Once in Afghanistan

On February 23, a small group of SEAPAX members had the great pleasure of meeting with RPCVs Rita Hackett of Seattle and Martie Haynes of Spokane, along with the former trainer for their group of PC vaccinators in Afghanistan, Kris Engstrom of Massachusetts. The occasion was a potluck dinner graciously hosted by our own Temma Pistrang. The small group setting gave us a chance for in-depth conversations prior to the film screening the next night. An enjoyable time was had by all, and our guests sent special thanks to SEAPAX for this opportunity.

The Once in Afghanistan documentary, shown at Shoreline Community College on March 24 as part of a series on global issues, was outstanding. It was well-produced and made skillful use of a limited budget in a tasteful way, that conveyed to viewers the essence of this extraordinary experience for the volunteers, then and now, as well as the context in which the program occurred. The audience numbered about 100, including a handful of SEAPAX members and 60’s- era RPCVs, some of whom had also served in Afghanistan.

The film began by offering viewers a glimpse of mainstream American life in the mid-60s, profiles of the prospective PCVs, their training, and then the reality of arriving in Afghanistan, a totally different world for them. They were foreign  to their Afghan counterparts and community vaccination clients , in every sense of the word.  The adaptation of the volunteers and the communities they worked with , was depicted with archival photos and other materials utilized as backdrop to the range of topics explored. The producers conveyed well what life was like at that time and used both interviews and commentary by the same RPCVs today to give perspective on their work as vaccinators. Their host country was depicted respectfully,  even as cultural differences and extremes of cross-cultural adaptation were explored. The range of sensitive topics explored included the routinized domestic violence suffered by many Afghan women.

The final segments on the lives of the RPCVs today, and the lasting impact of their experiences in Peace Corps, were very moving. The volunteers in this program had the satisfaction of knowing that their work was appreciated and really did make a difference in community health and well-being , and led to Afghanis soon replacing PCVs as vaccinators. This film would be an excellent educational resource for teaching not just about world and Peace Corps history, but about the enduring value of people-to-people public health work. In recognition of this PC program, Kris Engstrom has been invited to participate at the WHO’s World Health Assembly this May, for the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox worldwide.

I now have a copy of the film DVD and look forward to sharing it soon at a SEAPAX meeting.

Images courtesy of Dirt Road Documentaries.