I’ve read enough Peace Corps memoirs now to recommend different books in this sub-subgenre for different needs. This is the book to read if you’re looking for a critique of post-colonial African governments. It’s not the first book I would choose for insights into third-world poverty – that would be The Ponds of Kalambayi. And it’s definitely not the book to make you feel good about the possibility of intercultural understanding – that would be Monique and the Mango Rains. In fact, this book, by a volunteer who left his post six months early, has the most negative outlook on the Peace Corps experience that I’ve seen so far. Which is understandable: it must be hard to feel you’re making an impact on an impoverished African village when your service consists of teaching English in a poorly-run government school, where students are taught to memorize rather than to think and even graduates find few employment opportunities.
That said, Packer’s account of his year and a half in Togo is certainly interesting, and he’s able to relay his observations in a thoughtful way. He seems honest, even about his delusions, and clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the issues he encountered. The settings are vividly depicted. The writing is good, though not as clear or compelling as Tidwell’s in The Ponds of Kalambayi. And the stories of the people Packer meets are interesting, though he maintains a distance between himself that results in a less complete picture than Holloway provides in Monique and the Mango Rains. This book does provide a look at government policy and a critique of relations between Africa and the West that goes beyond anything you’ll see in those two books, however.
Overall, I found this book interesting and informative, though a rather slow read. I recommend finding a copy of the 2001 edition rather than the 1988, as Packer’s afterward – while depressing on the topic of his host family’s future – makes some sense of the otherwise very abrupt ending.