Nina Furstenau found her roots in Tunisia—a small North African country she had never been to before.
“For the first time in my life I kind of looked like the people around me,” said Furstenau, who teaches food and wine writing in CAFNR’s Science and Agricultural Journalism program.
Furstenau grew up in Kansas where her family moved from India when she was two-years-old. She said she being both Indian and American wasn’t that interesting in Kansas, but in Tunisia, it was a different story and one that unfolded in the kitchen.
“It was the first time I was able to share that part of my life in such an enriching way,” Furstenau said. “I learned a lot about Tunisians from what went on in the kitchen with the women and they learned a lot about me in the same way. Because of that connection I had a much deeper experience there than I would have otherwise. It taught me I could come out my shell and show people my own home culture; it also showed me the importance of foods in indigenous recipes and why they’re chosen and why they’re passed on.”
The experience impacted her teaching and informs a food memoir she’ll publish next year about Indian food in a Kansan context. “What I teach is writing and what I write about is culture and where the boundaries of culture meet is often over the dinner table,” she said.
Working within Boundaries
Negotiating and respecting cultural differences is critical for every Peace Corps volunteer, and for Furstenau, that meant respecting gender roles in an Arab-Muslim country in the mid-1980s. She worked with women to create an income-generating rug weaving project with basic reading and math components.
Because women needed a male companion to travel to the town center to earn a weaving certificate that ensured higher payment for their rugs, Furstenau helped create a center where they could earn the certificates nearby, by-pass hard-to-find escorts, and earn more for their wares. The math and reading component helped them keep track of earnings and negotiate pricing. She also collaborated with the women to create the first playground in Tunisia, complete with a camel slide.
After she calculated how many bricks she needed for the center, she met with a contractor over tea and explained that she needed 2,157 bricks. “He looked at me and said, ‘why don’t you go back and ask your husband how many bricks you need and we’ll discuss this.’ I had already learned that to argue was a bad idea because it would reflect poorly on my husband so I said okay and walked the three miles home. The next day I came back and said I do need 2157 bricks, isn’t that funny,” Furstenau said.
Furstenau served with her husband, Terry, who worked with farmers in the countryside to pasture dairy cattle. Next year, she and Terry will host their Peace Corps group from Tunisia on their mid-Missouri farm.
During her service, she was one of only 10 Peace Corps volunteers from around the world selected to participate in the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace Conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
“I got to see women from all over the world working on serious issues of development with sincerity and good will,” she said. “I was 22 years old. It was riveting for me to hear people from all these different backgrounds discuss their opinions openly. I was rather shy at the time so it was a great example for me of how to be in the world.”
In her classroom, Furstenau works to impart the lessons she’s learned about cultural awareness to her students.
“Communication about our agricultural systems and policy, basically anything to do with food is such a critical component of everyone’s life on this planet. If I can bring more awareness for preparing people to write about our food systems in their cultural context that’s what I strive to do.”
Furstenau recently took students in her Wine Country Writing class on a four-day trip to eight Missouri wineries to examine wine culture and learn about the industry from the vine to the glass. Read about their trip here.
This fall Furstenau will release “Savor Missouri: River Hill Country Food and Wine,” published by Missouri Life magazine and Acclaim Publishing. Her culinary memoir, “Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America’s Heartland” will be published by University of Iowa Press in the fall of 2013.
Editor's note: This story is part of a series.
Fifty one years ago a bold experiment was launched. The task: promote global friendship and foster cultural understanding while sharing our greatest assets—our knowledge, skills and ideas—around the world.
The Peace Corps is one of President John F. Kennedy’s most enduring legacies, and like the more than 200,000 Americans who have served overseas in the Peace Corps, eight faculty members in the Division of Applied Social Sciences in the College of Agriculture Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) at MU have shared their time and talents around the world.
“International work is a legacy of U.S. colleges of agriculture and the land grant institutions,” said Jill L. Findeis, Director of the Division of Applied Social Sciences in CAFNR. “The fact that we have so many returned Peace Corps volunteers in this division is amazing. There’s a certain something special about Peace Corps volunteers — a certain set of characteristics that they possess. It’s a huge benefit to our research and educational programs to have returned Peace Corps volunteers in our midst and in colleges of agriculture.”
While these folks served in vastly different areas across five decades they share a common thread: their experiences in the Peace Corps still influence their careers today. Many left their countries of service decades ago, but their countries haven’t left them.
You can see the entire series here.
Did you serve in Peace Corps, too? Contact Mike Burden at firstname.lastname@example.org