Folklife Festival Celebrates Global Impact of Peace Corps

By Brittany Bybee | Staff Writer | 13 July 2011

At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival June 30, Samburu women from Kenya demonstrate how to create high-quality woven baskets and clothing from local materials.

Washington - Organic farming, basket weaving, wine, textiles, plastic bottles and shea butter were all on display at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington. Each represented an important cultural tradition turned into economic opportunity with help from Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps was one of three programs featured at the Smithsonian Institution’s 45th Folklife Festival, held June 30-July 11 to celebrate folk culture in the United States and around the world. For two weeks, returned Peace Corps volunteers and their host-country counterparts shared their projects, talents and stories with more than a million visitors.

The festival, a summer tradition in Washington, brought more than 280 participants from around the world to the National Mall and included day and evening programs of music, song, dance, storytelling, crafts, cooking demonstrations and discussions. The festival highlighted the diversity of Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs), their experiences and the people with whom they work in host communities.

Peace Corps program curator Jim Deutsch said, “One of the more fascinating things about this part of the festival is that the more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers who have served since 1961 are now working in many realms around the world,” and throughout various educational exhibits they shared stories, recipes and lessons from two years living and serving abroad. Deutsch said Peace Corps volunteers “tend to be altruistic and idealistic and they have a strong can-do attitude.”

During the festival, returned volunteer Rahama Wright spoke about her service in Mali from 2002 through 2004. While serving, she saw many village women struggling to provide for their families and recognized a need for earning power among the women. Highly motivated by her observations, Wright helped create the first shea butter cooperative in the village as a way for women to make money. “I felt I could help maximize local resources by helping the women become entrepreneurs in the global marketplace.”

Serving in the Peace Corps also sparked Wright’s interest in the global supply chain. She returned to the United States more conscious of where products originated and fascinated by trade and business.

Wright went on to found Shea Yeleen International 2005, a nonprofit organization that helps women in West Africa organize cooperatives, provides training on quality assurance and microenterprise development, and brings shea butter products to market. The Folklife Festival featured an exhibit where visitors joined the shea butter production process alongside West African women.

Peace Corps volunteers and their Guatemalan counterparts constructed a sample wall at the Folklife Festival using recyled bottles and trash, with help from festival attendees.

RECLAIMING TRASH TO ADVANCE EDUCATION

Nearby, visitors watched the construction of a plastic bottle wall as returned Corps member Laura Kutner reproduced the project she completed while serving in Granados, Guatemala, from 2007 to 2010.

Kutner rallied her host community and surrounding villages to collect more than 4,000 used plastic bottles and trash that once littered the streets. The bottles were stuffed, tied together and plastered with cement to build new classrooms at the schoolhouse where she worked as a youth development volunteer.

In addition to Peace Corps volunteers, current and returned, the festival introduced visitors to the people living in host countries. “The focus of our program is on the people with whom the PCVs serve, the people who are here from 17 different countries who worked with Peace Corps volunteers and in many cases are still working with Peace Corps volunteers maintaining the legacy,” Deutsch said.

The Folklife Festival aims “to encourage these types of cultural conversations in which visitors can learn directly from people from different countries and from the Peace Corps volunteers,” Deutsch said. According to statistics provided by the Peace Corps, there are currently 8,655 volunteers and trainees living and working alongside citizens of 77 host countries, teaching sustainable skills while respecting the local culture.

Throughout its history, the festival has featured a wide variety of programs highlighting nations, regions and ethnic communities. In 2011, the festival, an annual international exposition of living cultural heritage organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, commemorated 50 years of the Peace Corps, Colombia and the rhythm and blues musical genre.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)