Peace Corps Writers
Saying Secrets: American Stories
On the Brink of Paradise

  by Kim McMahill (Solomon Islands 1994–95)
Infinity, $12.95
115 pages

Reviewed by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–65)

WE NEED TO CONCEAL THIS SMALL BOOK from the new administration in Washington. Otherwise, funding for the Peace CorpsPrinter friendly version might shrink even more. Criticism of Volunteer programs lies smoldering deep beneath this personal diary-style recording of visits around the Solomon Islands. Not until page 75 do we learn that Kim McMahill and her husband are “working on various small projects, visiting nearby islands, and living in the rest house.” Two-thirds of the way into this short 115 page travelogue we don’t even know what their “job” was in the Solomon Islands. And these “various small projects” are not explained.
     Only on page 103 does McMahill reveal openly that “Our boredom and frustration with our lack of work soon overtook us and we became increasingly disgusted by the misrepresentation of our volunteer organization.” Might we assume that McMahill is referring to the Peace Corps here? Nothing went right — “no grant money,” no “natural resource management workshops, World Health Organization Malaria Control Projects, adult education or extension service duties.” Something is amiss when PCVs spend most of their tour touring.
     McMahill writes that they kept “normal office hours” at their final destination, Gizo, a provincial capital. For what, it’s impossible to determine. They did help with the provincial monthly newsletter, gave advice occasionally to the area council members, fixed broken-down typewriters, and, McMahill admits, “volunteered for any activity being done by any organization.”
     Beneath the extensive travelogue, McMahill’s account exposes the folly of the volunteer program there. Whether intentional or not, she has exposed the entire Solomon Island political system as corrupt by American standards. The leadership expected one thing from Americans: money. Labels such as the Peace Corps meant nothing.
     This book might have rattled some policy-makers in Washington if only McMahill had passed this book through two more stages of editing before publication. One editor should have been a political scientist, who would have read between the lines and converted the prose into a clear presentation of McMahill’s frustrations. The second should have been a literary editor who would have converted into standard English expressions such as “storying,” as in “the men sat around the butterfly lantern storying and chewing betel nut.” McMahill could have avoided many awkward errors, such as “Honiara was changing so rapidly during our stay the city under went a great deal.”
     I’d recommend this short book to anyone who is curious about failed programs. But the reader should skip to page 103, where the substance of this book begins. McMahill writes, “No one, including us, had a good grasp on what we were to be doing. The volunteers from other countries had specific jobs lined up before coming to the country.” Furthermore, I’d strongly recommend that we include what did not work as an essential part of the Peace Corps’ 40th Anniversary program. McMahill’s Solomon Island experience would be an excellent opening to the session.
Tony Zurlo’s West Africa (launching the Indigenous People of Africa series) and Life in Hong Kong (The Way People Live series) will be published in the fall by Lucent Books.

Editor’s Note: Kim McMahill started Peace Corps training on November 2, 1994, and was sworn in on January 6, 1995. She served for 4 1/2 months as a Community Development Generalist. She ET’ed on May 23, 1995.

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