Over the years, whenever I’ve spoken to high-level officials who had been in the Peace Corps — whether senators who held the gavels of powerful committees or undersecretaries of state who’d been posted to just about every place on the planet — if the topic of their service came up, they came to life, eager to reminiscence about their time in the corps.
It’s clear that the Peace Corps leaves an indelible mark on those who serve in it — long after that service ends.
A new virtual exhibition organized by the American University Museum underscores that point with objects and stories from 30 volunteers representing a sampling of the 240,000 people who have joined the Peace Corps since its inception 60 years ago.
Most of the objects in and of themselves are fairly unremarkable — a rice pot, a vinyl record, a sleeping mat, sandals, various utensils and bowls.
It’s the stories behind them that are the main attraction.
The sleeping mat, for instance, belonged to a volunteer on the Micronesian island of Udot who was there to help 120 residents, living on a three-square-mile strip of land, start a coconut rehabilitation project. The residents were returning after being forced to flee because of hydrogen bomb testing conducted by the United States in 1954.
Determined to live like a local, the volunteer, Richard Sundt, bought a handcrafted mat fashioned from the leaves of the native pandanas tree. It was authentic — and uncomfortable. Eventually, though, neighbors chipped in to help. One brought over a foam rubber mattress while another arrived with a pillowcase embroidered with flowers, leaves and an inscription: “Ememlok ijen ko aö, ilo ien ne ij babu,” or, “My place is better with this pillow when I go down to sleep.”
Volunteers say it was these gestures of friendship that made leaving behind the comforts of home more than worth it.
Even rudimentary gifts gave the volunteers a sense of how hard and fragile daily life could be in their adopted homes. That includes a grass slingshot made by boys in Gambia whose job was to sit in the hot fields and sling pebbles at birds that ate their family’s crops.
For one volunteer, the warm welcome she received turned her into a local celebrity.
Cathie Maclin Boyles, a nurse in Colombia, was the first American to visit an isolated town on the Mojana River. An annual festival in the town attracted Colombian singer Alfredo Gutiérrez, known as the Johnny Cash of the vallenato, a type of folk music.
Gutiérrez spotted the volunteer, the only American woman in the crowd, and promised to compose a song for her.
“I knew Alfredo had had way too much to drink, but later in the evening to my surprise — and everyone else’s — he belted out his first rendition of ‘La norteamericana’ — composed on the spot especially for me,” Maclin Boyles recalled. “Later Gutiérrez polished the song and put it on his next album. For months the song was popular on the radio — and I became a celebrity all over the Colombian Caribbean coast.”
Another memorable gift on display is a stunning embroidered satin gown given to a volunteer in the Philippines. Beyond its beauty, however, the traditional dress also reveals a darker history.
After hundreds of years of Spanish colonization and decades as a U.S. colony, the Philippines — like many other nations — came to value light complexions over darker, indigenous ones. The volunteer, Ann Jealous, who was Black, recalls a fellow teacher holding an umbrella over her head when they walked in the sun so that she would “stay beautiful.”
But the gown represents a more hopeful turn in the country’s history. Named after the mother of national hero José Rizal, who led the revolt against Spanish rule in the 1890s, the Maria Clara gown incorporates both indigenous and Spanish influences.
“The dress, like me, is a mixture of Black and White heritages,” Jealous writes. “I danced in that dress for nearly two years, and although I’ve worn it only a few times in the U.S., it is one of my most cherished gifts.”
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The exhibition doesn’t shy away from the Peace Corps’ own complex racial, ethnic and class undertones. For years, the corps consisted primarily of White, middle-class college graduates who served in communities very different from their own — which at times led to resentment and suspicion.
On the flip side, as the corps diversified over the years, the volunteers confronted racism in the communities in which they served.
An accompanying video presents stories that illustrate these fraught dynamics.
Latarché Collins, a Black woman who served in Honduras, the Philippines and Peru throughout the 2000s, recalled that “my counterpart actually told me that she had to remind her coworkers not to call me the ‘N word’ because it was not acceptable.”
While Collins said she still “loved” the Peace Corps, the discrimination took its toll.
“It piles up, so you need to speak up about it,” Collins said, urging other volunteers to make their experiences — good and bad — heard so that the corps can learn from them.
Another running theme was disbelief that Americans of foreign descent where, in fact, Americans.
Elizabeth Yi, a Korean American who served in Benin from 1998 to 2000, recalls being called “La Chiniose,” or the “Chinese lady,” and was often propositioned. At one point, she was even barred from getting on a plane to go back home because authorities didn’t believe she was actually an American. (She eventually convinced them that her passport wasn’t fake and was allowed on the plane.)
Michael Wanigasekera, who served in Cambodia from 2013 to 2015, had similar experiences.”
“The first time I went to my village, they didn’t see me as American,” said Wanigasekera, who was born in the U.S. but has Sri Lankan, Portuguese and Dutch roots. “They saw me as Indian. And they did not believe me at all. They laughed at me.”
But whenever a White volunteer visited, “it was like a rock star had arrived,” Wanigasekera recalled.
“I was the first American to live in that village, so for me it was a culture shock, but for them too.”
Like Yi, Wanigasekera had to teach others about diversity and immigration in America — something he encourages the Peace Corps as a whole to do a better job of in the communities it serves.
“Everyone’s service is vastly different. The service for me was extremely challenging, but it was never about me. It was about helping those children, helping the community, and that was the motivator,” he said.
A Lion and a Hat
Not all cultural differences lead to negative experiences. Some result in the kind of memorable tales you recount for the rest of your life.
During the virtual opening of the exhibition, Jeanne D’Haem, a volunteer in Somalia in the late 1960s, recalled her encounter with a lion, a warrior and his hat.
While riding in a cramped truck from a Somali town on the Ethiopian border back to her teaching post, D’Haem found a crate to sit on.
“Nobody else sat on the box with me, probably because in Somalia the devil is white, and also people knew that my name was Jeanne, and that reminded them of a little devil they called ‘jinn’ who caused all sorts of mischief,” she said.
Eventually, D’Haem noticed a puff of air next to her ankle, followed by a rough lick.
Lifting the top of the crate she discovered a lion inside.
“And he was miserable. The Somalis would not give it any food or water and I was very angry. Just then, some horsemen came riding up to the truck, and of course there was talking, shouting. Everybody got off. I decided not to get off because I was going to try to help this poor animal. I pried up the box — he was too weak to move — and I took off my headscarf, and my red hair at the time flew in the wind,” she recalled.
“I put some water into the headscarf and I dropped it down to the lion’s mouth and he began to lick it. I was so angry. I couldn’t understand why everyone got off the truck. They’re just standing around talking. I took off my shoe and I banged it on the side of the truck and I said what’s going on.
“Then one of the horsemen rode up to the side of the truck, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, which women don’t do in Somalia. And he said to me, ‘Who are you?’ and I told him, ‘I’m Jeanne.’ And I was delighted he was surprised.
“But just then, the lion started to stir in the box. He peered over and saw the lion. His eyes got really big. He handed me his hat and off they rode.”
After she returned to her village, the headmaster of her school burst into her home and said, “Oh Jeanne, what have you done now?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“On the truck today, didn’t you see the bandits?”
“Yes, bandits. These were Shifta warriors in the border dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia. Didn’t you see the guns?”
D’Haem shook her head.
“Well, they saw you and you frightened the leader.”
Apparently, there were two theories circulating in the village as to how D’Haem managed to scare off a bunch of armed robbers.
A fellow teacher who was with the headmaster said it was because of a story in the Koran about a prostitute and a well.
“There was a thirsty dog at the well and the prostitute dipped her shoe in the water and gave it to the dog. Mohammad saw this and said, ‘All her sins would be forgiven because of her kindness.’
“Many people here think you are a prostitute because you live alone,” the teacher told D’Haem. “The warrior looked at you and remembered the story in the Koran and he thought, ‘Allah has given me a sign,’ and he decided not to rob the people.”
The headmaster cut in with his own version of events. The warriors ran because they were afraid of “jinn” the devil, not Jeanne the volunteer.
“He rode over, looked at you and your red hair like the Angel Gabriel, but you couldn’t be an angel because you were white,” the headmaster said. “And then he saw that you were sitting on a lion, and he decided you really were a jinn, and he gave you his hat so you wouldn’t cast a spell on him or his men and rode off as quickly as he could.”
“And that’s the story of the hat that I donated,” D’Haem said, “and it reminds me that we all see things through the lens of our own experiences.”
And it’s those experiences that are sure to last a lifetime for past volunteers, while inspiring future ones as well.