At the Peace Corps Writers Luncheon, held on September 22 at the Library of Congress to celebrate the establishment of a Peace Corps Collection at the Library, erdman-franceSarah Erdman (Cote d’Ivoire 1998-2000), author of Nine Hills to Nambonkaha was the guest speaker. Sarah, who now lives in France, is a mother of a three-month old boy and is currently writing a book on North Africa. Sarah spoke to more than 150 Peace Corps writers, friends, and invited guests of Congressman John Garamendi (Ethiopia 1966-68) from the 10 District of California who sponsored this special luncheon for RPCVs. The writers were also presented with a framed citation signed by the Congressman in  recognition of their memoirs which are now part of the Library’s permanent collection.

Here is what Sarah had to say about her memoir and the works of all Peace Corps writers:

AN AMAZING THINK HAPPENED just after my book came out in 2003.  I got an email from a man who was nearing thirty years in the development field. He had become cynical and bitter about aid work.  His daughter had given him Nine Hills for Christmas, he told me, and as he read it, the two of them corresponded by email. I thought you might like to read our conversation, he wrote, and he tacked on at the bottom their very moving email exchange. Reading Nine Hills had brought him straight back to his days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia in the early 60’s. He remembered the people who made him want to help; the passion and idealism that drove him into his career.  He thanked me for giving him a second wind.

Over the years volunteers have written from the field to say they’re serving in Fiji or Ukraine but still my experience rings true or to tell me they were inspired to start a baby weighing program after reading about mine.  A woman who left Peace Corps early wrote, I hope as I keep reading, I can figure out exactly what inside me made me leave Africa.

At a book reading in Portland, Oregon a delicate-looking woman stood in line so that I could sign her book.  Her son Zach Merrill had killed himself while serving in Mali. She wanted to understand his life there better.  As a Placement Officer at HQ, I spent an hour on the phone with the mother of an applicant I had worked with extensively.  He had died in an ice climbing accident and his invitation to Peace Corps had arrived in the mail just days afterwards.  She called to say he couldn’t come and to tell me she had buried my book with her son-it brought tangibility to the dream he had had and the future he would not.

This February, I heard from a woman who had asked me to sign a book for her 16-year-old daughter at a book reading back in 2004.  She found me on Facebook to tell me her daughter had read my story and made a plan.  Seven years later, she had majored in international relations and was awaiting her invitation to Peace Corps.  “We are BOTH filled with excitement and anticipation,” she wrote.

But those are just the members of the Peace Corps family. When I was writing my book in rural Montana, I was invited to speak at a women’s club.  I read a chapter I had polished up for the occasion, showed slides of village life, discussed women’s roles, described mask dances and funerals and even delved into the mystery of sorcery.  When I was done, the first question I got from the audience was, “So, let me get this straight.  You were the only white person?”  But they had questions-lots of them.  They had never really thought about what life in Africa was like before.

I am just one Peace Corps author. My book is just my story.  How many Americans have learned the nuances of modern China from Peter Hessler?  How many midwives have broadened their perspectives after reading Monique and the Mango Rains?  How many armchair travelers have crossed continents with Paul Theroux or mused about the idiosyncrasies of island life with Bob Shacochis?

For those who missed out on the eye-popping, mind-blowing, heart-warming, exquisite and impossible experiences that we had, our words unveil the unknown and convey the hope, dedication, and goodwill that Peace Corps embodies.

Within our community, there are RPCV groups all over the world that help keep the Peace Corps flame alight.  But I think it’s fair to say that we as Peace Corps’ writers have a unique ability to touch something deep and elemental, to connect with people one-to-one.  Our voices resonate with the retiree who stepped off the plane in Columbia in 1961 with a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses, as well as the iphone-toting graduate who is about to step into a Peace Corps recruiting office.  To be one of those voices is greatest honor I’ve ever known.