Reviews > First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life by Eve Brown-Waite
First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria: How a Peace Corps Poster Boy Won My Heart and a Third World Adventure Changed My Life
By Eve Brown-Waite (Ecuador 1988)
Broadway Books, 2009
The time frame covered by the typical Peace Corps memoir rarely allows for the reader to see long-term personal effects, beyond, perhaps, the shock of the first arrival home. The implications of a Peace Corps experience, as we all know, are “time-release” in nature -- leaving some of us unnerved and unevolved – works-in-progress. Like a good antibiotic, I suppose, the Peace Corps experience keeps working on us after we are done with the course of treatment.
Eve Brown-Waite’s memoir, unfortunately named First Comes Love, then Comes Malaria, etc. etc. takes a significant and refreshing step beyond those limits.
The book starts raggedly, in the late Eighties, with a city girl hoping her Peace Corps recruiter notices her “boobs.” Encountering the word “boobs,” in the third line, in this moment of coquettish calculation, bored me. I sighed and put the book down. I am almost 60 now; I feel jaded. I’ve reviewed a number of Peace Corps memoirs and novels (and written one) in which lusty young women are drawn into Peace Corps adventures for less than altruism.
What I’m getting at is that three decades after my own Peace Corps experience, I find myself wanting more than colorful mischief as former volunteers document their overseas shenanigans, some as raucous and silly as Tropic Thunder. I want two things: good writing and depth of understanding – a sense, as I continue reflecting on the significance of my own Peace Corps years, of how these powerful commitments transform us over time. It’s not just that we were IN the Peace Corps, but that we made that kind of decision to begin with, and when we were there, things happened that changed us and continue to affect us or ripple through the rest of our lives. And some of us, I contend, wondering if this is a controversial thing to say, outgrow our Peace Corps years. Life becomes more than adding up exotic adventures. We get jobs with no book locker or readjustment allowance or free black bike – we get married or come out, acquire mortgages, have kids, get divorced, submit to colonoscopies, rail against the President and the war, worry about our 401Ks, sign up for yoga, compromise with the mundane and banal, and through it all, because we’re RPCVs, still nurture that romantic ideal of making a difference in the world.
Here’s where Waite’s memoir comes back in. It only begins with her Peace Corps service, a tough and teary year in Ecuador, beginning somewhat like a Third World version of Sex in the City, where she pines for the Peace Corps recruiter, John, she’d fallen in love with, but still manages to find a touching and challenging niche as the escort for “lost boys” from Santo Domingo and Quito, helping them find their way back to their families.
But emotionally, Waite is struggling, and after a PCV colleague gets raped, Waite slowly falls apart. Sent to a conference in Guatemala, shockingly alone in a luxury hotel room, she suffers an anxiety attack that leads ultimately to her departure from the Peace Corps after a year, and her return to the States. The writing in this section is remarkable – honest, affecting, unflinching and compelling.
That’s the first 75 pages. Then what? She goes back home, marries John, and together, the two of them grow up. What’s so fascinating about it is that they continue their life internationally, eventually going to Uganda where John takes a job working for CARE.
Waite’s life as an expatriate obviously differs from her year as a PCV, and the way she lives – tennis, dinner parties, having a fulltime “girl,” which she explains is what everybody calls home help – may grate with some readers who wish it didn’t sound so “colonial.” But she risks political incorrectness by trying to tell her truth:
“It’s not just that I was perceived as wealthy. In Uganda, for the first time in my life, I actually was wealthy…because even the few possessions that I had brought with me to Arua were more than most of my neighbors would ever have in their lives. I was wealthy because I didn’t have to live solely by what I could grow or catch; because I was educated and because I was American. I was wealthy, because, in the end, I could go home.”
As we follow Waite’s three years in Uganda we see her gradually arrive at a deeper understanding about what “home” means – she has a child, she develops AIDS education programs, she learns to cope -- and begins to feel that Uganda is, like the world as a whole, her home. Eventually, after Ugandan politics force the couple out of the country, they take another international assignment – not in her beloved New York City, but in Uzbekistan.
So in the final pages of this memoir, we see a woman who has evolved a long way from the superficial flirt flashing her décolletage at a good looking guy. We see a thoughtful, intelligent woman who has become a citizen of the world, well aware of the contradictions and complexities of such a life. This kind of “longitudinal” reflection is a gift to the canon of literature by people who have begun young lives as Peace Corps volunteers – and then gone on living, paying close attention to what matters, and trying to do what’s right.
Jan Worth-Nelson, the 2008 Teaching Excellence Award winner at the University of Michigan-Flint where she teaches writing, authored the Peace Corps novel Night Blind and has had two recent essays published in the Christian Science Monitor. These days most of her energy is devoted to editing an institutional Self-Study document toward UM – Flint re-accreditation. She is also writing love poems.
Jan Worth-Nelson recently published a Peace Corps novel, Night Blind. Her poems, essays, short fiction and reviews have been widely published, and she teaches writing at the University of Michigan – Flint. She and her RPCV husband, Ted Nelson, commute between Michigan and Los Angeles.