by George Packer. Vintage Departures. 316 pages, $8.95, paperback.
George Packer's first book, about his Peace Corps stint in Togo, is unlikely to increase either Peace Corps enrollment or tourism to Togo. It is, however, a sensitive account both of a small African country faced with the promises and hazards of "development," and of the country's effect on a young American posted to a remote village.
"I arrived in Lavie already sick of Togo, sick of Africa, wanting out." This is the inauspicious first line of Packer's story. A bureaucratic dispute has kept him in Lomé, the Togolese capital, for six weeks, and Lomé, in addition to being hot and humid, lacks the virtues of other West African capitals -- the urbanity of Abidjan or the bustle and energy of Lagos. At the end of the book the author, taking a Christmas vacation in Spain after a year and a half in Africa, realizes he cannot face another five months there, and bolts for home. Have things been better in the meantime? Not really.
What makes Packer something of a malcontent is also what makes this a good book: empathy, a restless nature, and an unwillingness to settle for the easy answer. The problem of how to be a white person in Africa perplexes and irritates him. He dislikes being pointed at and referred to as "yovo" but also hates the privileges that are handed to him as a matter of course. He wants the villagers of Lavie to accept him, but once they are calling him Fo Georgie -- Brother Georgie -- he finds himself in a false position, looked to for more help than he can give them. As an English teacher he is locked into a rigid and antiquated educational system, a relic of French colonialism that demands that pupils be force-fed scraps of European history and culture, and that leaves the few pupils who excel in it unable to find jobs suitable to their education and distrusted by the quietly repressive regime. He is uncomfortable with Western tourists who see Africa from lavish hotels in big-game parks, but also with those fellow Peace Corps volunteers who "go native" and deny the value of any and all Western influence.
Packer likes to get to the bottom of things, a trait best illustrated by his extreme and finally successful efforts to catch a thief who has been stealing from his room. Just as he unintentionally hurts the old chief of the village when the thief turns out to be his nephew, so Packer's other investigations into the culture and politics of Togo turn up disheartening results.
As far as one can tell from this book, Togo has no particular natural wonders: no great game reserves, spectacular waterfalls, ancient ruins. On the other hand, it lacks the worst catastrophes of other African countries: Ethiopia's famine, Angola's civil war, South Africa's apartheid. Togo has the more typical Third World ills of poverty, corruption, a feared president, a capital with a few half-empty skyscrapers, a sense of inferiority.
Packer takes the trouble to draw out the Togolese he meets, and his vignettes of them are revealing, particularly those in the chapter "Cicada Philosophy," of three men who have been seduced and abandoned by the dream of development. Complex descriptions of people are one thing that sets The Village of Waiting apart from most travel books. Another is its organization by theme rather than by chronology, with chapters that deal with teaching, the roles of men and women, agriculture, sickness, and other matters. This is not a flashy book, but it is an earnest and valuable look at a microcosm of the Third World.
Published in the Harvard Post, October 28, 1990.