It was happenstance. Chance. Or maybe it was fate that brought two friends together: one with a story to tell, and one who took the story to heart, and put pen to paper.
It was just a conversation, the kind of easy exchange between two people who have been friends for a very long time. As I chatted with my friend Jo, she 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.”
I had always known about Jo’s Peace Corps experience. Unknown to me until that moment, however, was the existence of a diary. I 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?” She gave me a self-deprecating little shrug. “I don’t know where to start. So I pack everything away—until the next time.”
I remember that I couldn’t help smiling at the abject expression on her face, and before I realized what I was doing, the words were out of my mouth. “I’ll write it for you!”
However, like Jo, I struggled to find a starting point. It was easy enough to piece together a factual account of her experience, but as I worked my way through her journal for a second time, the words evoked images from the past, like black-and-white snapshots of a time and place that has since vanished.
She describes a group of Americans living in a village called Baghlan, working together despite religious and cultural differences. In world that increasingly equates different with evil, her narrative is a desperately needed call for mutual respect and understanding.
I queried Jo about the women of Afghanistan, specifically what life was like before the Taliban came to power, for the project soon evolved as a voice for them, indeed, a voice for women everywhere who cannot speak for themselves. At the same time I felt it was imperative to present an accurate and balanced account of that particular time in history. During the 1960s the Afghan government was making the first tentative steps towards recognizing women’s rights, a movement cut short by the Russian invasion in 1979.
I read President Kennedy’s Executive Order to establish a bold new program, and was reminded once again how the Peace Corps continues to reflect the highest ideals of our country, holding an enduring place among all diplomatic efforts initiated by the United States.
Finally, I revisited Jo’s diary with a new appreciation of what she had given me: the first-hand account of an ordinary young woman who answers the call to service and adventure during an extraordinary time in world history.