Fletcher Knebel is much better known for his 1960s thrillers "Seven Days in May" and "Night of Camp David" but "The Zinzin Road", a compelling story of the adventures of a group of young, idealistic Peace Corps volunteers in the fictional West African country of Kalya, is well worth seeking out in your local second hand book shop.
The Forge, a small underground resistance group, is the tiniest seed of the opposition and ultimate revolution intended to depose Alexander Vining, the cruel, corrupt dictator, clearly modeled on other real life African dictators such as Jean Bedel Bokasa of the Central African Republic, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and the biggest butcher of all, Idi Amin, late iron-fisted ruler of Uganda.
Despite clear policy against such actions, a couple of the Peace Corps volunteers involve themselves with the Forge and soon find themselves up to their necks in trouble with their own Peace Corps administration, with the US Diplomatic Corps, the Secretary of State, the US ambassador to Kalya and even the President himself. Then, of course, there is the ever present threat of rotting in a Kalya jail or facing execution at the hands of a cruel leader who has begun to sniff out the danger of an incipient revolution against his rule.
Aside from an exciting adventure story coupled with some interesting youthful romantic involvements in a foreign country, "The Zinzin Road" is positively brimful with the atmosphere of the 1960s - the absolute paranoia of the US government concerning the Communists; the CIAs political involvement in US embassies around the world; the taboos concerning inter-racial sex; the astonishing adulation that was given to John F Kennedy and the overwhelming grief felt around much of the world at his untimely assassination; and, of course, the left wing idealism of young university students following the ending of the Vietnam War. "The Zinzin Road" also addresses thought provoking questions about the efficacy and value of foreign aid, the ever present problem of figuring out how to use charitable contributions to teach a man how to fish as opposed to creating an ever-increasing dependency on fish simply given to him.
Knebel also addresses the difficulties of Africa's struggling and frequently unwilling entry into the world of twentieth century technology:
"The culture clash left the tribesfolk bewildered and often defenseless. They lived with the old and the new in baffling proximity. A mud hut might now have a transistor radio side by side with a vinzinja dog whose historic chore it was to eat the feces of babies from the earthen floor and to lick the naked baby's rump clean after a bowel movement. A youth would go to the Lebanese store and buy a Seven-Up, bottled under hygienic conditions, then come home and drink water hauled from a creek which festered with typhoid germs and schistsomiasis."
Nor did Knebel hold back his distinctly unfavourable opinion of US foreign policy as it was expressed through the mouth of one of the local missionaries in Kalya:
"But we Americans are a great restless nation of busybodies. We're all over the world, trading, giving, touring, bombing, fixing, lecturing, fighting and moralizing. All I say is that the Peace Corps is the least obnoxious organization we have abroad."
I had this one on my reading list for over 30 years and was delighted to find that Knebel's writing stands up to the test of time and "The Zinzin Road" is still a powerful read that was thoroughly enjoyable. Highly recommended.