Little Women of Baghlan
The Story of a Nursing School for Girls in Afghanistan, the Peace Corps, and Life Before the Taliban
by Susan Fox, with Jo Carter (Afghanistan 1968–70)
Peace Corps Writers
Reviewed by Susan O’Neill (Venezuela 1973–74)
Sometimes, when a country’s name is touted in the news as a synonym for disaster, we forget that it once had a “Before” — and that nothing stands still, so there will someday be an “After” as well.
So it is with Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, before the political upheaval that led to the Russian invasion of 1979 — and our intervention, and current war, was a backwater where the beat of modernizing cities far outpaced the languor of the countryside. Life in its small villages was defined by extreme weather-long, frozen winters; torrential rains; cloudless, and baking summers, as well as close community, isolation, and lack of educational opportunity, especially for women.
In 1968, the Peace Corps dropped three women into the northern village of Baghlan. Mary, a 60-year-old grandmother, and young Jo Carter were nurses; Nan, also young, a lab tech. The trio had been schooled in Farsi in Colorado, put through a month’s in-country training in Kandahar (and, for Nan, Jalalabad), and sworn in by the US Ambassador in Kabul.
They were sent to aid the Baghlan Hospital. Mary intended to set up a maternity clinic; Nan, to literally dust off the lab and train technicians, and Jo, to start a school for nurses.
Little Women of Baghlan follows the three Volunteers through their two years of Peace Corps service, from signup through training, assignment and — ultimately — to rotation home. Author Susan Fox draws from Joanne Carter Bowling’s 1968–1970 journals, tapes, and letters, as well as hours of interviews, to present the experience through Jo’s eyes. Fox fleshes out the story with information from the other two women, and research from an array of written sources. The result is a thorough, fascinating time-capsule view of Afghan village life before the Taliban. It highlights both the dedication and flexibility of these early Peace Corps Volunteers, and the fragility of their accomplishments against the eroding tide of time, culture and politics.
Fox paints a detailed picture of fallible human beings who step gamely into a distinctly alien culture, and the ways in which they adapt, and revise their expectations to fit their new world. She writes honestly and sympathetically about adversity, and the diminished role of women in a poor, under-educated Islamic society. She does not shy from her characters’ homesickness, their struggles with their own opinions on the inequities they must deal with, or their need for a life beyond the intensity of their assignments.
Anybody who has been a Peace Corps Volunteer can identify with the women’s idealism, and with the canny way reality twists it into knots. How do you teach people who can barely read how to operate a blood lab? Nan closes the door to the cobwebbed space and helps Jo teach students to become nurses. How do you teach students to become nurses when some are barely literate, and many of their families are finding them husbands? Jo simplifies her lessons; the women go to their weddings, and everybody prays their young charges stay in school, even as they realize it’s not their call. How do you deal with birthing mothers whose husbands don’t see the value of prenatal care? Mary delivers their babies, fights to ensure that everybody lives through the experience, and learns to let go, however reluctantly and regretfully, of those who don’t.
Throughout their time in Baghlan, the Volunteers also learn to use whatever edge they might have — Mary’s age, Nan’s sense of humor, Jo’s sheer doggedness — to make the changes that they can.
Susan Fox is very good at her craft. This book is well-written and carefully edited, nuanced and full of the texture and noise of the now-gone Afghanistan that came before the country whose name is inextricably linked with the word War. The story is a page-turner; reading it was a pleasure. I found it hopeful and pragmatic, humorous and sad, and I learned a great deal about the country and the culture. Bravo to Fox for her skill and humanity, and to her three heroines for their generosity of spirit. Bravo, especially, to Jo Carter, for keeping her words and artifacts, and trotting them out for us with such modest eloquence.
The work of Volunteers like Mary, Nan and Jo has subtle but enormous power to foster tolerance and understanding between cultures. War, by its nature, has no subtlety and, tragically, even greater power to destroy tolerance and understanding. We can only hope that the seeds of peace planted by the “Little Women” in the Before survive the War in Afghanistan, to add small grace notes of counterbalance to enrich the After.
Susan O’Neill (Venezuela, 1973-74) is the author of the short story collection Don’t Mean Nothing (Ballantine Books, 2001; Serving House Books, 2010), loosely based on her experiences as an Army nurse in Vietnam. Her second book, Calling New Delhi for Free (and other ephemeral truths of the 21st century), was published this year by Peace Corps Writers. She has edited Vestal Review, a print/electronic Zine for Flash Fiction, since it was started in 2000. She writes essays for this site at Off The Matrix.