Once I knew I was moving to Liberia, as an avid reader I immediately set about trying to find books about the country or books written by Liberians. There are surprisingly few. I’m making a comparison to other African countries like Rwanda, Kenya, or the Democratic Republic of Congo, which I’ve read multiple books about in the last 5-10 years, ranging from non-fiction to novels to travel writing.
I asked around for reading recommendations and my various acquaintances in Liberia kept suggesting the same handful of books to me. There was one book that no one mentioned to me and yet I was lucky enough to stumble upon – Blue Clay People by William Powers.
I’m not sure why it has such a low profile (perhaps because it was published in 2005?), but for anyone interested in Liberia it is well worth the read. Powers tells the story of his two years spent living in Liberia (1999-2001) and working for Catholic Relief Services. His mandate was to “fight poverty and save the rainforest.”
He is self-admittedly young and green and is quickly confronted by the “brutal” reality of Taylor-run Liberia and the environmental and human destruction wrought on the country by war. He soon concludes that his mandate is at best contradictory and at worst farcical. But he falls in love with Liberia and struggles, professionally and emotionally, to have a positive impact on the country.
He addresses several challenging themes throughout the book. As a reader, you feel him wrestling with them in his heart and his day-to-day life – the pitfalls of international development aid in a conflict/post-conflict environment; the debate about handouts versus “sustainable” development; the ethics of his relationship with an African woman; and whether as a modern aid worker he is no more than a “secular missionary” in a neo-colonial reincarnation of The White Man’s Burden.
Two of my favorite quotes from the book are as follows: “Like most people who go overseas to do development work, I did so expecting to find out what it’s like to be poor… That’s not what happens. Instead you learn what it’s like to be rich, to be fabulously, incomprehensibly, bloated with wealth.” And, commenting on his own discomfort surrounding his relationship with his domestic “servants” (maid, cook, driver, gardener, etc.), he writes: “I had landed in a strange reconstruction of the southern antebellum plantation system, and I was unwittingly cast in the role of master.”