Liberia in 1999 seems an unlikely setting for an inspiring story about developing a positive philosophy of life. The West African...

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“Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge”

by William Powers

Bloomsbury, 292 pp., $24.95

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Liberia in 1999 seems an unlikely setting for an inspiring story about developing a positive philosophy of life.

The West African country then was ruled by Charles Taylor, who was elected in 1997 after threatening to continue the civil war that had killed several thousands if he was not voted into office.

Signs of government or order were few. A mountain of garbage grew in the center of Monrovia, the capital. There was no electricity, no water system, no sewers. Food donations kept the population from starving while Taylor sold diamonds and opened the rain forests to clear-cutting in order to buy arms to keep himself in power.

William Powers, fresh out of grad school, arrives in the middle of this as the newly appointed director of projects in Liberia for Catholic Relief Services (CRS). His mandate: reduce poverty and dependency while conserving the rain forest.

“Blue Clay People” is Powers’ account of his two-year stay in Liberia, his effort to accomplish any part of that mandate and his struggle to come to terms with the role of development aid in today’s world.

The book opens with him flying into Liberia over the nation’s jungle canopy, vowing to learn from those living in harmony with nature under those thousands of trees. Instead, he finds big problems in the development work being done. A new market has been built an easy drive from town, but no one has cars and it goes unused. Liberians make up bogus organizations to get aid grants and round up children to fill fake orphanages to get more food. Rebels steal food and equipment meant for refugees. Food-for-work projects are all food and no work.

Dependency is everywhere, from former boy-soldiers missing limbs and begging for handouts to the Liberian women willing to attach themselves to aid workers in exchange for support for themselves and families. The biggest form of dependency is the food that Powers has say over.

To Liberians, all this comes from the flaws embedded in human beings: the result of when God, forming man out of blue clay, stopped to grind some pepper and sneezed, blowing the pepper into the humans, letting loose “a fire that would burn in their blood, making people destroy each other and all of nature.”

To Powers, these are problems to overcome, and in trying to do so he faces fundamental questions about development aid: Has it become the new colonialism, with aid workers drawing big salaries, living the good life and dispensing largess as needed to keep the natives content? Are aid workers nothing more than secular missionaries, there to impose their values and culture? Is aid a sure path to dependency for a developing nation or a necessity for survival?

Characters in the book provide different answers to these questions. Jacket, the go-with-the-flow pragmatist who serves as the CRS security chief, thinks graft and corruption are the price of doing business in Africa. He’s cynical about any grand plan for development aid and has a down-to-earth local approach to providing relief: “People should sleep on a mattress.” It’s impossible to save the world and stop evildoers such as Taylor, but at least you can give people food and water and then get them off the ground when they sleep. Jacket takes his philosophy seriously, buying mattresses for his Liberian wives, his “deputy” wives and for members of their families.

Gabriel, an environmental activist, thinks that just because something is impossible doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. Quoting Mother Teresa and Gandhi, he talks about adjusting our inner lives so that we can move from nationalism/tribalism to demanding a “strong yet caring world government that can truly regulate cross-boundary issues like logging, weapons and diamond trading.”

In the end, Powers formulates his own philosophy of development aid and how to live responsibly on this planet. It is a mix of Jacket’s pragmatism, Gabriel’s global action, part lessons learned from Liberians and part realization of who he is — someone who will never “go native” as Jacket has, but who can choose to live and consume in ways that will help others live.

In the course of the book, Powers loses lovers, suffers disease and professional setbacks, lives in great personal danger and struggles with doubts that he is accomplishing anything. Yet in the face of this adversity and hopelessness, he arrives at an uplifting philosophy.