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Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa's Fragile Edge Paperback – May 16, 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. When Powers, fresh out of a Ph.D. program in international relations, arrived in Liberia in 1999, sent by an international aid agency "to fight poverty and save the rainforest," he faced a daunting task. The second-poorest country in the world, Liberia had just begun to emerge from seven years of civil war and was "environmentally looted, violence scarred, and barely governed." Even major cities lacked electricity, running water and postal service; garbage lay uncollected in the streets, schoolteachers were barely literate and the economy worked largely on bribes. The government of Charles Taylor enriched itself through illicit trade in conflict diamonds, protected timber and weapons, while terrorist militias acted at whim. "It's all just so brutal," Powers confided to his girlfriend, almost ready to quit after his first year. Yet he stayed on, and this eloquent memoir shows why he found this troubled country so difficult to leave. He writes of stunning beaches and rivers, of majestic forests—home to the largest concentration of mammals in the world—threatened by rapacious logging companies, and of resilient people who teach him that it is possible to live happily with "enough." He sketches scenes of transcendent beauty and grotesque violence, and writes with disarming honesty about his struggle to maintain his ideals when the right course of action is far from clear: is it ethical to take an African lover, when the relationship will inevitably be based on financial support? Should he buy endangered zebra duiker meat from a poor family that desperately needs the money? Does his work do good, or inadvertent harm? In the end, he decides, it may not be possible to change the world, but we must continue to act as if we can.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Powers left behind a caring girlfriend and the comforts of the U.S. to travel to Liberia in 1999 to take the position of Catholic Relief Services director at an international aid agency. The state of Liberia was founded in 1822 as a refuge for freed slaves from America, but conflicts with local peoples and recent bloody coups greatly destabilized the region and have made it one of the more dangerous countries in Africa. Powers hoped to help the Liberian people not by giving them handouts (such as the food his agency passed out) but by helping them sustain themselves. Powers certainly did more than many of his cynical colleagues have done--he visited many of the neglected villages and started an ambitious guinea pig-breeding project. Even as Powers began to become disillusioned with his fellow aid workers and some of the people he was trying to help, he persisted in his efforts and his optimism. His memoir is a haunting account of one man's determination and the struggles of people living in a deeply troubled country. Kristine Huntley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition (May 16, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582346445
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582346441
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,018,626 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Evans VINE VOICE on October 8, 2005
Format: Hardcover
In this memoir, William Powers tells of his two years (1999-2001) working for a major aid organization in Liberia. There, his mandate was to promote both environmental conservation and poverty alleviation. While his memoir gives some fascinating insights into the NGO world and sketches of life in Liberia (including the unscrupulous dealings of multinational timber companies), this is ultimately a story of personal development.

A strength of Powers's story is that he is straightforward. Many memoirs seem intent on justifying the author's intent or actions. (An annoying example of that is the still-worthwhile The Economist's Tale, by Peter Griffiths, about economic advising in Sierra Leone.) Here, Powers willingly presents aspects of his story that some might consider inappropriate or at least in need of justification (such as taking a Liberian girlfriend with no long-term intentions or getting involved with environmental activists) and lets the reader judge.

He is also honest about difficult questions he faces. He arrives in Liberia and then leaves Liberia still struggling to find the balance between eliminating dependency and showing compassion. And although he struggles, we see genuine growth over the course of the two years. Upon arrival, he wrings his hands over Liberian dependency on aid to the point of being annoying. (Quite annoying.) But by the end of his stay, he has made serious headway in encouraging self-sufficiency (at least in certain communities) by supplementing local knowledge with Western technical insights.

One drawback is that we learn relatively little about the actual work he does.
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Format: Hardcover
Having lived in Liberia for 2 years in the early 70's, this book was very personal to me. I thought Powers did a wonderful job capturing many aspects of life in this nation that has been ruined by corrupt leadership for so long. As the Liberians say, the powers above "ate" all the money, leaving the wonderful everyday people impoverished. These people have never given up, and they deserve for their hopes and dreams to be answered in this upcoming election. They continue to "try-small", which is amazing considering all that they have been through. Thank you Mr. Powers for your wonderful details and insights on life in Liberia at the turn of the Century!
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Format: Paperback
When God was making people out of blue clay, he accidentally sneezed and covered them with pepper, resulting in their tendency to violence and destruction, according to a Liberian legend. The story of William Powers's encounters with violence and destruction in Liberia when he arrived in the country in 1999 as an aid worker is told in this book.

No matter how carefully prepared an aid worker is before arriving in a country, there is almost always a huge gap between what he or she imagines will be achieved and what the situation and available resources allow. The author hoped to enhance food security and achieve sustainable development, but the system was creating aid dependency. He hoped to conserve the Liberian environment, but the President was interested only in plundering the forests for personal gain.

As the book progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to empathise with the author. After a year of working in Liberia, he returned to America and broke up with his fiancée, who was not keen on the idea of raising a family in a dangerous environment. The author does not seem to have recognised how living in a high-stress environment tends to cause short-term personality changes to aid workers, making them more demanding and less agreeable. On his return to Liberia, he fell into a affair with a local woman, apparently without taking much responsibility for the relationship, and abandoned her when a new job offer came up in another country.

The book is useful for its descriptions of the conditions in Liberia at the turn of the century and the descriptions of aid interventions which worked and those which did not work. However, I was left wondering whether it was wise for Catholic Relief Services to have allowed their substantial aid operations in Liberia to be run by a leadership team whose members apparently did not subscribe to the organisation's core beliefs.
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Format: Paperback
I picked up this book thinking it would give me a general idea of the conditions of Liberia in 1999 to 2000, as well as some of the difficulties Aid workers face in such situations. In general, I thought it would be informative and eye-opening.

I should give the disclaimer that I'm only about half way through the book, but there is one particular habit of the author that annoies the heck out of me; the author has taken what should be a book that acts as a window to the situation in Liberia (in 1999), but instead turns it almost solely into a book about himself, with a few spattered examples of what is happening in Liberia. It's true that on-the-ground experiences are a valuable source of information for the rest of the world, to know what is happening in real time, but I find that the book seems to focus solely on his work and his experiences and his deeds and his feelings, rather than, say, the experience of one of the many ex child soldiers he meets.

Rather than going into a detailed history of the conflicts that have ripped Liberia apart over the years, or statistics about deforestation of the number of jobs illegal logging operations bring to Liberia, he just seems to talk about how frustrated he is. He does provide some details, but these really seem overshadowed by his narriation about his own feelings.

I find this to be a good read, informative, and a good over-all introduction to the situation in Liberia in 1999 (which certainly influences the Liberia of today), but the authors habit of puting himself in the foreground and as the main character is thoroughly irritating to me. I recognize that the on-the-ground experiences are important, and the book really does seem to give an idea of the situation, and that is why I have given this 4 stars out of 5.
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