Reviewed by John Chromy (India 1963–65)
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Robin Varnum (Afghanistan 1970-72) has brought to us a wonderful reminder of how Peace Corps operated in faraway lands 50 years ago.The Volunteers remembered President Kenndy’s “ringing call to service” and they were ready to go to the ends of the earth to serve, to learn and to teach.
Ms. Varnum’s narrative begins with the three day PRIST (pre-Invitational Staging) program in Chicago in which the potential volunteers were briefed, provided with vast amounts of information on Peace Corps and Afghanistan, and given the choice to go to Afghanistan or not. If they said yes, two months later they were on their way to Kabul and three months of in-country training.
The description of sights, emotions, excitement and reservations about arriving in a land that was literally and figuratively on the “other side of the world” certainly gives the reader pause over the audacity of Peace Corps’ mission, and the nerve and spirit of the people putting themselves in Pushto- and Dari-speaking Islamic communities, and a totally non-western culture and setting. Ms. Varnum’s steady, thoughtful and detailed narrative of the day by day life of settling into teaching school in the city of Ghazni eventually leaves the reader in awe of the many achievements she, her husband Mark and their site mate, Juri, are able to launch and complete.
Since we all have witnessed the vast carnage that has been visited upon Afghanistan these last 40 years, it is a pleasure to accompany Ms.Varnum back to a time in the early 1970s when Afghanistan was mostly peaceful and American Peace Corps Volunteers were generally welcomed and could live, work and travel throughout the country with little or no fear for their security.
Indeed upon returning from a long vacation in India, Robin and Mark sigh with pleasure at being “back home” in their house in Ghazni. That feeling of “being home” is one experienced by many Peace Corps people nearing their second year of service, and it is a sure sign that you and your host country community have become one.
Ms. Varnum also shares the complexities and sadness at leaving their “home,” students, friends, cook and dog as their tour of service ends. Again, a trauma felt by many Peace Corps Volunteers departing their communities around the world.
The book concludes with an excellent summary of the political and military events of the past forty years that simply and straightforwardly enlightens even the casual reader of the sad trauma her Afghan friends have endured since their king was deposed, several presidents murdered and their country has experienced numerous civil and multinational wars. All in all, a good, solid read that tells the Peace Corps story in one little and very interesting corner of the world.
John Chromy was a Peace Corps Volunteer in India (1963–65), a PC Country Director in the Eastern Caribbean (1977–79), and Associate Director in Peace Corps/Washington (1979–1981) overseeing Volunteer Recruitment, Selection, Placement, Medical Services and Payroll. He spent several weeks in Afghanistan in 1976 and again in 2004. He is now retired and living in Washington DC after a 40 year career in community-based development on both the domestic and international fronts.