Skip to Main Content

Our Stories

/Our Stories

  • 26 Mar 2022 by Karl Stark

    Karl and villager on street

    [Karl Stark was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia from 1980-1982]

    Summer, 1981. Chaout, Tunisia. I joined the Peace Corps right out of  college so I was in my early twenties when this photo was taken. I had loaned my camera to a trusted friend and taught him how to aim and focus and he gifted me with a roll of photos of the villagers at work and play - unposed and relaxed and extraordinarily well composed. I would rediscover the negatives forty years later, had them developed and mailed them to the Chaout postmaster who distributed them among the families in the photos. In 1981 few rural Tunisians had access to a camera so the photos of the older generation who have since passed on - like the man shown here- are treasured by the people living in Chaout today. 

    Gosh, I was thin. Because I had no refrigeration I shopped daily and, since there was no butcher in town, the only meat I ate on a regular basis was chicken. The chicken man visited on Friday (the sabbath) with his cart full of skinny hens - very much alive and as unhappy as commuters on the New York subway at rush hour. 

    Tunisian cuisine is spicy and heavy on the vegetables - chickpeas, tomato paste and eggplant are common ingredients - but with the variety of dishes available the scarcity of meat didn't feel like a deprivation. 

  • 26 Mar 2022 by Karl Stark

    [Karl Stark was a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia from 1980 - 1982.]

    At dusk, the setting sun, so brutal at noon, paints desert sky in pastel hues and the inky silhouettes of the eucalyptus standing in a ragged line following the course of the railroad tracks are blurred, indistinct like a watercolor  blotted by some divine hand. Light spills out of Café Pahr and lingers in a haze of cigarette smoke illuminated by yellow light from the bare incandescent bulbs which line the ceiling and the flickering blue/white light from the single small black and white television mounted on a table opposite the open door - from what I can see, it appears to be playing an Egyptian telenovela, but nobody pays it any mind. Farm hands, shepherds and local merchants are seated around each of the six plastic tables playing a kinetic card game where the player with the winning hand slaps his cards on the table and shouts “Scooba!!!”, much to the consternation of his opponents. Arguments erupt as tempers flare but, like a thunder clap from a midsummer storm, they dissipate rapidly and the game resumes.


    A monochromatic poster of Mohammad Ali vs. George Foreman is taped to the whitewashed cinder block wall behind the television, bordered by one of James Brown holding a microphone stand and another of an Egyptian actor in a boxing pose.


    Handsome Tahaar arrives on his Motobecane Moped, adjusts the smart French Foreign Legion cap he purchased at the souk last Saturday, flashes me a toothy grin, waves and enters the café to be greeted by a chorus of “salam”.


    Slubba, the old man wearing baggy trousers over brown plastic sandals, passes me riding his donkey, his mandella - straw hat - bobbing in rhythm to the beast’s uneven gait. His hands are like gnarled roots, his grin entirely toothless and he gives me a nod.


    “Monsieur Karlo.” he says with a slight nod of his head.


    As he passes, I imagine I hear the muffled clink of bottle hitting bottle from the satchel around the donkey’s neck.


    Yellow light also spills from the open doorway of Lauouni’s general store next to the cafe where the corpulent Hassan Lauouni rests his elbows on the counter and waits for his next customer. He stands as I enter and greets me with a smile.


    “Salam alaik ya Monsieur Karlo. Snuua Hualiak?”
    “I am fine” I reply in Arabic.
    “And your family?”
    “They are all good, too”
    “What can I get for you? Would you like a can of green peas?”


    When Mr. Lououni laughs, his eyes are small and dark like two raisins in the center of an unbaked loaf of khubz tabouna and his belly quivers underneath his blue djellaba.


    “Why, yes. Please fetch me a can of your finest green peas,” I reply with a flourish…then I laugh. “And a bottle of whiskey”. When I first arrived in Chaouat, my Arabic vocabulary was minimal but I knew how to say “eggs” and “green peas” so I spent several weeks eating just those two consumables and the villagers concluded that peas and eggs must be staples of the American diet.


    “Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he clucks. “You KNOW I do not have whiskey.”


    We laugh together.


    Like the café, the store is a one room edifice constructed of cinder blocks and white washed. Signs advertising Coca Cola - in Arabic script - Fanta, Cidre, and Choco-Tom cookies adorn the outside walls on either side of the sky-blue door which, more often than not, is held in the open  position by a rock. From behind the service counter, one can easily view the entire contents of the shop: canned vegetables, the afore-mentioned sodas, cookies, bread, eggs and dairy as well as hand tools, various pharmaceuticals, pencils, paper, Les Temps de Tunis newspaper (both the French and Arabic versions), thong sandals, sunglasses…but no alcohol. Between Mr. Lououni and me is an understanding that, in the Islamic faith, the consumption of alcohol is haram, forbidden so my request for whiskey is all in jest.


    A pair of barefoot boys enter the shop.


    “Monsieur,” the taller of the two addresses me. “Avez vous de monie pour des bon-bon?”
    “Bar imshi” growls the shopkeeper. Get OUT!  


    The boys beat a hasty retreat.  

    The shopkeeper frowns as he watches the boys exit but his smile returns as his eyes meet mine and our conversation resumes.


    “So, what can I REALLY get for you?”


    “Let’s see…I need a liter of milk, a cup of yogurt, a loaf of French bread, half-a-kilo of hummus, three eggs and some writing paper.” I hand him my shopping basket. It’s a soft sided straw basket with woven loop handles just like the one which Mother would fill with oranges, sliced egg sandwiches, towels and lotion before setting out to Wellfleet with us in the Biscayne for a lazy afternoon passed lying on the towels in the scant shade of an umbrella, our eyes heavy from the hypnotic roll of the waves and the sun and the cry of the gulls.


    “Very good,” he replies, turning and shuffling down the aisle. I assume he’s wearing sandals but his djellaba nearly reaches the floor so I can’t see his feet.


    After a few minutes, he places the basket on the counter and I open it to make sure nothing was forgotten. The eggs are wrapped in newspaper, the hummus is in a cone fashioned from heavy paper and the box of Parmalat milk is on the bottom of the basket. Both the milk and yogurt are irradiated because the shop doesn’t have a refrigerator and the ambient heat would quickly spoil any dairy product.


    “Look okay?” he asks.
    “Yes. What do I owe you?”
    “Four dinar and a half.” He answers without hesitation and I suspect the sum may be a bit high but I’m tired and not in the mood to haggle so I drop several coins into his soft palm. I close the basket and turn to leave.
    “This is not like America,” he says. "In America you have supermarkets…I see them on television. And everyone is rich. Am I right?”
    “No, Hajj Lououni. I am from a small village like Chaouat and we do not have a supermarket but we DO have a hanut…a small store just like your’s”.


    He looks astonished.


    “Really??” What is the name of the store?”
    “Massino’s General Store.”
    “Mah..sin..ohz gen..rl tor…” he repeats, stumbling over the unfamiliar English consonants.
    “But everyone calls it “Aggies…that’s the name of the owner.”
    “So, Monsieur Auggie…is he a good man? Is he honest?”
    “Aggie isn’t a man at all. Aggie is a woman!”
    “Buh, buh, buh…A woman owning a store…” he shakes his head, his mouth drawn into a tight line."I bet the men who come in are interested in more than just groceries," he says, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head. "Does this Auggie have a husband?"
    "Yes, he works for HER...but it's not what you think."


    I smile, conjuring up an image of Aggie, her silver hair drawn back in a tight bun, matronly in her daisy print dress, sensible shoes and change apron, giving the death stare over her pince nez glasses to the schoolboys acting furtively at the candy counter. "I'm watching you and I know your daddies!" she'd holler, causing them to scatter. 

     

    "Aggie is a jida, a grandmother," I explain. "But, in America, women shop for food more often than men so she is not the only woman in the shop at any time."

    Mr. Lououni hesitates, digesting this information, then replies "That's just not right...I mean, I know life is different in your country but...women in the hanut....that's just not right."

    "Yes, life is different in America," I agree. I turn toward the door just as Monir and Habib enter. "Salaam," I greet them with a nod, bringing my right hand to my chest. "Tusbih ealaa khayr, ya Hajj Lououni" Good night, Mr. Lououni.

     

    It is fully dark when I bid farewell to Mr. Lououni and exited his shop. Turning right, I walk the length of Avenue Habib Borguiba toward a group of men gathered around a rough-hewn table set between two eucalyptus and illuminated from above by a string of bare light bulbs strung between the trees. Upon the table are piled a variety of fruits and vegetables.


    “Aslamma alikum,” I greet them.
    “Salaam alik” they reply in unison.


    Behind the table, Hashmi, the greengrocer, a man my father’s age, or perhaps a bit older, is seated on an overturned milk bucket. He is wearing a cream-white djebella robe and a chechia, the traditional red skull cap and, in spite of his humble seat, he sits erect, his arms akimbo in a posture of inscrutable dignity yet the eyes in his wizened brown face are gentle, benevolent. He is flanked by his three sons, Mohammad, Hassan and Mohsen, who remain standing.


    “Aslamma, ya sabi” he greets me. “Hello, friend.”
    “Aslamma, ya bubba” I reply, respectfully, bowing slightly and covering my heart with my right hand as though I were addressing a priest.. “Hello, father.”
    “What may I get you?” he asks.
    “I would like two artichokes and…”
    “Artichokes??” Mr. Hashmi interrupts. “You do not want artichokes. That is charity food…for the poor.”
    “But you sell them…”
    “Yes,” he explains. “The poor people gather them on the hill as they graze their sheep and I give them a few millimes for a basketful but only the poor people eat them. You do not want to eat artichokes.”
    “But, in America, wealthy people pay real money…dinars…for artichokes!” I exclaim. “How much for two?”
    “Bah,” he replies, dismissively. “Just take them."

    “Thank you. Then, how about a rotl of beans, one pomegranate and two quince”


    Mr. Hashmi fetches my order from the collection of fruit crates under the table. The golden quince are mottled with dark spots, an indication that they weren’t treated for worms. DDT is still legal here. I will eat around the dark spots.


    “That’s two dinar and 100 millimes.”
    I place two notes and a coin into his weathered palm and he nods a thank you.
    “You know,” the grocer says, “I worked for the Americans during the big war. They were fighting the Germans over in Kasserine.”
    “Really? My father fought in the war too. He was a soldier, too.”
    “Oh, I wasn’t a soldier,” Mr. Hashmi explains. “I worked in the food store. And I remember how to speak American!” “TWO PLUM FIFTY CENTS” he shouts in English.
    “What does that mean?” asks Hassan and I translate, much to the old man’s satisfaction.
    “SONOFABITCHDAMNITALL” Mr. Hashmi continues. “What does that mean?” he asks eagerly. I hesitate, looking from Mohammad to Hassan to Mohsen who appear quite intrigued. Mr. Hashmi is a proud, self educated man who reads the Koran in the mosque and, in the many months I’ve known him, I have never heard him curse…except for now.
    “Oh, there is no translation,” I lie. There is actually a direct translation. “It’s just an expression. No meaning.”
    “C’mon,” Hassan demands. ”What does it REALLY mean??”


    I sigh.


    “It’s a curse word,” I reply.
    The two younger brothers burst into laughter, much to the chagrin of Mohammad and his father.

  • 24 Jul 2020 by Benjamin Deese

    Ben Deese, a member of RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison since February 2019, served in the People’s Republic of China from 2016 to 2018. Before Peace Corps withdrew Volunteers from China earlier this year, the post had its main office in Chengdu, Sichuan. As a Volunteer in a city northeast of Chengdu, Ben spent a lot of time in the Sichuan capital. He is a budding China watcher and is concerned about the deterioration in relations between our countries.

    Ben's following Letter to the Editor was published by the New York Times as a Times Pick. You can read the full article, China Orders U.S. to Shut Chengdu Consulate, Retaliating for Houston, and his Letter at this permalink.


    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Sichuan, China from 2016 to 2018, and worked as a Secondary Education Teacher at Mianyang Teachers' College (which is northeast of Chengdu). What is happening in US-China relations right now is an utter tragedy. Luckily, I made lasting relationships with Chinese people in Chengdu, Mianyang, and other cities in Sichuan. I continue to remain in contact with many of my friends and former students in those cities through social media, despite information restrictions and censorship imposed by the Chinese Communist Party.

    However, despite my strong personal relationships, it is extremely difficult to explain the United States and our American ideals right now because of the hawkish foreign policy emanating from the White House. I worry if this deterioration in relations continues, all the positive work the Peace Corps did in China from 1993 until 2020 as the US-China Friendship Volunteers will be lost.

    The United States most definitely needs to rework its relationship with the People's Republic, but what the Trump Administration is doing may hurt American economic and political interests more than it may help. Rising xenophobia will also endanger Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans who are as much a part of our nation and who contribute to our societal fabric as much as any other citizen. This same xenophobia may also scare away foreigners who could become assets to our country, if they chose to immigrate. 

    What a loss for us...

  • 01 Jul 2020 by Ronald Geason

    (Ron Geason served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda from 2015-2017. His story is about his friend, Rafiki - which means "friend" in Swahili. Ron is currently the Vice-President of the RPCVs of Wisconsin-Madison.)


    The establishment of the Peace Corps is one of the most enlightened pieces of legislation ever crafted and expresses the best of who we are as Americans.  It is my hope that the pandemic will pass and that we will be able to resume operations soon.

    Almost all of us are aware of the good work we do in terms of helping developing countries and building strong relationships.  This story is about an amazing personal encounter with a majestic animal now gone and the uncertain future of his total society. Many significant events in our lives occur “off the clock” if we only keep our eyes open.

    Virtually all of the 1,000 wild mountain gorillas remaining in the world inhabit the intersection of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I lived within a few hours of this area in the town of Kabale.  Gorilla trekking is a major tourist industry and I was lucky to find the time to go and see.

    The Bwindi Impenetrable Forest holds three groups of animals and roughly 30% of the total wild gorilla population in the world.  Finding Rafiki’s group involved a 5-hour hike, one way, followed by a one-hour visit, and then our return to the ranger station. I was in a group of 10 tourists along with a few armed camp rangers. Our gorilla group is habituated in the sense that they are calm around humans.  They are susceptible to air-borne disease so you cannot hike if you have a cold, flu or anything like COVID 19.

    The photo of the forest attests to its impenetrable nature.  It does not reflect the heat, humidity or the fire ants who will eat you alive if you don’t put your socks on the outside of your pant legs.

    Being in the presence of such amazing animals was awe-inspiring.  Their sheer size and gracefulness are unbelievable. Time slows and you feel a deep peace.  Needs are met in an efficient but unhurried way.  They fit perfectly with their environment and know when to move to find food and safety.

    Rafiki, the lead silverback in the group, stayed off to himself and was happy to pose while building his nest. He seemed comfortable in his role as “large and in charge.” 

    After my return, I would often sit in front of the fireplace at Traveler’s Rest in the town of Kisoro and wonder what naturalisits like Louis Leakey and Dian Fossey would think and talk about into the long evenings

    I received the recent news that Rafiki had been killed by poachers with disbelief and outrage.  The governments involved know how to protect them but actually doing it with limited resources, competing needs, and histories of corruption is another matter.  The farmers near the gorillas are impoverished and the temptation to poach is strong.  This type of death within the group is very destabilizing.  Who will lead?  What threats will come from outside? 

    My friends in Kabale indicate great concerns over the future of the mountain gorillas.  They feel a sense of dread and inevitable decline.  I very much hope they are wrong.  I send checks, encouragement, and prayers.

    I feel so privileged to have had this experience.  The realization of the impermanence of life is fresh in my mind.  I am so grateful to the Peace Corps for giving me a glimpse of a different world.

     

  • 02 Jul 2019 by Kate Schachter

    [This is part of our series on the people behind the International Calendar. Kate Schachter served in Ghana from 2004-2007, and in Peace Corps Response Georgia from 2016-2017. This is from her Georgia blog as she looks into the culture, the familiar, the unusual, and the philosophic. Kate manages social media for the RPCVs of Madison.]


    we all Go Places, June 17, 2016

    Last week I was traveling with friends who were visiting from the US, on their way to Romania. We were in a small village guesthouse, Inga’s Guesthouse, a clean and friendly place with great food, but with bedsprings that bowed so deeply that my knees wanted to turn inside out. Their dogs were barking – a lot. They stopped when rain started pouring down on the metal roof of the house. I had a hard time falling asleep. At some point in the night, the rain stopped, and a half-hearted cock began crowing for what felt like another hour. When he finally stopped, I managed to get a few hours sleep. The benefit was: my ideas of how to write this next blog finally coalesced!

    I knew I wanted to write about ‘we all Go Places,’ but how? What purpose? This is not a vacation blog. My restless night and wandering mind had me thinking about why I’m here, in Georgia, in Peace Corps Response for a full year, far from home and family. It’s a complicated question, all tied up with altruism, adventure, and impact.

    Read more at https://kateschachtergeorgia.wordpress.com/2016/06/17/we-all-go-places/

  • 28 May 2019 by Ann Evansen

    [This is part of our series on the people behind the International Calendar. Annie Freeman Evansen served in Paraguay in 1979.]

    One of my favorite memories of my Peace Corps was the day we arrived in the town for our initial training. I left my home in Wisconsin in January, where is was 0° F. The day we arrived in Asuncion, Paraguay it was 105° F.  We spent 2 days in Asuncion getting to know the PC local staff.  We then headed for Aregua, a small town 45 min outside Asuncion.   We were the first group of volunteers to train in Aregua.    

    As we drove the scenery changed from asphalt and concrete to trees and flowers.  As we turned off the main road and into Aregua we could feel the temperature drop and a breeze pick up.  The road came in near the top of a hill with a beautiful white church that looked over the town and down to the Lago Ypacarai.   The bus stopped and let us off at a large white house with porches front and back.  It was there where would spend most of our days for the next 3 months as we trained in language and skills we would need.

    I then met my host family. Dona Lucy picked me up with her 7 year old daughter, Dori.  Dona Lucy gave me such a warm smile and Dori gave me a great big hug.  We drove a short distance toward their house before stopping and walking the rest of the way.  We walked on a foot path over a shallow stream. Women sat and washed clothes in the wider area.  They all said “hola” as we went past.  Their house was turquoise with 4 rooms.  They showed me my room and wardrobe, and after settling in a bit, we all sat and talked and talked.  Later that night a thunderstorm went through the town and we stood out on the porch watching the rain and the lightning. 

    Four children, including Dori, still lived at home.  Her oldest daughter was married with a 6-month-old baby.  Dona Lucy’s niece lived there, too. Her home village didn’t have a high school, so she helped with house work and attended school.

    I keep in contact with members of the family.  Dori and other siblings live in the USA and she has two children in high school.  I hope I can be as welcoming to others I meet as they were to me.   Welcoming others into your life with kindness doesn’t depend on how much you have, but how open your heart is. 

     

  • 21 May 2019 by Patricia Halpin

    [This story is part of our series on the people behind the International Calendar. Meet Pat Halpin,  RPCV Botswana 1978-1981. If you ever left a voicemail message on our main number (in the footer of each website page), she either calls you back or forwards your call on to the right person.]


    My world was small growing up on a family dairy farm. College was only about 30 miles away and my first teaching job was in the same town. It is not much of a stretch to say that Peace Corps enlarged my world many-fold! Going to Botswana in 1978 was my first need for a passport.

    Teaching domestic science (home economics) in a secondary school was my Peace Corps job. School buildings, teacher’s quarters and student hostels were all on the same grounds. For me, teaching in Botswana was much more rewarding than in the U.S. Students understood the value of their education. Secondary education was only open to some as there weren’t enough spots for everyone. There were challenges as a teacher. The biggest problem was losing students to pregnancy. That ended a girl’s opportunity for any more education. For a young woman this was sad. There was no allowance to go back to school after the child was born.

    My students were all girls. We did individual projects outside of class. This is where the young women felt at ease in asking all kinds of questions. Learning from these students was the most valuable thing I took away from Peace Corps. It was so rewarding to hear them thinking about their future and how they could make it better. These young women knew what they could fall into or what they could make plans for. It was eye opening for me to see what they faced as teen aged women. They also had all the same wants and desires of most other young woman in the world. We are all the same.

    Peace Corps is an extremely valuable experience. I think the value is in what we as Americans learn about the world. For most of us our world is small compared to what the real-world entails.

     

  • 07 May 2019 by Michelle Possin

    This post is part of our series on the people behind our group. Michelle and Chuck Possin served in South Africa 2010-2012.


    In 2010 my husband and I began our PC training in South Africa. We couldn’t wait to dive into a new culture. We had adventure traveled for years, often with improvised destinations. While this approach unsettled most, we were in our comfort zone. Imagine my surprise when I freaked out during week 3 of training! I cried and cried. Why was I selected to be a Health Outreach Coordinator? I didn’t have any health background! What kind of impact would I have? Would I be accepted? How in the world would I learn Zulu? Several trainees quit within the first few weeks, “maybe they know something I don’t?” But, we pressed on and spent 3 months learning about how HIV and TB co-infection had an enormously negative affect on an entire generation. We learned about the rich Zulu culture, Apartheid history and the lasting impact of institutionalized racism. And we felt comfortable greeting in Zulu.


    I was placed as a HR Mgr in an NGO which provides home based and inpatient HIV and TB prevention and treatment. I had a real job with responsibilities. We formed HS clubs, organized community events, wrote grants, created a gardening project & a running club -all the PC projects you expect. We were busy every day, all day!


    At the end of Yearr One I couldn’t imagine leaving. We were just getting started!. I began my mornings listening to the nurses sing. I loved my Zulu co-workers and spending my days with them. I experienced sheer awe daily, no matter if we were hiking on dusty roads or shopping in the market. I loved strolling through the village, always curious how everyone knew which goats and cows belonged to whom. I ran every morning, first alone then with kids or co-workers.


    The two-plus years I spent living in KZN were the richest, most enjoyable and most purposeful years of my life. My friendships other PCVs are still deep. It changed me to my core. Even though I was a middle-aged woman, my confidence strengthened immensely. What I consider important evolved. So often people say to me “I wanted to go into the PC so badly after college, but just never went”. I always say “GO!” Go Now! Go Anytime, just GO!

  • 06 Mar 2019 by Ronald Geason

    The People Behind the Organization

    Ron Geason, RPCV Uganda 2016-2018

    The vision that pops into your mind when you think of a Peace Corps Volunteer is one of a twenty-something saving the world through heroic and optimistic hard work. Charging the barricades if you will. 


    I am part of a sea change in the world of volunteerism. Older Americans with good health, free time due to empty nests or good fortune, and a desire to do good work in the world are serving in the Peace Corps in increasing numbers. My service was a mixed bag. Aside from marriage and having kids, it is among the most satisfying and fun things I’ve ever done. 
    I experienced a number of obstacles, some obvious, some more subtle. You become aware that physical abilities are not evenly distributed among volunteers. Does this trail ever end? How far is the latrine? Is it true that older people are often challenged by learning new languages? 

    [Language Study Group]


    On the positive side, I felt I had a broad perspective gained from years of experience. I was able to focus on tasks at hand and make progress. Sharing my faith seemed easy and natural. Being a white guy with white hair in a patriarchal society that honors older people did not hurt. I had credibility when I stepped off the bus. Others had to earn it. It felt great to have younger volunteers seek out my opinion. I loved sharing my adventures with colleagues back home thinking that no one was doing anything nearly as cool as serving in the Peace Corps. 


    Within my cohort group of 45 volunteers, I served with three fine gentlemen over the age of 55. We named our group “The Three Fossils” and celebrated life with unique T Shirts, elaborate, secret ceremonies, fine cigars and the like. We were Brothers in Arms and benefited greatly from prized seats on buses and other blessings along the way.