Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle

Thomsen, Moritz

Original publication date: 1969
Original publisher: Seattle: University of Washington Press
Publication status: Out of print

A well-meaning middle-aged American farmer joined the Peace Corps and served several years in a coastal Ecuadorian village. Thomsen promoted all the officially-approved measures: better farming, forming a cooperative, etc. Ultimately, we come to understand how and why his every effort was doomed to failure by the nature of the villagers and the repressive and self-destructive social system in which they live (and to which they help maintain). Before I foolishly set out to help some struggling community or “poor” person I try to remember to first reread Thomsen’s book.

Photo and text from the dust jacket…

moritz-1

At the age of forty-eight, Moritz Thomsen sold his pig farm and joined the Peace Corps. The next four years he lived in rural Ecuador-a “middle-class American trying to find order and meaning in a foreign culture, in a world where almost every word (courage, poverty, love, pride, to pick a few at random) has a completely different meaning.

“Living poor” as an agricultural expert Thomsen spent most of his time in a tiny, isolated coastal village, trying to start the people on their “terrible tightrope-walk out of poverty.” To the people of Rio Verde six chickens represented wealth, and when cholera attacked their precious Peace Corps poultry, it only reinforced their conviction that God did not intend them to be wealthy.

Thomsen tried to teach them to grow vegetables in a climate too dry in the dry season and too wet in the rainy season. When one garden did start producing, there was a further difficulty to overcome-most of the vegetables were strange to the people. “The radishes, for instance, were about the size of tennis balls. ‘Just about ready to harvest, I think,’ Oswaldo told me proudly. The stringbeans were dead and dying on the vines. I argued for five minutes about the necessity of harvesting them when they were young and tender, but when he realized that the whole bean was supposed to be eaten he simply refused to listen to me. ‘This is a civilized country,’ he told me. ‘Here we eat only the good part, the heart of the fruit.’ ”

Living and working in the village, trying to establish a cooperative in the face of deep-rooted apathy and distrust, Thomsen became involved in a complex network of friendships and jealousies, loyalties and rivalries. “I was just another person in a poor village working out my own problems and frustrations, making friends and enemies like one more citizen of the town.” Like the others, he had to spend most of his time on the basic problems of finding enough to eat. In this world, even if there was money to buy, there was often no food to be bought, and the people subsisted largely on rice, fish and bananas. “There is only so much energy in a dish of rice and a piece of fish,” he writes. “There are just so many miles to a gallon of bananas—not one foot more.”

Thomsen’s description of his encounter with an alien culture is sometimes horrifying, often hilarious, and always moving. Though the experience was in many ways a devastating one, he was saved by his keen sense of the comic elements in the human situation, including his own. His ability to convey both comedy and compassion in fast-moving earthy prose gives Living Poor its special unforgettable quality.


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