News / USA

Photo Essay: Peace Corps Volunteers Share 50 Years of Memories

For 50 years, American Peace Corps volunteers have been returning home with memories - and photos - of new places, new friends and new experiences. Generations of returning volunteers, more than 200,000 in total according to the Peace Corps, have brought pieces of their new lives home with them, teaching family and friends about other countries through photographs and stories.

Over the Peace Corps' 50 years, the methods of sharing these memories have undoubtedly changed.  The earliest volunteers may have had their photographs developed as slides and held slideshows, while later volunteers may have shown off photo albums or scrapbooks. And today's volunteers share their pictures and stories online.

We scoured the internet to find some of our favorite photographs taken by Peace Corps volunteers during their service, and asked them to share with us the story behind the picture - just as they have probably done for their families and friends many times before.

» For more on the Peace Corps 50th anniversary, visit VOA's special report: 50 Years of the Peace Corps.

Photo: Scott Fenwick; Taken in: Romania
Coats of Arms
I was a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer in Romania from 2005 to 2007. This photo is of some students from one of my seventh grade classes at School #2 in Codlea, Transylvania. They were wonderful kids and I miss them!

We did a project in which each student created their own personal coat of arms. I got the idea from the Romanian coat of arms that hung above the blackboard in my classroom.

Each student followed a set of standards and categories to create his or her coat of arms. But, at the same time, each project was a unique reflection of the student as an individual. Students wrote a description of their coat of arms in English and Romanian on the back and gave presentations to the class. We then had a contest in which each class voted for their favorites. It was great fun and a way for me to get to know my students (and for them to get to know each other) in a creative way!

I hadn't looked at that photo in about two or three years. Seeing it made me very nostalgic for that time in my life. I'm a teacher here at home now, and those kids in that photo are some of the best, sweetest students I've ever had anywhere. They were truly great kids. I went back to my town in Romania in 2009, two years after I left, and saw a few of them while walking around. They were so surprised to see me! I'm going back again in a few months, so maybe I'll see some of them again. But, this time they may have grown so much that I won't be able to recognize them! Hopefully, they'll recognize me.

Photo: Edward Burgess; Taken in: Nepal
Nepal PCV teacher
Diane [full name: Diane LaMarche Rice] was talking with her two female teacher freinds and sharing photos - as best she can recall, some polaroid shots she had taken in the village where she lived. I happened to be there as a visiting PC [Peace Corps] Nepal staff member and took the shot.

The names of the two teachers, who were sisters, are Durga Devi Pant and Gajab Kumari Pant.

I could write a book about my time in the Peace Corps, as I spent seven years in Nepal ... I was a volunteer 1964-1966 in the Nepal III group, extended for 6 months to assist the PC staff in identifying new sites for PCVs [Peace Corps volunteers] and was then hired on the PC staff and finally left Nepal in 1971. ... I married a Nepali woman and we have 3 children. ... My first child was born in Kathmandu in 1967.

Photo: Kevin Tice; Taken in: Cameroon
21-Joel eating Harry Potter Vomit flavored  beans
I was a water/sanitation volunteer in Ebolowa, Cameroon (south province) from 2002-2004. I worked with a Cameroonian Hans MVONDO in the department of Agriculture, where we would take a motorcycle into the jungle and visit small villages that he knew had potential water projects. During the two years, we constructed or repaired six spring boxes in three different villages. We also implemented a pump on a family well that was made with rebar, tire, and flip flops. It was a great experience and I still talk about my time there almost every day.

I received a package from home one day filled with all sorts of "western" candies. One of my landlord's kid, Joel, came over and he started asking me questions about all the candy like all curious kids would do. Usually I would covet all the candy and not really pass it out to Cameroonians since they wouldn't really understand the sentimental value to a Starburst or Reese's Peanut Butter Cup; to them it's just a "bon bon". But when I got to the Harry Potter jelly bellies, I knew this was something I had to share with him.

Since he'd never seen a jelly bean before (much less a Harry Potter one), I had to explain the whole concept of the variety of flavors. THEN I had to explain this Harry Potter guy, which really sounded bizarre when you're talking to a kid who's main goal in life is to make sure he does his chores and gets his fare share of food at night. But Joel's a good kid...which is why I immediately gave him the vomit-flavored bean without telling him :) I asked him what he thought of it and he replied, "c'est un bizarre gout" (it has a weird taste). That's when I mentioned it was supposed to be vomit and we both laughed.

It turned out he was really interested in Harry Potter's story, so I had my sister mail me the French version of the book and read to him the story. Of course he got hooked and to this day I'm sure he still reads the book to his younger siblings.

Photo: Maggie Woods; Taken in: The Gambia
Donkey Hall
The people pictured are the Bah family, my host family in The Gambia. They are using the donkey to draw water from what we called the "dirty well." It had too much sediment to use for drinking or bathing. However, it was utilized for animal and crop water. The water table in my village, Yallal Tankonjala, was at around 100 feet. Thus, it was a rather arduous task to draw water up with solely human power.

I served in The Gambia from 2000-2002 in the natural resource sector. During my first year I mainly worked on developing a demonstration plot on half a hectare ... During my second year I taught classes of teens and twenty-somethings at the Chamen Development Center.

As a Black American I was treated differently from my white PC [Peace Corps] peers. Sometimes this provided perks, such as when I was able to get much cheaper prices on items at the outdoor markets. Other times it proved problematic, particularly in relations with the opposite sex.

The part of the experience I appreciate the most is having been able to be a part of the village community and developing close ties with my host family. Having extended family living in the same compound, kids being able to run free throughout the village because everyone knows everyone else--these are things that Western culture has lost and is much the worse for. Being part of those connections--even for just a few years--part of that type of true community, is something that I will never forget.

Photo: Scott Stadum; Taken in: Guyana
Peace Corps Guyana losing at tug-of-war...barely!
I served in Georgetown from 2003 - 2005. ... I loved Peace Corps, one of the best experiences of my life.

Every year, there is a rodeo in Lethem, located in the Rupununi (Region 9) region of Guyana. It's pretty much like any other rodeo, with great feats of strength, skill, horseriding and so on. Peace Corps volunteers go down every year and have a great time...lots of hiking, swimming, eating and hanging out. I'm not sure if they do this every year, but the locals challenge the volunteers to a match of tug of war. Men vs men, women vs women. We were pummeled. Badly. :) But very fun!

I was one of the head editors of The Gaff, a volunteer quarterly magazine. I was working with St. Joseph's Mercy Medical Hospital and secured them a full time volunteer from Trinidad to update their filing system. I was working with other volunteers and the UN Volunteers program to develop an umbrella organization for all volunteer groups in-country.

Those are just a handful of the projects I did. When I came home, I was one of the founders of FROG (Friends & RPCVs of Guyana). We continue the work we did as volunteers through microgrants given to Peace Corps volunteers, returned volunteers (RPCVs) and host country nationals.

Photo: Fred Johnson; Taken in: Nepal

The Hotel Bam Bhola photo was taken during our training in Hetauda, Nepal in 1974. It was literally a hovel as you can see from the photo. I believe our language teacher, Shivaji Upadhyay, took us there to practice our language, to interact with ordinary Nepalis, and to appreciate the culture and food of Nepal. It was in contrast to the big and "modern" Hotel Rapti and the US Aide Compound where we had stayed.

The boy in the picture: Gopi, was an orphan of about 7 years old. Like kids everywhere he was fully of life and questions. Talking with us and entertaining us during our meals of daal bhat, (which was very delicious) much better than the westernized food that we got at the big hotel.

The Hotel Bam Bhola (it really had no name placard but that is what the people who worked there called it) is long gone replaced by big concrete structures. I think they called it a Hotel only because the staff and perhaps a traveler or two slept on the 3 or 4 tables at night.

This place and people are fondly remembered after all these years as the spot we volunteers fell in love with Nepal and her people.

Peace Corps was one of a couple of volunteer organizations in Nepal in the 70's (the Germans, British, and Japanese were also there) But we were the ones who worked on the grassroots level. And in that way we did touch the lives of ordinary Nepalis and were also enriched. So much so that when a village Nepali saw a westerner he/she always assumed them to be American. In this way we did promote peace and understanding among people and in the process we were changed, too.

Photo: Scott Schmidt; Taken in: Belize
Cultural Exchange
This photo was taken on July 4, 2006 during pre-service training. My training group visited Benque Viejo del Carmen in western Belize to learn about the culture and traditions of the Maya Mestizo. Marimba music often accompanies traditional Maya dances, such as the Hog Head Dance. After a cultural performance, these two Peace Corps Trainees interacted with one of the young marimba players.

During my service, I worked with the Belize Audubon Society, the leading conservation NGO in Belize. ... As an environmental education and program development specialist I strengthened organizational and management capacity of the Belize Audubon Society, fostered environmental stewardship amongst 600+ youth through school outreach and summer camp programs, developed interpretive exhibits to support conservation and management objectives, and assisted community development, advocacy, research, and biodiversity conservation activities centered around the protected areas and their buffer communities.

In addition to my primary project, I instructed an after-school music class at a local elementary school, collaborated with other Peace Corps Volunteers and 4-H Belize to implement an environmental summer camp, and assisted the Belize Red Cross with disaster relief efforts following Hurricane Dean.

While I have returned home, my mission continues as I impart a better understanding of Belize to the people I meet. I enjoy sharing my photographs, knowledge, and even cooking up a nice pot of rice and beans every once in a while.

Pictured: Mimi Gentry (Photo: John Duffell); Taken in: Malawi
Hoe = Measuring Stick
I served as an Education volunteer from September '07 to December '09 in Malawi. I taught English and Life Skills at a small school in the village of Namitembo (place of corpses... another story all together). While I was there I really took an interest in the environment; it seemed to be one of the few areas where my hard work visibly paid off.

For several weeks before this picture was taken I spoke in my Life Skills classes about planting trees: why it is valuable to people and the environment, how to propagate various types of trees, how to make sure the transplants survive. Then I went to the nearest town (up and over Zomba Mountain) to a nursery where I bought 25 trees, for a dollar or two each. I brought them back to the school and had each class pick the trees they wanted to plant. There were oranges, mangoes, lemons, and several other local medicinal trees.

Like most Peace Corps projects, I think, I started out with very big hopes and was pretty happy with a small achievement. The day of the planting, it was hard to get the students to dig the holes deep or wide enough. The ground is hard clay which makes for some tough digging and a poor tree environment. In the picture I'm showing these boys how wide the hole must be (as long as their hoe handles).

After the planting it was hard to keep the trees watered. I tried various attempts to coax students into doing it- asking each class to elect waterers for their own trees, asking some of my most reliable students, offering to pay for part of a student's school fees... It was a constant struggle. John went back to the school about a month ago and said a few of the trees are still alive, which is more than I had thought.

Photo: Bill Coyle; Taken in: Colombia
San Juan de la Costa, 1971
I served two years in Colombia (1970-72) as an extension agent, working in tropical crops, primarily with coconuts and rice. As a city slicker from outside the Washington D.C. area I had much to learn, but in those days, thankfully, one was given the opportunity. I was assigned to a remote tropical island, San Juan de la Costa, along Colombia's Pacific coast, between Buenaventura and Tumaco, and was affiliated with a Colombian agricultural institute.

Along with my Colombian colleagues, we introduced a new rice variety to the region and combated a nematode infestation in local coconut groves. In the photo, I’m tending to a demonstration plot for the high-yielding rice variety, CICA-4, which later played an important role in Colombian rice production.

My Peace Corps experience had a life-long impact. It inspired me to study agricultural economics and later embark on a 30-year career as a USDA economist.

Photo: Jonathan Garro; Taken in: Paraguay
Paraguayan Friends at the Game
I am still a volunteer, (for a few more weeks at least). My service was (or is) 2009 - 2011. My project is Urban Youth Development. That means working in schools to improve the educational system by introducing new lesson plans for both elementary and high schools. The Paraguayan school system is severely underfunded, so I tried to introduce the teachers and students to new types of curriculums outside of basic language and math, including history, art, and health ed. Outside of schools I've worked with local youth groups and community centers where I did career counseling and English training.

That particular photo was taken at a very important soccer game here against Argentina. The national team beat them, and in doing so qualified for the World Cup. The entire country was so thrilled by the victory that the President declared that a national day off from work the following day.

At the time I was living in a city called Concepcion and staying with a family in my site. Those two guys on the right are their sons, who live in Asuncion and are studying at a large university. I had met them before, and they seemed rather timid, but after that game, their real personalities broke through. We spent the entire night partying in the street until well after the sunrise.

I think I'll probably be analyzing my experiences here for the rest of my life, and I'm not sure that I've distanced myself from it all enough yet to really reflect honestly, (considering I still live here in Paraguay). Off the top of my head, I think that the most profound lessons I will be taking away is a refined definition of the word "need." So many of us in the developed world excessively toss that word around everyday. We "need" another pair of shoes, we "need" a new TV, etc. People here in my site are incredibly poor by any developed-world standards, yet they do not fill their lives with unnecessary things. It would certainly be naive to call the lifestyle here quaint, because living in poverty is often a very stressful existence. But when you don't fill your life with foolish waste, you suddenly appreciate the little things in ways that so many of us always talk about fondly but rarely practice personally.

Photo: Chris De Bruyn; Taken in: Mongolia
dawn
I served in Mongolia from '07-'09 as a teacher trainer. About six months through my service I moved from the capital city Ulaanbaatar to the much smaller city of Darkhan (about an hour south of Russian on the trans-siberian railway).

I took this photo early one morning shortly after moving to Darkhan, just as the sun was coming up. I would often go hiking in the hills before school started for exercise and to meditate. In this photo I was walking around an owoo (sacred rock pile). It is a custom in Mongolia to walk around the owoo three times in a clockwise direction, throwing stones from the base of the mountain onto the pile each time around. I took the shot with a tripod and remote timer. On this particular morning it was roughly forty degrees below zero (oddly enough that is the temperature at which the Celsius and Farenheit scales meet).

From Chris's blog: Working as a teacher trainer in a Mongolian school with the Peace Corps was quite an experience. Despite the almost daily challenges, working with the English teachers and Darkhan’s school #15 was vastly rewarding. By the end of my two years there, I had developed a deep rapport with many of the teachers: I designed workshops for the language teachers, I wrestled the gym teachers, sipped moonshine with the training technologists and worked on paintings with the art teacher.

Photo: Andrew Courtney; Taken in: Tanzania
Follow in my footsteps...
This photo was taken en route from Arusha, Tanzania to my site near Katesh, Hanang District. ... I was there from 1997-1999.

The rainy season had just begun, and the El Nino was strong so there was tremendous flooding everywhere. Rather than send us out on our own, and since there were 10 of us in the same region, Peace Corps provided drivers and Land Rovers to get us through the worst of the roads. Most of the roads were completely impassable.

In the photo ..., two locals are "guiding" us through a deep, boggy, messy stretch of road. They spaced themselves to match our wheelbase. In theory, so long as we followed in their footsteps, we'd take the "safe" path through the muck. It worked well enough, and judging by the stuck trucks and vehicles everywhere else, seemed the only reasonable option.

I actually met my wife during Peace Corps....she was in the next village over from me...so Peace Corps impacted me in many many wonderful ways.

Photo: David Anderson; Taken in: Marshall Islands
Ben Jones
In the photo is Ben Jones, English Teacher, Peace Corps Volunteer on Ujelang, Marshall Islands.

He is taking a nap while reading the book: The Bikinians: A Study in Forced Migration, by Robert C Kiste. I still have this book.

The people from Bikini and Enewetak Atolls were forcibly moved from their homes in the late 1940's so we could experiment with nuclear and thermonuclear devices. The Bikinians were for a time living on Ujelang but were later moved to the island of Kili. The people from Enewetak were moved to Ujelang where they lived until the late 1970's when they moved back to Enewetak.

I was a co-op advisor while on Ujelang, so there were two PCV's [Peace Corps volunteers] on Ujelang during 75-77; an English teacher and a co-op advisor. Co-ops were set up in the Marshalls to help the people get a supply of food at fair prices on their atolls.

Photo: Richard Sitler; Taken in: Ukraine
Richard Sitler Ukraine
I traveled to over 20 countries on five continents photographing Peace Corps volunteers. I usually spent from four days to almost two weeks with each volunteer. The photographs document the daily lives of volunteers and shows that Peace Corps volunteers still work towards the original mission and goals created 50 years ago.

[The photos are collected in a book called Making Peace with the World, Photographs of Peace Corps Volunteers.]

Brandon Walters, originally from Wisconsin, serves in Mykhalcha, a village of about 2,000 people. There he teaches English in the local school. In this photo Walters has traveled to nearby Chernevtsy, a city about 15 minutes from his site by bus in Vinnytsia Oblast, Ukraine. He goes to Vinnytsia to shop. Here he is ordering some lunch from a street food wagon that features many of the local foods as pictured on the side.

The photo was taken May 2, 2010.

Photo: Edwin Nagy; Taken in: Niger
Niger0087
The photo is from 1994, in Zinder, Niger, where I was serving as a high school math teacher. I spent almost all my free time across the street from this little corner store with a group of the older men of the neighborhood drinking tea and doing my best to learn Hausa. This is the storekeeper (Mhoudi ?) with his account ledger and, I think, his son. If memory serves, it was the morning of a feast day - end of Ramadan or something - and everybody was in an extra good mood. Sometimes I would tend his store while he and the others went to pray up the road a bit.

The aspect of those years that stands out most vividly at this distance, and mostly in reference to my current responsibilities, was how enjoyable a slow life can be. Days stretched out with a morning trip to market, lunch, a nap, hours of tea, dinner, more tea and bed, with spaces filled with books slow and fast - Plato to Grisham. I remember with pleasure the lengthy greetings of people I had seen just hours before, and the pleasure of sitting in company under the shade saying very little.

The biggest lesson I brought home stemmed from seeing a completely other way of life in its fullness. I believe this is the only way to really overcome our innate belief that our way (whatever that is for each individual) is the only way. Having lived another life once, my mind is permanently open to the idea that there are many "right" ways to live. At least in my case, the second goal was more strongly achieved than the others - as a group, we were the worst teachers in the country, having a weak grasp of French and the French system of maths and a definite lack of seniority, but we all learned a tremendous amount about life amongst the Hausa, Zarma (Djerma), Fulani (Wodabe) and Touareg (Tamasheq) (and more).

Photo: Tom Mortenson; Taken in: Colombia
Peace Corps Training
In 1967 I was assigned to LaVega, Cauca, in southern Colombia to nutritional extension work. I was famous there mainly for my Rhode Island Red chickens that miracously produced an egg a day during their first egg production cycle. The campesinos that I lived with had never seen anything like it. At the end of the first egg producing cycle the chickens were slaughtered for meat because the Rhode Island Red was a dual purpose breed. ...

For the next year and a half I was reassigned to the national Peace Corps office in Bogota, the capital of Colombia, to support PCVs doing agricultural work in rural sites around Colombia. I worked with national leadership mainly at ICA--Institution Colombiano Agropercuario--which was the national agricultural extension service. This work involved workshops with volunteers at sites of the Colombian government. The picture you found was one of those workshops. Even though many PCVs [Peace Corps volunteers] had farm backgrounds, growing crops and livestock in the tropics and often at altitude was different from their experiences in the U.S. So we studied and learned what to do as well.

I believe this picture was taken in Antioquia, near Medellin, but I am not exactly sure about that. The young man with the white hair was a Colombian agronomist who was explaining something about crop production. All of the rest of the people were Peace Corps volunteers.

My daughter Cali is named for the city where her mother was from, Cali, Colombia. ... [S]he is a graduate student at the University of Michigan where John Kennedy announced in 1960 that he would create Peace Corps when he was elected president a few months later. Whenever Cali walks past the steps of the Student Union at Michigan she knows she got started on that spot--albeit she was born 16 years later. Peace Corps was certainly a huge part of my life, and has been ever since, and not just through my daughter.

Photo: Kirsten Rogers; Taken in: Morocco

My favorite places in Morocco are the hardest ones to get to; where buses are limited to once, maybe twice a day, if the driver can even get the engine started. ...

Rural Moroccan transportation serves as an appropriate metaphor for my primary project as a volunteer: the most rewarding outcomes were the most tedious and challenging to obtain. As a Small Business Development PVC [Peace Corps volunteer] my work focused on product and process development for a women’s wool spinning and weaving association. The association produced beautiful, traditional carpets, used in the region as sleeping mats. ... Together we modernized the production process, moving from hand spinning to using a spinning wheel, which we had locally built and designed based on YouTube videos I shared with welders and wood workers. Other process developments included improvements to cleaning the raw wool and using natural dyes to bring colors to a pallet formerly limited to white, grey, black, and beige. Improving the process improved the product.

Over time, as the association became more comfortable with the skills they had acquired, they wanted to host trainings for other associations. The photo is from a natural dye training the association held in a rural community six hours to the west. All the natural dye materials came from the surrounding fields; leaves from olive trees produces a light yellow, madder root dyes wool orange-red, henna produces brown or dark green, and, my favorite, carrot greens make a brilliant, sunshine yellow.

None of this was ever easy, but it was the most rewarding experience of my life and if given the opportunity, I’d be back in eastern Morocco preparing a pot of dye, sketching new designs for carpets, and drinking tea with my friends as we plan for the next workshop.

Photo: David Rheins; Taken in: Central African Republic
Peace Corps Volunteer
This photo was taken during our teacher training, held at the University of Banqui, in M'Baiki, Central African Republic. With me was one of my host-country teacher trainers. I served as a TEFL teacher first in M'Baiki, and later upcountry in the village of Bambari.

From David's memoirs: For the most part, my students were very curious about America and the first world'. They were much more eager to embrace the developed world with its material benefits than I was prepared to see their traditional emphasis on the values of extended family, the oneness with nature disappear.

In our discussions, I was the one who usually advocated retaining the spirit of the tribal ways, while my students preferred automobiles, western garb, and French cuisine. For having as little access as they did to foreign media, my students were surprisingly well-informed and took our discussions of the world seriously. Many asked me if I could help them come to America to study English, I looked for the sarcasm in their requests, but found only sincerity (sarcasm being a typically Western trait). ...

The longer I stayed in the Peace Corps, the more unsure I became about the benefit of my influence. I became depressed with the depth of the development quagmire, and uncertain that modernization was what the villagers really needed. Add to this a series of minor health problems (malarial attacks, parasites, diarrhea, etc.) and a severe case of homesickness and isolation, and you begin to understand the plight of the PCV. I often thought of leaving early (as a volunteer, I could have asked to leave at any time) but I couldn't or rather would not bring myself to go home. ...

I had bought the dreams I had been sold as a child. I discovered that what my mother had taught me, and what I had in turn passed onto my pupils, was true. There is no limit to what you can do if you are willing to pay the price. Having paid the fee required to meet the challenge, I can now justify what I have endured like frat boys after Hell Week, or GI's after Basic Training, the fact that not everyone who begins the course completes the challenge only makes the struggle more worthwhile.

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