Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Peace Corps Connect and Island Nations

Peace Corps Connections  

Clem and I were in Denver Colorado for “Peace Corps Connect,” the annual 2-day gathering of returned Peace Corps volunteers and friends.

Friends of Nigeria logo on our website

Friends of Nigeria logo 

The day before, Friday, Friends of Nigeria held its own meeting.

Friends of Nigeria

I was one of the founders of Friends of Nigeria, the association for former Peace Corps volunteers in the country. Peter Hansen, my co-founder, and I agreed on the year 1996, when we decided to organize. But we didn’t agree on the location of that conference!

He has remained on the board and been key to keeping it strong for 21 years! Now he is newsletter editor!

Star beer is very popular in Nigeria and with Friends of Nigeria

Star beer is very popular in Nigeria and with Friends of Nigeria

No one else from my Nigeria IV training group was present. But I’ve seen many of the attendees over the years at conferences. We heard speakers, shared lots of stories, and made new friends.

On Friday evening we had our usual Nigerian dinner, including Star beer, an essential accompaniment to the meal.

Peace Corps Connect – the Conference

Two island nations captured my imagination on the Saturday and Sunday of Peace Corps Connect.

Kiribati and Tonga are numbers 192 and 193 in the CIA’s “World Factbook” list by population, Kiribati with 106,925 and Tonga with 106,513 (2016 estimates). Both have deep Peace Corps connections.

They are 2000 miles apart, with Tonga south and Kiribati north of American Samoa in the Pacific.

Harris Wofford Award Winner from Tonga

The National Peace Corps Association presents awards at the annual conference.

“The Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award honors an outstanding global leader who grew up in a country where Peace Corps Volunteers served, whose life was influenced by the Peace Corps, and whose career contributed significantly to their nation and the world . . .” the NPCA says.

“It is the highest honor bestowed upon a global leader by the NPCA.”

This year it was given to Siotame Drew Havea of Tonga. The Tonga Ambassador Mahe Tupouniua presented the award to him. They are both in the picture.

Here’s what the NPCA said about this year’s winner:

Harris Wofford Global Citizen award winner Havea of Tonga

Harris Wofford Global Citizen award winner Havea of Tonga

“For Havea, the Peace Corps connection is a lifelong one. His father, a ministry of education officer, was instrumental in Peace Corps coming to Tonga in 1967, when Havea started junior high school. At that time there were five Peace Corps volunteers teaching at his school.

“After attending college and graduate school in the United States, the opportunity arose for Havea to become Peace Corps staff in Tonga. He was an Associate Peace Corps Director (APCD) for twenty years, from 1985-2005.

“His whole approach on life and development was vastly influenced by his experience with the Peace Corps. He gained an appreciation of community-based development after seeing how countless volunteers immersed themselves in their communities. He also credits Peace Corps Volunteers with instilling in him a sense of idealism as well as showing him the importance of equality, gender sensitivity, and volunteerism.”

Havea wore an open-necked shirt and sports jacket over a traditional black lavalava, like a skirt, and the traditional short raffia wrapper around his waist.

In his acceptance speech Havea said, “There is no direct translation for Peace Corps in our language. We say “Workers of Love.’ ”

He related an early experience in the U.S. when he freely took drinks from another student’s supply. “Three months later I learned that I should have asked,” he said. “But I came from a culture where all material things are shared.”

I was deeply moved by the presentation. Tonga is small, and for the world economy, insignificant. But for Havea and his people it is as significant as any other place on earth. They love their island home, their customs, and the sense of community. Peace Corps volunteers who served there love it too.

I remember the same feeling last year about the award winner who was from Mali. His speech, like this year’s, conveyed appreciation for what Peace Corps had given him. It made me glad to be part of this organization. Both speakers also showed the value of a community-oriented society.

The culture of sharing and the traditions, focused on community and not the individual, have similarities to Igbo customs, the subject of my second book.

Kiribati – A Nation in Danger

Children from Tarawa, one of Kiribati's islands

Children from Tarawa, one of Kiribati’s islands

I had heard the name Kiribati and knew it was threatened, but nothing else.

On Sunday morning of Peace Corps Connect, I went to “Peace Corps Storytelling: A Spoken Word Workshop.” I sat next to Michael Roman, a Peace Corps volunteer in Kiribati. I learned the pronunciation – Kir-ee-bahs – from him.

I learned a few details from the World Atlas online: “The widely scattered nation of Kiribati . . . in the Pacific Ocean along the edges of the Equator, includes the Gilbert, Phoenix and Line island groups. Most are uninhabited.

“These low-lying coral atolls, (33 in all) are the protruding tips of undersea volcanoes, and extend only a few feet above sea level.”

From Michael I learned that Kiribati faces devastation within a few years. What will happen to the people? He had no answer.

He and others have formed an organization with a Facebook page, HumansofKiribati. They are on Instagram, HumansofKiribati.

Mark reminded us of the fun we had at the conference in New Orleans

Mark reminded us of the fun we had at the conference in New Orleans years ago.

Remembering a Past Conference

We ran into Mark at the exhibition.

“Do you remember New Orleans?” he said.

“Clem and I walked ahead and made you walk behind, as women should! We were practicing traditional customs!”


Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. Even though you shared some of these experiences with me, I enjoyed reading about them. The Peace Corps is truly a special influence on the lives of its members and their impact on others. Thanks to all.