Little Women of Baghlan: The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban is the true account of Joanne – Jo – Carter who answers the call to service and adventure during an extraordinary time in world history. Her story rivals the excitement, intrigue, and suspense of any novel, unfolding against the backdrop of changing social mores, the Cold War, the Peace Corps, and a country at the crossroads of China, Russia, India, Pakistan, and Iran.
When John F. Kennedy delivers a speech in the Senate Chambers on a hot July day in 1957, a young Jo Carter listens from the Senate gallery. In 1967 Jo remembers the now-deceased President Kennedy’s words and is inspired to join the Peace Corps.
As a new Peace Corps Volunteer she flies into Afghanistan on March 21, 1968 with her training group. From her plane window, the Hindu Kush Mountains appear desolate and barren, not unlike the surface of the moon. On the ground, Kabul explodes into color and sound. Taxis honk. Buses spew diesel fumes, sharing traffic lanes with donkeys and camels. The air is infused with the aroma of wool, dust, and dung.
Jo, along with PCVs Nan and Mary, are assigned to start a school of nursing for Afghan girls in the village of Baglan, where the students are almost non-literate, the hospital lacks equipment, trained doctors, and a reliable source of water, and babies routinely expire from poor delivery practices. The Peace Corps director soon dubs them the “Little Women of Baghlan.”
During her two-years of service, Jo reflects on the paradox that is Afghanistan. The Afghans are mired in poverty, yet generous to the point of embarrassment. The men are welcoming and solicitous of the Volunteers, yet capable of turning a blind eye to the suffering of their wives, daughters, and sisters. The climate is harsh and unforgiving; the Hindu Kush starkly beautiful.
And throughout this time Jo fills the pages of a small diary. Nearly a half century later, her journal is a bittersweet reminder of a country that has since vanished — a country that had been on the brink of becoming a modern nation, moving toward the recognition of women’s rights. But by 1979 the Peace Corps Volunteers are long gone, replaced by Soviet troops, ten years later by mujahideen fighters, in 1996 by the Taliban , and in 2001 by the United States military, joined by NATO forces in 2003. The country Jo once called home has been buried under layers of recent history, and there is little evidence to suggest that such a time or place ever existed.
In spring 2007 Susan Fox and her close friend, Jo Carter now Bowling, were chatting when Jo casually mentioned a box of letters, tapes, and a diary she had saved from her service in Afghanistan with the Peace Corps in the late 1960s.
“I go through the box every couple of years,” she said. “And every time, I intend to write a story about what we did — what it was like when we were there.”
Susan encouraged her to pursue the idea. “Just think of all the things you did, Jo. And you have a record of it all. You should definitely write your story.”
Jo nodded in agreement. “Oh, I know. I’ve tried. At least a half-dozen times.”
“And I page through the diary, look at the pictures, maybe listen to a couple of tapes. But then what? I don’t know where to start. So I pack everything into the box and put it back on the shelf-until the next time.”
Then suddenly the words were out of Susan’s mouth “I’ll write it for you!”
Susan now says:
In my enthusiasm, I anticipated a pleasurable and interesting project, a tidy little memoir, and a gift for my friend. I thought it would take a couple of weeks. It took six years, exhaustive research, and resulted in a book.
Just as Jo had done every time she opened her box of memorabilia, I struggled to find a starting point. It was easy enough to piece together a factual account of her experience: the days in training camp, adjustment to daily life in another culture, and the challenges of getting Afghan girls into a classroom. But as I worked my way through her journal for a second and third time, other perspectives emerged from between the lines.
Nearly a half century later, her diary is a significant historical account. Her words evoke images from the past: black and white snapshots of a time and place that has since vanished. Her daily entries are bittersweet reminders that at one time Afghanistan was on the cusp of becoming a modern nation.
She describes a group of ordinary Americans living safely in Baghlan, working together with Afghans despite religious and cultural differences. The Volunteers celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr with their Afghan hosts; the Muslims bring a Christmas tree to their American guests. In a post-9/11 world that increasingly equates different with evil, her narrative is a desperately needed call for mutual respect and understanding.
Susan Fox has worked as a technical writer for a major consulting firm, and is a member of the Literary Writers Network, currently serving as senior editorial assistant for their online publication, 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. She has been a keynote speaker at The Indiana Center for Middle East Peace, hosted by Dr. Michael Spath, and has read excerpts from Little Women of Baghlan at one of Chicago’s premier independent book stores, the Book Cellar. The opening pages of the book recently took honors in the nonfiction category at the Writers’ Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.