Reflecting on My Peace Corps Experience through Letters
By Patricia Raynor, Loan Coordinator at the Postal Museum and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer
It used to be that joining the Peace Corps meant serving in a foreign country for two years and saying goodbye to frequent communication with friends and family. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Niger during the late 1970s, letters were the only means of communication to and from home—something that I recall frequently in my work at the Postal Museum. Today’s volunteers often enjoy much more frequent communication via text messages, phone calls, e-mail and more.
During my two years as a volunteer (1977-79), I served in both the capital (Niamey) and a small town (Tillabery), teaching English as a foreign language to secondary and college students. I eagerly looked forward to the letters from home, which often took several weeks to arrive. In Tillabery, during my second year of service, the Post Office brought me my only source of world events: the Time magazine sent to all volunteers. Because mail was sporadic, I was probably one of the last people to learn of Elvis’ death in 1977! I would pick up my mail at the local post office each week and hope that there was a letter, package—or if I was lucky—the Time magazine.
I rarely write letters today, but I’m so glad that my parents saved all of my letters written to them during my Peace Corps years. I now have the pleasure of experiencing long forgotten details of the most memorable years of my life.
One of the common themes of those letters was about the importance of receiving letters and packages from home. My letters often took my writing process as their subject. Nothing brings me closer to those years than reading the following excerpts from a 1978 letter:
October 15th (1978) 9:00 pm (Tillabery, Niger)
Dear Mom and Dad,
There’s a full moon tonight so I’m actually able to sit outside comfortably and write without the aid of a lantern... Consider yourself lucky to get so many letters. But it’s the only thing I can do at night.
Apparently reading and grading papers was very difficult with only the illumination of a kerosene lantern.
October 18th [in the same envelope]
I was feeling pretty low this morning but I received your package and it lifted my spirits.
Receiving letters or packages from home really was the highlight of my day.
As an inaugural staff member of the National Postal Museum, I have long been aware of the importance of letter writing. After reading how electronic communication has altered today’s Peace Corps experience, I feel that I’m very fortunate to have written and received so many letters during my years of service. Actually putting “pen to paper” is a very reflective experience. While I was writing about teaching, the adventures of travel, and the people I met, I was thinking of how and why that experience was so meaningful. I’m not sure if I would have had that same experience in tapping out a text message or e-mail.
As we are fast approaching the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011, my fellow Postal Museum RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) and I look forward to celebrating this important milestone with past, present, and future volunteers. We send our best wishes to all of you.
About the Author
Patricia Raynor: "I have worked at the Smithsonian Institution since 1990 and served as the collections coordinator for the National Postal Museum's inaugural exhibitions. I am now the museum's loan coordinator and liaison for the Smithsonian Affiliation's Program. My activities include memberships in the Smithsonian's American Indian Employee Network and Loans Forum, as well as the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums in which I served on its Registrars and Program Committees."