“It was 1969. The women were members of an all-female team of Peace Corps volunteers sent to Afghanistan as part of the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate the scourge of smallpox.”
Alumna Kristina ‘Stina’ Engstrom ’56 was recently recognized in the Schlesinger Library’s spring 2012 newsletter when she contributed to the preservation and donation of hundreds of letters, photographs, and diaries collected from her time as a training director for the Peace Corps, preparing female volunteers for service as vaccinators in Afghanistan in the late ‘60s. Their story was recently recounted in the documentary film, Once in Afghanistan (2008).
The Schlesinger Library, a part of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, is the finest collection of resources on the rights of women in America.
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By Kathryn Allamong Jacob
‘It was 1969. The women were members of an all-female team of Peace Corps volunteers sent to Afghanistan as part of the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate the scourge of smallpox. They would struggle with the challenges of vaccinating in high mountains and vast deserts, where many of the Afghan women and girls could not be seen, much less vaccinated, by men outside their families. The Peace Corps women joined teams of male Afghan vaccinators stationed in the Hindu Kush mountains north of Kabul and in the southern part of the country, traveling by Jeep and on foot, going house to house, village by village. “We walked in on weddings, on funerals . . . whatever was going on, and vaccinated everyone,” one of them said.”’
‘Years later, after a group reunion, one of the former volunteers, Jill Vickers, set out to make a documentary about their experiences. The result was a film, Once in Afghanistan (2008), and a wealth of material—letters home, photographs, and diaries— that the women had collected to help her tell their story.’
‘Manela put us in touch with Kristina Engstrom, the training director for the Afghanistan project, who recognized the historical value of the material the women had gathered and was taking the lead in finding it a suitable home. Several libraries were in the running.
Engstrom, Vickers, and other former Peace Corps volunteers visited the library in February 2011 and listened carefully to our descriptions of who we are, what we do, and why. That their saved material—the tangible, personal record of their part in this worldwide effort—would find a good home at the Schlesinger and good company among our dozens of collections documenting women’s activism in the United States and abroad over a century and a half was compelling to them.
We were as moved by what these women had done as they were by what we do, which is to keep stories like theirs and their part in the long history of women’s work for peace, justice, and human rights alive and available to researchers, who will fit it into the puzzle of their scholarship.’
Copyright © 2012 President and Fellows of Harvard College