Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge by William Powers ’93 (Bloomsbury).
When catholic relief services sent William Powers to Liberia in 1999, he arrived planning to write an analytical, even scholarly, book on conservation and international aid in what he calls the fourth world: countries that are “not just poor, but environmentally looted, violence scarred, and barely governed.” Instead, Powers wrote Blue Clay People, a searing memoir as much about the lives of aid workers and expatriates in Liberia as about the day-to-day struggles of the West African country.
Neither the country nor the expat scene is particularly inviting. In brief historical vignettes, Powers describes how Liberia was settled back in the 1800s by freed African American slaves who, he writes, “came to rule the way the antebellum whites had ruled them: through domination.” Rebels finally overthrew this “Americo-Liberian” aristocracy in 1980, and when Powers arrived in the late 1990s, former warlord Charles Taylor (now in exile in Nigeria) occupied the presidential palace. The few Westerners in Liberia lived in walled compounds with a phalanx of servants and armed guards, enjoying their privileges as part of the “bossman” class while growing ever more cynical about the impact of foreign aid and business.
Much of Blue Clay People is Powers’ attempt to measure the distance between his rally-on-the-College-Green idealism and the realities of life in the fourth world. His job, as defined by Catholic Relief Services in language reminiscent of Superman, is “to fight poverty and dependency while saving the rain forest.” Yet Powers quickly discovers the extent to which international relief is misdirected, siphoned off, or otherwise wasted, and how deeply entrenched these problems are, both locally and abroad.
Writing in memoir form allows Powers to personalize Liberia’s plight through the cast of characters he encounters in remote jungle outposts, on beaches (with the expats who call themselves Surf Buddhas), in grimy bars, and at tense checkpoints with jittery young soldiers. Blue Clay People has a prominent romantic subplot, too, as Powers splits with his fiancée back in Washington, D.C. (and, by extension, opts out of a comfortable life inside the Beltway) and falls for a Liberian woman. All these stories unfold through brisk dialogue and vivid description, in a style that recalls the literary travelogues of writers such as Mark Salzman and Bruce Chatwin.
Along the way, Powers takes pride in helping one rain forest village progress toward sustainability and survival, and he finds a hero in an environmental activist named Gabriel (who is also the book’s least believable character—his barroom commentary on geopolitics is thematically convenient but sounds too perfectly crafted).
Still, by the time Powers leaves Liberia, these bright spots seem tiny and insubstantial next to the global forces that are clear-cutting the forest, wiping out endangered species, and perpetuating the country’s cycles of poverty and violence. Blue Clay People makes the case that Westerners, unwittingly or not, are key players in the drama of the fourth world, especially as consumers of such luxuries as diamonds and old-growth timber. As a case study of conservation and international aid, Liberia doesn’t give Powers much cause for optimism. But at the very least, he suggests, we can “act as if it were possible to achieve structural change.”
Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is a contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered and the author of The Complete Singer-Songwriter.