Books

Brett Pierce
Beyond the Vapour Trail

Non-government agencies are a “fifth estate” in international politics. Governments like them during disasters, hate them at other times: they look at systemic causes of misery after treating the symptoms, then try to turn tables by empowering the helpless. 

Over 30 years, Brett Pierce has worked on this reversal, adapting World Vision’s child sponsorship program to local cultures. Now they reach 4.3 million children, in ways that spread benefits and avoid envy. When he started he was sliding into “fifteen years of chronic depression”. What he saw can’t have helped. Arriving in Sierra Leone, Pierce met a young man holding up arms minus hands. As a child, the man had been asked by rebel fighters: “Long sleeves or short sleeves?” In Mongolia, Pierce found abandoned toddlers amid the underground heating pipes of Ulaanbaatar.

In Soroti, eastern Uganda, he found schoolgirl Betty Alajo looking after her mother, Clere, who was dying of AIDS. Soon after, the cultish Lord’s Resistance Army attacked and took away Betty and other children. “The first time the children are told to kill, it’s often with a machete, and someone they know, like a relative,” Pierce writes. “That way the shame and horror begin to yield control of their minds. How could they ever consider returning home after that?”

This was Pierce’s low point. But a year later, Betty returned. She’d been out collecting food when the Ugandan army attacked the LRA camp, and had escaped through the bush. By then Clere had died; Betty joined her grandmother. A decade later we meet Betty, aged 21 with two children from an “unreliable” boyfriend. The book’s proceeds will help her build a house. 

“I can’t deal with every story that crosses my path with my emotions fully switched on,” Pierce says. But that bottled-up approach brought him and his marriage to his wife, Kathie, close to breakdown. She ordered him to go away and sort himself out. On a beach late one night in Timor-Leste he saw the tide turn, and felt the darkness leaving him. 

But this is far from a dirge, lightened as it is with glimpses of places such as Lesotho, Madang, Baku, Valparaíso, Batticaloa and Yerevan; of people such as squatters building shantytowns overnight on vacant hills around Lima, and Kenyan kids who walk to school past lions; of meals sometimes inviting, sometimes less so (deep-fried sandworms and spiders). An educative and unpretentious read.  JF

Transit Lounge, 272pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 12, 2016 as "Brett Pierce, Beyond the Vapour Trail". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF

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