t point out Ethiopia on a map before we joined, Sarah Easterday fell in love with Jiru (Ethiopia). During her training, she “had embraced a new landscape, lacy with tall eucalyptus, glowing with strange flowers; had learned a new language that popped with explosive letters; had survived a bout of dysentery which landed me in a hospital; had learned to drink honey beer and tell time by counting the hours from sun up (instead of from noon); had learned to dance the iskistis, which features a rhythmic pumping of the shoulders.” Her dancing skills soon gained her the name of “shoulders.”
She is a two-day bus ride, half-day walk from the capital (Addis Ababa is never mentioned by name) and her nearest PCV neighbor, Wally Martin, is several hours away. She is befriended by a hard-drinking American advisor, Jack Archibald, at the John F. Kennedy Coffee House and Bar in Makele (another allusion to Ethiopia). Today many of the coffee houses and internet shops in Makele are named after Barack Obama, such is the fascination with Americans of note. Archibald is definitely the stereotypical “ugly American” but in more than one instance comes to Sarah’s rescue. Sarah has a typical Volunteer experience with highs and lows, successes and disasters. After months of teaching with no resources to children who are lethargic from hunger, the great drought happens. Sarah and Wally cook up a scheme to build a road from Wally’s village of Bari-Cotu to Jiru, utilizing the food for work program that Archibald supervises. It is a road from nowhere to nowhere, and predictably is washed out when the rains do come, but not before she has made a lifelong connection within that community.
African Visas closes with an autobiographical story entitled simply, “Ethiopia.” Maria Thomas/Roberta Worrick relates a chance meeting with an Ethiopian friend from her Peace Corps days in Ethiopia at a restaurant in Washington, D.C. As they renew their friendship, she longs to return and reflects on the pull the experience had: “Which meant that if you stayed, you never wanted to leave. And after you left, all you wanted to do was go back, and when you couldn’t get there, you found Ethiopians on the outside, or they found you, or you found each other across the world like this, as if by magic.” An opportunity arises for the Worricks to return and she enlists her old friend in Amharic lessons, the words pouring out from some recess in her memory. Her closing paragraph is prescient:
I wonder what it will be like in a few weeks’ time, landing in Addis Abeba again, if the connections will all come back to make the picture clear. I remember vividly though, still, how the plane came in low over the land, we saw hills like waves on a choppy sea, the land cut up into plots, the conical rooftops. It was the rainy season and I had never seen such green.
I left a copy of African Visas with a current Volunteer during my most recent trip to Ethiopia. It should come as no surprise that she enjoyed it very much and will share it with other Volunteers and in this way, “keep the book alive.”
Note: John Coyne has recently published an interview with Roberta and Thomas’s son, Raphael Worrick, on Peace Corps Worldwide.