Living on the Edge
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Living on the Edge: Paul Theroux (page 2)

Paul Theroux: From the
Peace Corps Training Directory for his group
A Crack in the Earth
In 1964 Paul Theroux was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nyasaland (as Malawi was called before independence), living on the edge of “a crack in the earth,” as he wrote in a letter to The Christian Science Monitor. That same year I was a PCV farther north, up in the highlands of Ethiopia, a few hours east of the Great Rift.
     Though our years in Africa overlapped, I didn’t know Theroux then. But I heard of him. By the time he was 23, his outspokenness had already made him notorious within the Peace Corps.
     In the fall of 1965, when I returned to Ethiopia as an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD), he appeared as a central character in a story that swept through Peace Corps/Africa. The country director in Malawi had been sent home by the U.S. Ambassador, Sam P. Gilstrap.
     It seems that the Malawi PCVs had started a Volunteer newspaper called The Migraine, and its editor had written a piece opposing the American presence in Vietnam. When the Ambassador, an old and dear friend of President Lyndon Johnson, saw the newspaper, he expelled the country director, Michael McCone (Staff: Sierra Leone, Malawi, Malaysia 1962–66), for allowing publication of the editorial — which had been written by Paul Theroux.
     Will Lotter, Deputy Director of the Malawi Peace Corps project (1965–67), said it was Theroux’s article that first made him aware of the anti-war movement among young Americans. “I came off the Davis campus in California. I had been an athletic coach and Paul opened my eyes to our folly in Vietnam.”
     And if they read his editorial, most Volunteers overseas would have agreed with Theroux, though many Volunteers did support U.S. military activities in Asia, at least in 1964. (It wasn’t until 1965-66 that male PCVs began to join the Peace Corps to avoid the draft.)
     But what was Ambassador Gilstrap thinking? Didn’t every ambassador know PCVs always mouthed off against U.S. foreign policy, even while eating all the hors d’oeuvres at every embassy reception? If anyone lacked good judgment, it was Sam P. Gilstrap.
     I remember reading cable traffic about the incident. Country Director Mike McCone was back in Washington being interviewed by Sargent Shriver and waiting for a decision on his Peace Corps future.
     About that same time, it was learned that a Volunteer in Malawi had been declared persona non grata by Dr. Hastings Banda, the Prime Minister, not for protesting the Vietnam war but for supporting Yatuta Chisiza, a Malawian whom Banda suspected of trying to overthrow his government. Again, the PCV in question was Paul Theroux.

Tarzan & Me
I forgot about Theroux until two years later, in my last months as an APCD. One day, in a crammed Greek-owned bookstore near the piazza in Addis Ababa, I picked up a copy of Transition, a new Ugandan literary magazine. In it was an essay, “Tarzan is an Expatriate,” written by Paul Theroux, who was identified as a lecturer in English at Makerere University in Kampala. There was no mention of his Peace Corps days.

    In the essay, Theroux confessed that he spent his preadolescent years reading comic books inspired by the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (Theroux would later tell Harris Wofford (Staff: D.C, Ethiopia 1962–66) — early architect of the Peace Corps, former Pennsylvania senator, and currently Chief Executive Office of the Corporation for National Service — that when he read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness he put his finger on the title page and said, “When I join the Peace Corps I shall go there.”)
     But Theroux had gone far beyond Burroughs and understood what Tarzan — the "white man in Africa" — really meant to expatriates, missionaries and PCVs. (“The expatriate has all of these rewards together with a distinct conviction that no one will bother him; he will be helped by the Africans and overrated by his friends who stayed in England or the United States. He is Tarzan, the King of the Jungle.”) Reading the essay shook my beliefs about Peace Corps Volunteers in developing countries. I clipped the article and saved it. (Years later, when I returned to visit Ethiopia, I found that the Peace Corps staff had mimeographed the essay and was using it for in-country training.)
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