I served in the Peace Corps in Malawi from 1989-1991. In those days a phone call home required payment upfront and it was like the parodies of Lou Gehrig’s luckiest man alive speech once you were on the line. Letters–yes real “Snail Mail” letters were how you communicated. There was no television allowed in the country–unless you were one of the upper muckety-mucks of the Banda regime or a wealthy expat with a satellite dish. VCRs were around and getting more plentiful. There was a drive-in theater in Lilongwe where I saw an edited James Bond movie once. James Bond with no kiss-kiss-bang-bang, just the pistol/bullet kind of bang-bang, was a new experience.
When I lived near Blantyre I went to the British Council library where each user was given 2 or 3 tickets to limit the number of books you could have. I also had a small traveling collection of National Library of Malawi books at my site, an agricultural library on a research station. My own library–yes the ag one–had a tremendously eclectic collection of left-behind books (no not THAT Left Behind series–they weren’t out yet) donated by the previous Peace Corps Volunteer–an elderly, deeply Christian woman who bicycled on the road from hell to get to Blantyre. I preferred to go native and either mis-use OMGS [On Malawi Government Service] “transport” or pack into a mini bus. When my cat was suddenly paralyzed, we joined a 1950s Land Rover (straight out of my 1960s Matchbox car collection–so cool!) full of people going to the bank, the hospital or, the 1 legitimate use, to drop off forms at some office. My cat was prayed for, by the way. [And given perfectly good antibiotics that could have saved a child’s life, but due to the date stamped on in, International Do-Gooders wouldn’t allow it to be given to a child. Go figure. Like the sell by date on yogurt people–it’s the SELL by, not the USE by date! #1 cause of child’s death at that time in Malawi was infected burns. Infection that could have been cured with the drugs my cat was given. The vet was as outraged as I was, even more so when you learn that the average cat had a life-span in Malawi of about a year. Outrageous, even if I was thrilled that my little buddy was all Tigger-y again.]
But I digress. The small collection of general reading books in my library were published almost exclusively by Bethany House and were all romances. The what-passed-for-steamy-parts were underlined in, what else? red ink. There were also a few Shakespeare plays and an few not-racy novels. My contributions were so desirable there was a mandatory sign-up list (not my idea) and a messenger from the station would be sent to the offending borrower’s house to collect the item if it was overdue.
What could be so popular? Magazines. The Newsweek magazine the Peace Corps gave every volunteer weekly was uncensored and, though it was the international and not the USA version, covered things like sex, immigration, sex, movies, and hatred of oppressive regimes–all things banned in Malawi. Then there were the Digests–both Reader’s and Catholic. The Catholic ones were held in especially high regard because they (along with the Reader’s Digest, but that never seemed to register with anyone) were sent to me by my Dad’s cousin “the nun”–i.e. Chicago’s Sister Mary Benet McKinney, O.S.B. These were treated like holy relics!
Since the Muslims hadn’t really started a big conversion campaign way back then [that came with the next regime], Malawi was then almost evenly divided between those who worshiped David Livingstone and those who worshiped Pope John Paul II, i.e. Presbyterians and Catholics. (David Livingstone “discovered” Malawi. The Pope just made it Holy by visiting and celebrating mass a few months before I arrived. Naturally he was immortalized on custom-printed Chatenjes (cotton wraps) for the ladies).
So, what then did I read? If you are on Goodreads you can see the whole list here (nearly the whole list–I couldn’t trace a few of them). Today I’m highlighting the Best of the Best Books Read in Peace Corps–The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The TV version is outstanding, too (as is another India offering: Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy or this season’s Indian Summers–all cover the same place, politics and lifestyle).
This series has IT.All. and then some. Lush setting, privilege, downtrodden locals, snooty colonial administrators, sex, love…sorry, no rock n’roll. Lots of alcohol and tea are served. Sex is had. Holidays are spoiled. People fret. Fingernails are chipped. Servants are condescended to.Everyone gives their all for the Empire. The don’t know what to do about Ghandi. They can’t imagine a map without the “pink bits”–i.e. that fabled British Empire Upon Which the Sun Never Sets, though it’s the reign of George VI, not his Great-Grandmother, Queen Victoria. Like it or not, Change (and with a capital “C”) is happening. Think Downton Abbey with bearers, fan-wavers and dishy chinless District Commissioners in billowing shorts and knee socks. This is a fabulous read. I read it as it is in the picture–in one big, heavy volume. Unabridged. I may just have to dip in an re-read or re-watch it now that I’ve brought it to my own mind again. Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet [Note: Link is to Volume I, The Jewel in the Crown].
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