A former Peace Corps volunteer remembers his two-year stint at a school in Africa.
Like hundreds of other young idealists of his generation, debut author Mills heeded President John F. Kennedy’s call and joined the Peace Corps to promote world peace and friendship. He was posted to Sierra Leone, where he taught for two years at a Seventh-day Adventist mission school just outside the capital, Freetown. In this unsettling memoir of that time, he recalls how idealism ran into “centuries-old barriers of colonialism” and how his efforts at educating the impoverished were overshadowed by his affair with one of his students. “Could I honestly answer I had come to Africa to pursue the ideal [Kennedy] held up for me” he asks at one point. “I had spent so much of my energy...walling out the Africa I had supposedly come to serve.” Initially, Mills says, he felt an “exhilarating expansiveness, for here I could be my own man,” and he’s particularly effective at conveying the sensory bombardment of his surroundings: “the stench of urine, raw sewage, dead fish, rotting fruit, and diesel fumes filled the air.” He also memorably portrays the characters who ran the school: headmaster Mr. Campbell, a sardonic Englishman who displays his casual racism by describing the natives as “chimps in the hills,” and his Swedish wife, whose midriff “pooched like an inviting pillow where a man might surely want to rest his head.” The author tells of how he became aware of his own “unconscious cultural posture” when he berated a student for using his bathtub: “Unseen hands had hung an invisible sign above the bathroom door—‘Whites Only,’ ” he writes. The book suffers, however, from its fixation on sexual adventures, which range from a wet dream to several real-life encounters, related in oddly stilted language (“my tumescent lust exploded”). The affair with the Sierra Leonean student, as portrayed here—which ends with her getting pregnant and abandoned by Mills—seems, at best, a gross betrayal of the teacher-pupil relationship. The book gropes for justification by suggesting that the affair helped the author to form “a mysterious connection...between myself and Africa” as he lost the “nagging awareness of my whiteness.”
A memoir with insightful analysis of racial and cultural collisions that gets bogged down by its focus on amorous encounters.