Peace Corps volunteers recount adventures
Digging artifacts out of storage for display on the lower level of the River Falls Public Library gave Linda Dahm, Katy Pupungatoa and Charlotte Roth a chance to reminisce about the good time they had in the Peace Corps.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the United States Peace Corps. The River Falls Public Library is celebrating with an exhibit showcasing artifacts brought back by former Peace Corps volunteers from River Falls.
The exhibit, said RFPL Events and Gallery Coordinator Jera Terreng, is one of many similar exhibits around the country to celebrate the Peace Corps anniversary.
Former Peace Corps volunteers will share their stories Wednesdays, Aug. 10 and 24, at 7 p.m., at the library.
Dahm, Pupungatoa and Roth were three of 23 River Falls area former Peace Corps volunteers to contribute artifacts to the exhibit.
Dahm was stationed with her husband in Micronesia from 1973-1975. She said she and her husband Peter left for the South Pacific not long after their wedding.
In Micronesia, Linda worked as a small business advisor working with pepper farmers and woodcrafters and Peter worked as a city planner.
Linda Dahm said she helped the wood carvers and the pepper farmers cooperate to boost the local economy. The wood carvers made pepper grinders for the farmers' peppers.
"Kind of your cottage industry kind of things," said Dahm.
Katy Pupungatoa was stationed southeast of Micronesia in Tonga from 1991-1993. Pupungatoa said meeting and marrying her husband Finau is her favorite memory from her time in the Peace Corps. Pupungatoa's display in the library exhibit includes a collage of her wedding photos.
The Peace Crops was highly respected in Tonga, said Pupungatoa. The Tongan word for Peace Corps means "workers of love."
Roth was stationed in Benin, Africa, from 1990 to 1993 teaching English to students at an agricultural school. She said she didn't realize until she arrived, that there were not going to be starving children all over.
"My perception was informed by what I saw on TV."
But then, so were the perceptions of the people she met in Benin. They learned what they knew about Americans from watching "Dynasty," the only American television programming they got.
"People thought I had a chauffeur and a maid and a cook," said Roth, "And I'm like, 'I grew up on a farm.'"
What Roth did find were happy people whose culture was vastly different from her own. Polygamy was not just allowed or encouraged, said Roth. It was a part of life. A man's first wife was chosen by his parents, his second was chosen by the first, and he had no choice in the matter until his third wife.
"I gave my neighbor a cantaloupe, and he was like, 'Oh, you want to be married?'" said Roth. "I was like, 'No, I gave you a cantaloupe.'"
Roth said she couldn't believe the women didn't rise up against their oppression. She said it took her a while to realize the women were happy.
But the Peace Corps, said the former volunteers, isn't just culture of the countries volunteers visit. It is about teaching fellow Americans about the culture they learned about during their trip.
"That's probably the hardest thing," said Dahm. "It's hard to relate unless you've been in the Peace Corps."
"When you're in the Peace Corps," said Pupungatoa, "they want you to do all the things that are respectful of that culture and dress like them, and do things they do."
Although Dahm and others give presentations for kids at area schools, she said it really is hard for people to understand because they never experienced a different culture the way she did in the Peace Corps unless they have been in the Peace Corps, too.
This exhibit, with the artifacts the 23 local former Peace Corps volunteers donated, and photographs from their time in foreign countries is one way they can try to share their stories with other people.
"When you come back," said Pupungatoa, "it's just like people want you to get back into your place...it's fun to share your story."
Dahm said it also gives former Peace Corps volunteers some recognition. The military, said Dahm, receives a lot of recognition, but not the Peace Corps.
"When you're done with your two years," said Dahm, "it's, 'Thank you very much,' and that's it."
Dahm also said there are a lot of people in town who don't realize their friends and neighbors are former Peace Corps volunteers.
What Dahm said she hopes exhibit visitors take away from seeing the exhibit is a better understanding of all the things they take for granted, like clean, running water.
"From an American perspective," said Dahm, "there was so much that we didn't have. You maybe have three or four pieces of clothing to wear and that's all, because if you don't wear something, it gets musty and moldy."
"For me it was such a wonderful experience that I wish everyone would do it," said Pupungatoa, "just to open your eyes and see and not get stuck in your own ways."
The Peace Corps exhibit will be available for viewing until September, and can be viewed during normal library hours.
For more information about the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov