July 23, 2002 - Nashua Telegraph: Remembering the life cut short of Madagascar PCV Nancy Coutu

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Peace Corps Library: Reference: Obituaries: July 23, 2002 - Nashua Telegraph: Remembering the life cut short of Madagascar PCV Nancy Coutu

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Remembering the life cut short of Madagascar PCV Nancy Coutu

Read and comment on this story from the Nashua Telegraph on a book which has been published postumously from the journals of Nancy Coutu. Ms. Coutu was a volunteer who was murdered in the field in 1996. The book was edited by her mother based on the extensive letters and journals which Ms. Coutu kept based on her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar. Read the story at:

Remembering a life cut short*

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Remembering a life cut short

By ANNE LUNDREGAN, Telegraph Staff lundregana@telegraph-nh.com

She wrote of planting vegetables, grinding rice and building a village school.

Nancy Coutu filled pages in her journals and letters to her family with her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar.

She wrote about seeing lemurs and cockroaches, about children in dirty and ripped clothing and about teaching villagers how to sing Christmas songs.

Her mother, Connie, compiled those letters and journal writings for a book, "Souvenirs de Nancy." (Top Shelf Books; $14.95; 367 pages)

Nancy, who grew up in Hudson, was murdered by three men in April 1996 near the remote village of Bereketa, where she was living.

While working in the Peace Corps, Nancy asked her family to save the letters she mailed them. She also sent her mother rolls of film for safekeeping.

Soon after Nancy died at age 29, Connie received about three journals in the mail.

"Her journals were so detailed," she recalled.

Looking at the journals and letters, Connie thought that if her daughter had returned safely she would have wanted to write a book about her experiences.

Instead, Connie, who lived in Florida, became the one in charge of reading all her daughter’s words, editing them and compiling a book.

She began work on the book shortly after Nancy’s death.

"It was really a joy because she was alive to me," Connie said.

The journal entries and letters reflect Nancy’s gregarious nature, her leadership and her get-it-done attitude, Connie said.

But the book doesn’t include everything; Connie did not include some entries that were too personal or were redundant.

It often took two to three weeks for Nancy’s letters to reach home. In addition to writing to her family, she wrote letters to her mother’s classes and to friends.

It was a chore for Nancy to send and receive mail. She had to bicycle 35 miles to a nearby town to pick up her mail, a trip she made almost every two weeks.

Her letters home realistically portrayed the challenges and rewards of being a Peace Corps volunteer and the absolute poverty she encountered, said Connie, who had visited her daughter in Madagascar.

"When I was typing this up, everything was very realistic," she said. "The trip changed me . . . to realized what life is like in a Third World country is an experience no one can get unless they’re there."

Most people in the United States probably cannot imagine living without running water or electricity, Connie said.

"The beauty of the people was everywhere, but so was the poverty," she said.

Nancy entered the Peace Corps after studying wildlife management at the University of New Hampshire. She started school late, at age 22, after working for several years.

For two summers, Nancy worked at Elm Brook Park in West Hopkinton. While there, she started a junior rangers’ program. There is now a memorial at the park to her.

In her application to the Peace Corps, Nancy wrote that she wanted to "dive into a challenging job, one where I can make a difference in the lives of others and that will make a difference in my life."

Initially her mother was against the idea, arguing that there were poor people in the United States who Nancy could help.

"I didn’t want her to go," Connie said.

She told her daughter that she’d be going to a place where she didn’t know how U.S. citizens were accepted and that it may be dangerous.

"She felt she had to go . . . it was a calling," Connie said. "She went with my blessing."

"She really loved helping others and making a difference in their lives, but there many times it was very difficult for her."

While in Bereketa, Nancy helped the villagers grow vegetables for money to be used for a community pharmacy, rebuild the village school and construct a hospital.

There were dangers, however, and Connie feels that the Peace Corps should have done more to protect Nancy and other volunteers.

"I feel that the Peace Corps does not do nearly enough to keep their people protected," she said. "There are Americans who go into help the poor of the world, but they need more protection."

Connie thinks that there should be two volunteers on every site, that volunteers should be taught self-defense and have the capability to communicate with the corp’s main office.

Since Nancy’s death, her family, friends and the people she worked with have sought numerous ways to memorialize her life. She was knighted in Madagascar, a rare honor for a woman. A clinic in Bereketa was dedicated to her, as was as a Peace Corps stamp.

For the people in her village, Nancy’s death was like losing a family member.

"Everyone’s faces were wet with tears," fellow volunteer Joe Schaeffer wrote Connie in a letter. "I want to express somehow what this scene means to the Malagasy. They were treating the situation exactly as they would have had it been someone of the village who had been killed."

Connie hopes that the book helps people understand what it means to the Peace Corps and to learn more about Nancy.

"The book really reflects here," she said. "By the end of the book they get to know her."

Anne Lundregan can be reached at 594-6449.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; RPCVs - Obituaries; Peace Corps - Safety and Security; COS - Madagascar



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