Peace Corps Writers
Review
For other books about the Peace Corps experience
Power Lines
     Two Years on South Africa's Borders
by Jason Carter (South Africa 1998–2000)
     with an introduction by President Jimmy Carter
National Geographic Books, $26.00
278 pages
June, 2002

(Buy this book)

  Reviewed by Kevin Lowther (Sierra Leone 1963–65; PC/W staff 1966–71)
 
  “HERE I WAS,” Jason Carter writes toward the end of Power LinesPrinter friendly version, “trying to foster . . . change without any idea where the results were heading.”
     It was a question that I might well have asked, but did not, when I was teaching in Sierra Leone nearly 40 years ago. Volunteers in my era, at least, assumed that they were contributing to a better future for their hosts. Carter betrays a certain unease about South Africa, where he helped to introduce a post-apartheid curriculum into poorly endowed rural primary schools.
     His unease is not misplaced. I recently asked a thoughtful Sierra Leonean exile what precipitated his country’s descent into barbaric civil conflict. “When the government,” he answered without hesitation, “began reducing the budget for education in the 1970s.”
     It was not the response I had expected, and it struck home. The eclipse of Sierra Leone’s once-proud educational tradition effectively erased any sustainable contribution which I and thousands of other Peace Corps teachers may have made there to the development of a stable nation state.
     Although Carter clearly has inherited the idealism of his grandfather, former President Jimmy Carter, and of his great grandmother Lillian (India 1967–69), he wisely resists the temptation to predict that South Africa will transcend its heritage of racial division and oppression.
     No one can really say where South Africa is headed, and Carter is smart enough to know that. He sticks to what he experienced, primarily in a remote area on the Swaziland border, as well as when “commuting” between South Africa’s starkly-contrasting First and Third Worlds.
     While the racial divide in South Africa is only too obvious, what most surprised and troubled Carter is the cultural gulf which separates impoverished rural black South Africans from their urbanized and better-educated cousins. Meeting sophisticated black professionals in Johannesburg and Pretoria moved Carter to wonder whether these are suitable role models for rural children whose horizons are severely limited by historically ingrained factors. Was Carter’s legacy going to be a handful of kids who somehow escaped to the cities and joined the materialistic black middle class?
     Carter will spend the rest of his life pondering this and other questions as South African society evolves. I sense that he is prepared for pain and disillusionment. He has learned first-hand that South Africa has two daunting challenges. One is to create a society in which race ceases to be the principal denominator. The second — and more important — is to bridge the enormous gap between South Africa’s rich and poor.
     Which brings us full circle to the educational system. Will South Africa invest heavily in education? Or will it do what Sierra Leone and almost every other African country have done — educate an elite few, thereby fostering a society largely of have-nots and creating fertile ground for unrest.
     Power Lines deserves to be read widely in South Africa. Unlike all but a few white South Africans, Carter became fluent in vernacular languages — Zulu and Siswati. His language capability enabled him to overcome the fear and misunderstanding which still prevent most blacks and whites from getting to know one another. It’s nice that Jason Carter and other Peace Corps Volunteers could cross the divide. It would be even better if thousands of young South Africans — black and white — could have the same experience.
     Carter writes well and tells a good story. He has a keen instinct for human nature. Those who want to try putting together the South African puzzle can use the piece which Carter has shaped with care and humility from his time in this beloved country.
Kevin Lowther is Regional Director for Southern Africa at Africare. He is co-author of Keeping Kennedy’s Promise, a 1978 critique of the Peace Corps’ first 15 years. An updated version of the book is being published by Peace Corps Online for the 40th Peace Corps anniversary celebration in Washington in June.
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