I got some powerful reminders of what it was like to be a smallpox vaccinator in Afghanistan 40 years ago making a documentary about the group. None, however, were more dramatic and humorous than watching the Iranian movie “Secret Ballot.” Vaccinating Afghans against smallpox before more people suffer was our all female group’s assignment in 1969, following the women volunteers of Group Xl. In the “Secret Ballot” a young Iranian woman from the city is assigned to find those with ID cards on a remote island and get their votes in the national election before 5 o’clock.

The Iranian woman is just as passionate about her work, and almost as out of her comfort zone, as we were back then, and the300px-secretballot1 work is familiar. First there is the skeptical but compliant soldier who dutifully protects the female whom he is certain should not be doing this kind of thing. Then there is her first encounter with a potential voter. He runs away in terror, and the ballot seeker has her soldier driver chase him down across the desert in the jeep.

Like us, she has her spiel about the importance of her mission. As with Peace Corps vaccinators, this is met with resistance limited only by the imagination. One old man nodding and uttering one syllable finally admits he doesn’t understand Farsi. Each response illuminates much about the clash of tradition and modernity, about country and city lives, about gender roles.

"Once in Afghanistan"

"Once in Afghanistan"

Seeing my youthful idealism, my bizarre exchanges with the women, my racing against the clock brought short bursts of laughter from me as I watched this beautifully told story. Long sighs, as well, at my bullying, at the irony of vaccinating people who don’t have enough to eat, with my despair that maybe this effort won’t count.

The ending is a comfort. As my friend Linda from Group XV put it, there is magic in those moments that resonate with our being more alike than different.