As published by National Public Radio on Aug. 26, 2010.
Since President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps nearly half a century ago, more than 200,000 Americans have served in 140 countries.
Until fairly recently, joining the Peace Corps usually meant living in a remote location and leaving behind your family, friends and way of life. But improved technology is changing how volunteers serve — and how they keep in touch with home.
In the early 1980s, Gordy Mengel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in an isolated community in what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I was placed somewhere in the middle part of the country. And in the small community where I lived there was no post office, so getting letters out, which was basically the only means of communication, was very challenging,” Mengel says of his life in Africa then.
Letters would take weeks, sometimes months to arrive.
Now Mengel is a Peace Corps training officer in Rwanda. He says improved electronic communication has changed the Peace Corps experience. He says that when he served as a volunteer in the ’80s, he lost track of friends and relationships back home. He had no choice but to integrate into the community.
“These days, with the advent of the Internet and cell phone service and so forth, I still see volunteers having some of that experience. But again, when they go back to their homes, instead of turning out the kerosene light and going to bed, they can get on Skype and they give a quick call to Mom and Dad back at home. And that part of the experience has changed,” he says.
Volunteer Work By Day, On The Web By Night
Sonia Morhange is one of about 100 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in Rwanda. The San Diego native works at an organization in Kigali called Never Again Rwanda, organizing plays about the country’s 1994 genocide that left 800,000 dead.
She talks on the phone with her mother, e-mails her father and uses Skype to keep in touch with friends. She hasn’t mailed a single letter through the postal system and can’t imagine waiting months for one to arrive.
“I can’t imagine having been a Peace Corps volunteer in the ’70s or the ’80s or even the early ’90s. I’m just so used to everyone having a cell phone that works internationally. I’m very, very lucky in the fact that where I live I have wireless Internet and that makes it a lot easier,” Morhange says.
This month, her parents are visiting her in Rwanda. Her mother, Beverly, says she is proud her daughter joined the Peace Corps. At the same time, she says, because Sonia is so far away, she worries about her health and safety — “the kinds of things a mother thinks about.”
But Beverly has been able to keep tabs on her daughter.
“Oh yes, we talk every weekend, pretty much. And I’m also there if she needs me. Anytime she can call me,” she says.
For 24-year-old Sonia, it’s nice to know that her friends and family are always just a phone call or a few clicks away.
“The Peace Corps is full of ups and downs, and you’re thrown into an environment that you’re not familiar with. You’re out of your element. No matter what, you’re going to have breakdowns and moments where you need help and you need support,” she says.
Unexpected Consequence For Staff
The Peace Corps’ Rwanda country director, John Reddy, served as a volunteer in 1967 in the tiny landlocked African nation of Lesotho. He says the added connectivity has provided volunteers with a support system that wasn’t available in the early days of the Peace Corps.
It is helpful for the volunteers, but not always for the Peace Corps staff.
“If a volunteer is telling their family they’re having a bad day or a bad week, and then the family member calls Peace Corps Washington and Peace Corps Washington calls me … I have to find the volunteer and see what the problem was,” he says.
Reddy has spent nearly a quarter of a century working for the Peace Corps in Africa. He says before the Internet, Peace Corps staffers had more independence.
“Personally, I think there’s a lot more micromanagement from Washington than there used to be,” he says. “I sort of long for the days before the Internet and good phone service.”