BLUE CLAY PEOPLE: on Africa's Fragile Edge

William Powers, Author . Bloomsbury $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-1-58234-532-1

When Powers, fresh out of a Ph.D. program in international relations, arrived in Liberia in 1999, sent by an international aid agency "to fight poverty and save the rainforest," he faced a daunting task. The second-poorest country in the world, Liberia had just begun to emerge from seven years of civil war and was "environmentally looted, violence scarred, and barely governed." Even major cities lacked electricity, running water and postal service; garbage lay uncollected in the streets, schoolteachers were barely literate and the economy worked largely on bribes. The government of Charles Taylor enriched itself through illicit trade in conflict diamonds, protected timber and weapons, while terrorist militias acted at whim. "It's all just so brutal," Powers confided to his girlfriend, almost ready to quit after his first year. Yet he stayed on, and this eloquent memoir shows why he found this troubled country so difficult to leave. He writes of stunning beaches and rivers, of majestic forests—home to the largest concentration of mammals in the world—threatened by rapacious logging companies, and of resilient people who teach him that it is possible to live happily with "enough." He sketches scenes of transcendent beauty and grotesque violence, and writes with disarming honesty about his struggle to maintain his ideals when the right course of action is far from clear: is it ethical to take an African lover, when the relationship will inevitably be based on financial support? Should he buy endangered zebra duiker meat from a poor family that desperately needs the money? Does his work do good, or inadvertent harm? In the end, he decides, it may not be possible to change the world, but we must continue to act as if we can. Agent, William Clark. (Jan.)

Forecast: While more limited in scope than David Rieff's A Bed for the Night, Blue Clay People makes similar points about struggles of humanitarian work and should engage readers of Rieff's volume.

Reviewed on: 11/15/2004
Release date: 01/01/2005
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 292 pages - 978-1-58234-644-1
Open Ebook - 304 pages - 978-1-59691-881-8
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