Blue Clay People

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As a newly arrived relief worker with Catholic Relief Services in Liberia, William Powers has an innocent's belief that he can fulfill his mission to “fight poverty and save the rainforest.” It is not long, however, before he is faced with several uncomfortable truths: that people in extreme poverty will opt for short-term ways to keep their families fed and sheltered rather than consider long-term environmental costs; that one corrupt and well- armed dictator can weaken an entire nation; and that Western relief workers, however good their intentions, often do more harm than good.

The title Blue Clay People comes from a Liberian creation story, in which God makes all the world's people from the same blue clay. As Powers absorbs the myth, and comes to feel more deeply his connections to Liberia's poor, he finds himself increasingly estranged from his fellow expatriates, and from his family and fiancé back in the United States.

Powers's memoir is a story of contrasts. Liberia is in the author's eyes both the most beautiful place on earth and the most filthy. He is repelled by the racist and colonialists of embassy workers who live privileged lives with electricity and even caviar in the midst of starvation, but at the same time he is casually grateful for a cold soft drink or beer at the end of the day. He aims to help people without creating dependency, but struggles to get beyond an instinct for telling people how to live. Blue Clay People is episodic, raising issues it does not carry through, and would have benefitted from a thorough copyediting. But Powers's internal conflicts are honestly revealed, as is his ultimate inability to keep Liberia from falling into greater violence, poverty, and environmental devastation. This is an important book, offering no hope.