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Homage to Dignity

Nancie Gunkelman
Kenya 1970–1973

When asked to help, I did so, free of charge.  I was pleased that my skills were of use, and, more importantly, valued.  My ‘reward’ was the terrific learning experience. 

Faculty members asked me to produce pen and ink illustrations for numerous topics. I made classroom posters and study guides for students.  Most requests were related to the study of anatomy. I cannot say with certainty, but I had the impression that dissecting cadavers was culturally taboo.

Sometimes I would receive requests for illustrations from outside organizations and scientists. When asked to help, I did so, free of charge.  I was pleased that my skills were of use, and, more importantly, valued.  My ‘reward’ was the terrific learning experience.  I produced a stipple pen-and-ink drawing of a skull fragment for the famed paleoanthropologist and archaeologist Louis Leakey. I designed a self-standing exhibit for a family planning seminar and worked with a carpenter to construct a portable version.

Like most volunteers, I traveled every chance I could, enjoying the diverse scenery, wildlife, and people of Kenya. It was an artist’s dream. There were colorful tea and coffee plantations, jagged snow-covered peaks on Mt. Kenya, the Indian Ocean with white-sand beaches and old-time sailing dhows, arid plateaus with herds of elephant, antelope, buffalo, giraffe, rhino, and zebra. I loved the Rift Valley with Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Nakuru with its clouds of pink flamingoes, Lake Kisumu, a source of the Nile with its hippos, huge crocodiles, and meaty Nile perch. I took photos; I sketched; I did watercolor paintings. I collected memories that would last a lifetime.

As an artist, I found the nomadic Masai and their traditional culture intriguing. I traded my own handmade necklaces for decorative gourds and adornments. Their designs celebrated asymmetry and random color patterns, with red as the dominant color. To my eye, this was visually exciting. I often translated these images into oil and watercolor paintings. I also painted many non-traditional, ‘ordinary’ people, involved in everyday tasks, such as cooking, shelling peanuts, washing clothes, collecting firewood, and carrying water. One of my favorites is an ironmonger who forged metal from old tin cans, and re-purposed it into roofing tile, lanterns, and farm equipment.

I would like to think my paintings pay homage to the dignity and humanity of the people I met. I hope they will inspire people to consider the joys and challenges of international service. The memories of my Peace Corps service bring me joy even today. Both my husband and son served in the Peace Corps.

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