Peace Corps culture goes on display at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Laura Kutner’s trash epiphany came at recess with her sixth-grade students in the village of Granados, Guatemala.

She was a Peace Corps volunteer then, in 2008. Granados was hilly, hot and dry, with a serious litter problem. Kutner helped teachers in the area offer business and life skills curriculums.

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She was relaxing with her students, drinking diet soda from a plastic bottle, near two unfinished classrooms. Construction had ceased for lack of funds, leaving metal framing but no walls.

“I realized that the Coke I was drinking was the exact width of [a section of] this metal frame that was just standing there,” recalls Kutner, now 27. “That was my eureka moment.”

Could plastic bottles be fit into the frame instead of cinder blocks to get the project going again? Plastic bottles had been used in construction before, but never quite this way.

After a stirring community effort, and nearly 8,000 bottles later, Granados had its new classrooms. Chicken wire held the stacks of bottles in the frames, then concrete was troweled on to finish the walls. To give the bottles strength, they had to be stuffed with non-organic trash such as plastic and foil. The village and surrounding region were picked clean of litter.

And now, a bottle wall will rise on the Mall as Kutner and her Guatemalan friends — principal Reyna Floridalma and teacher Zonia Garcia — construct a replica during the Peace Corps’ presentation in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival (June 30-July 4, July 7-11).

The Peace Corps might seem an odd choice for the festival. Do federal agencies have cultures? Smithsonian curator James Deutsch said he thinks so, and federal agencies such as NASA and the Forest Service have starred at the festival before.

This is a big anniversary year for the Peace Corps, and the festival program — called “The Peace Corps: Fifty Years of Promoting World Peace and Friendship” — tries to tell a two-part story, Deutsch said. It’s a story about the local cultures where Peace Corps volunteers serve and a story about the shared culture that emerges when Americans form strong bonds with faraway people striving to realize their potential.

Since President John F. Kennedy tapped the enthusiasm of an idealistic and internationally minded generation in 1961 — launching the first three missions that summer to Ghana, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Colombia — more than 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries. Today, 8,655 are working in 77 countries. More than 20 other countries have requested volunteers, but the budget of about $375 million can’t support operations in more countries, Peace Corps Deputy Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said.

The Peace Corps is contributing $895,000 to co-sponsor its portion of the festival. (The festival budget for all three programs is about $5 million, with the Smithsonian contributing about $2.2 million, and the rest coming from Colombia and other partners, festival director Stephen Kidd said.)

Artists, craftsmen, musicians and community leaders from 15 countries will demonstrate their work on the Mall, paired with Peace Corps volunteers who worked with them in some way.

There will be a grape-stomping winemaker from the Republic of Georgia, who got promotional help from a Peace Corps volunteer; Moroccan weavers, who learned product development from a Peace Corps volunteer; dancers of the San people from Botswana, whose community was supported in a resettlement village by a Peace Corps volunteer; northern Kenyan basket weavers, whose baskets for capturing the milk of camels are so beautiful that Peace Corps volunteers helped them conceive of a market in lands where there are no camels.

Rahama Wright was serving in Mali in 2002-04 in a health clinic when she realized that women could not take basic steps to improve their families’ health and nutrition because they lack independent income. She also noted that women in Mali and more than a dozen African countries are key players in the production of shea butter — and that shea butter is a cosmetic hit in developed countries.

Eureka.

After the Peace Corps, Wright continued looking for ways to connect women in Mali, Ghana and other countries with international markets. She formed a nonprofit group called Shea Yeleen International. At the festival, Wright, 31, will be on the Mall with three shea producers from northern Ghana — Braimah Shietu , Rukaya Amidu and Gladys Sala Petey — showing visitors how to make shea butter from the original shea seeds.

“One of the challenges the women have is visibility,” Wright said. “Everywhere you look you see shea butter, but there’s an absence of the women who produce it in Africa. These women are reduced to cheap labor; their contributions are not acknowledged. Now you get to hear the story directly from the women.”

‘You really learn empathy’

Future journalist Maureen Orth and future congressman Sam Farr met boarding an airplane in 1964. They were barely in their 20s, bound for Peace Corps training to serve in Medellin, Colombia, and change the world.

Assigned to different sections of the sprawling city, each helped organize school-building projects. They say those two years ended up shaping who they grew up to be.

“You really learn empathy. You learn to fit in at any level,” Orth said. “You learn to roll, to be flexible. You learn to listen carefully and try to understand from the other person’s point of view.”

One Sunday, five men on horseback galloped up to Orth’s door in a barrio. They were leading a horse for her, the only way to reach a mountain community above Medellin that needed a school. After the school was built, as a surprise, the community named it la Escuela Marina Orth — its name to this day. (The Colombians had trouble pronouncing Maureen, so they called her Marina.)

Since then, Orth has established La Fundacion Marina Orth to create bilingual, high-tech schools in Colombia, where every child learns English and gets a laptop computer.

Farr’s service was tinged with tragedy. His mother died of cancer while he was away. In the aftermath, his father brought the rest of the family to Colombia for a visit with Sam. His teenage sister had a serious riding accident and died after a delay in securing the sophisticated neurosurgical care she needed.

Farr, now a Democrat from California, said he went back to his work in Medellin with a feeling of “hatred. Damn the Third World country, why don’t you have these resources, why don’t you care about poverty?

“Then a light bulb went on. Well, why did you join the Peace Corps in the first place? Wasn’t it to try to solve these things? And what you learned personally is, you’re not immune from the culture of poverty because you are an American citizen. . . . It made me really more dedicated to the Peace Corps.”

He sees part of his responsibility in Congress as continuing to fight the causes of poverty, at home and abroad, he said. A shelf in his office in the Longworth House Office Building is devoted to souvenirs from his time in Colombia.

‘A reunion experience’

Orth and Farr will be among hundreds of former Peace Corps volunteers reuniting on the Mall and telling their stories — the other major component of the Peace Corps festival program.

In the tented Returning Peace Corps Village, time slots will be assigned to all 139 countries so former volunteers can find others who served in the same places. On a Peace Porch discussion stage, volunteers will address subjects such as “being the American” in a remote place and “Peace Corps families” — referring to the phenomenon of Peace Corps parents raising children and sometimes grandchildren who also go on to serve.

The volunteers will once again be the exotic creatures they were in their host countries — only this time their folkways will be on display not for foreigners, but for curious Americans who may wonder what this whole Peace Corps thing is about.

“The Folklife Festival is special in that it brings the public into our reunion experience,” says Hessler-Radelet, who served in Samoa with her husband and whose grandparents, aunt and nephew served in other countries.

July 7 is Peace Corps Colombia day — taking advantage of one of those unplanned synergies that arise every year among participants in the ever-eclectic festival. Having been one of the first three countries to welcome volunteers in 1961, Colombia saw the Peace Corps pull out in 1982 because of rising unrest. Last year, the Peace Corps returned, as security has improved in Colombia.

Orth will screen a new documentary she has produced, called “Hijos de Kennedy” — “Children of Kennedy” — in the Smithsonian’s Baird Auditorium. It’s about Peace Corps volunteers in Colombia.

Farr said he hopes he will be able to help demonstrate how to cook some of his favorite Colombian dishes on the Mall.

Carnival dancers from the Colombian city of Mompox will parade from their temporary home in the Colombian display on the Mall to the Peace Corps display. Then, in a festive procession of friendship and shared culture, they will symbolically escort the volunteers back to the land where lives were changed, both Colombian and American.

 
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