Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the globe continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around the world! This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Kyrgyzstan.
Rebekah Turnmire – Age 24
Where are you from?
I’m from Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.
What country and program do you serve in?
I am currently serving in the Naryn region of Kyrgyzstan as a secondary TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer. As a TEFL our country’s program goals are to increase the number of qualified English teachers, English language fluency for students, skills transfer and development, and parent involvement in schools through PTA like organizations. As for my own goals as a TEFL volunteer, I work with four female counterparts (local English teachers in my village) on the English language skills, lesson planning, new teaching methods, and how to incorporate technology in the classroom. While I teach students in grades 3rd-9th 20 or so hours a week and host informal English clubs, my primary goal is capacity building with my counterparts and creating an environment of critical thinking, leadership, and openness. My school is fortunate enough to have the rare *functioning* technology of three interactive whiteboards, a computer lab, and three rooms with projectors and computers. I am the second volunteer in my village and as such it took some time for me to find where my impact could be in response to my colleagues needs. This technology offered such an avenue.
In Kyrgyzstan, especially in villages, the majority of people, teachers, administrators, and students do not know how to properly use a computer much less an interactive whiteboard. As an American, we take for granted these skills, discount them as something EVERYONE intrinsically knows. Here, these skills are in the early stages of value for Kyrgyz people who live in villages. Remember when it was a positive resume additive to write that you could use Power Point? That’s where many people are at. Hardly anyone has a personal computer and internet is more easily accessed by telephone. Simply having grown up being required to use a computer, I had a valuable skill I am able to transfer to those I work with. My colleagues are learning how to properly use Power Point, the internet, write lesson plans on the computer, and the previously unused interactive whiteboards are finally getting some love. Even better, they’re actually trying to incorporate the new technology into lessons as a way to engage more students!
What is your housing like? What amenities do/n’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges in your lifestyle?
To understand my lifestyle in Kyrgyzstan you have to understand the geography. Kyrygzstan is a country surrounded by mountains. We are nestled in the Tien Shan mountains, which range between Kyrgyzstan and China. No matter where you are in KG you WILL see mountains. My region, or oblast, is Naryn which translated means narrow place. Every village, as well as Naryn city, has sprung up in the little valleys that exist between the folds of the mountains. The winter here is LONG, lasting a good part of the year, and COLD. We’re talking -40, don’t want to leave your house, seven layers of clothes cold. PCVs here hold the Stark words to be true, Winter is Coming. Always. In the summer though it stays pretty balmy but because of the high, dry altitude summer can be brutal on your skin (which is why the families who live in jailoo–the summer pastures, have cheeks the color of ripe tomatoes year round.)
I live with a rather large host family that is quite young. My host parents are in their early thirties, with four children and one due to arrive in late May. My host dad’s mother also lives with us. I technically live in a compound like room in the “big” house (old house) with a petchka (coal burning stove) and electricity. My room adjoins the guesting room where we host guests and celebrate holidays. My host family lives in the “little” house (new house), where I spend a good amount of my time with them. Their house is four rooms–my host parents’ bedroom, the kitchen/chai room, the entrance room, and the tv/children’s/Apa’s (grandmother’s) room. I’m lucky, my host family has running water in the house (yay for not hauling water from the pump!), a new stove/oven (one of two in the whole village), a microwave, and a front loader washing machine! Talk about winning the Peace Corps lottery! Like every other Kyrgyz family we have the outside kitchen that we use most of the year with kazans (large metal wok like things that are heated by trash and poop bricks.) Last summer we finished building our very own banya (a separate structure where Kyrgyz people bathe, think public sauna where everybody gets naked and hard core scrubs the skin off about once a week in the summer and *maybe* once a month in the winter). We also have a very nice outhouse that’s beautifully deep, dark, and free of visible frozen poop towers in the winter! I don’t have a shower but I don’t mind; I could write love poems to banyas. I can’t say much for the electricity. Depending on the season, the day, the week, it can be touch and go. The common rule of thumb is, if you haven’t blown out, melted or shorted out at least two power strips or outlets, you are a wizard whom I would like to meet.
The biggest challenges for me don’t come from a lack of “amenities” or consistent hot water. Walking 30 minutes to school doesn’t bother me. For volunteers in Kyrgyzstan, especially in Naryn, availability of cheap, fresh produce can be tough, especially in the winter. By and large, from my own experiences and talking with my friends, the diet here is the toughest everyday challenges we consistently have that’s not related to work. A traditional Kyrgyz diet consists of four main food groups: bread and grains, but mainly bread; potatoes; chai; and meat, lots and lots of meat (mainly sheep.) I’m not a picky eater. I’m from the south, bread, potatoes, and meat sound like the fixin’s for a great meal but when you eat this for every meal with little green vegetables or fruit (this especially applies to those of us who eat with host families) it can get old and affect your health. Part of the reason for a lack of green vegetables is that they can get REALLY expensive for the majority of the year if you don’t live near Bishkek, Osh or Issykul (some of our main hubs.) The land here is a lot like Idaho (or so I’m told by my Idahoian expert) thus fantastic for potatoes. In the summer and fall my host mom and I mix it up. Instead of shorpo (basically broth with all parts of boiled sheep, potatoes, and camer (rolled out pasta)) or plov (basically rice with all manner of boiled sheep meat and innards, we make oramo (a stemmed dough dish with shredded potatoes, carrots, onions, and sheep fat), mante (think Chinese dumplings with potatoes and sheep fat), or demdama (a cabbage dish with sheep meat, and potatoes.) As we’re just coming out of winter here and produce is still expensive, my family is still eating shorpo or potatoes and sheep meat for dinner every night.
What are the Kyrgyz people like?
In the states not many people know where Kyrgyzstan is. They often lump it in with “all the other stans!” It’s not. We’re located in Central Asia bordering China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan to the south, and Kazakstan to the north. A former satellite of the USSR, Kyrgyzstan has been a Republic since 1991/92. In Naryn, all of my neighbors are ethnically Kyrgyz whereas in other parts of the country, other volunteers encounter Russian, Turkish, Uzbek, and various other ethnicities. All of my neighbors speak Kyrgyz. Here in Naryn, the most sparsely populated and poorest region in Kyrgyzstan, many people are farmers of some sort and/or work odd jobs. It’s all about subsistence.
My neighbors, like my host family, care for livestock and grow what food they can/need as their primary work. As most of the men in my village are not consistently employed, they do odd jobs, helping friends build things, field work, and/or driving taxis to and from the oblast center. Many of the women are employed in some way by the school. The majority of my friends and older female neighbors work as teachers there. We also have a “hospital” (more closely resembling a health clinic/family practice) that caters mostly to expectant mothers and children.
Alcoholism is a prominent problem among men in Kyrgyzstan, especially in winter when there is literally no farm work to be had. That being said, my neighbors are all kind and welcoming of me. I stop and chat with them on the street, have guested at most of their houses, and teach their children. I have found the Kyrgyz people in my region to be the nicest and most welcoming (please keep in mind that I’m speaking from my sphere of experience and I’m sure volunteers in different regions would tell you the same thing of their region.) They are eager to share their customs and lives, especially once they find out I speak the local language and not Russian. I can’t count the amount of times I have been invited to someone’s house for the sole purpose of “showing the American” the way such and such holiday is celebrated, which occur more often than not. While my neighbors are all Muslim, the majority of them do not strictly adhere or attend prayer at the Mosque. It greatly differs family to family.
As anyone who has studied or lived in an Agrarian based society will know, day-to-day life revolves around planting seasons, livestock, and weather. Furthermore, Kyrgyz people have their own time. In America we schedule ourselves to death. Five minutes late for school, a travesty! Stuck in traffic, pissed off for the rest of the day! Invited over for dinner, better believe we’ll get there on time, at the latest MAYBE fifteen minutes late depending on decorum. This neurosis over time management and punctuality that is so intrinsic to American life is nonexistent here. You’re invited to guest at someone’s house or are having guests, expect people to start arriving *maybe* an hour after the time they were told to arrive. My host family now asks, every time we host guests, what time I think people will show up. I always answer an hour or two later. When everyone arrives they tell the guests, what time I said they would show up then ask me what time Americans would have shown up. The lax approach to appointments rings true across the board. There are times when a counterpart just won’t show up for work or will leave class for five minutes and show back up thirty minutes later. If we have an event at school that starts at 6:00pm, it will not start until at least 7. Even though we were told this from the beginning and I have since adapted to the laid back-ness of village life, the American compulsion to be on time and prepared has yet to be completely eradicated from my DNA, much to the amusement of my neighbors.
A glaring difference between my lifestyle and those I live with is the ingrained patriarchy of society here. When people say women run the world, they speak the truth. Men only assume to rule it. Here women are more often than not at the mercy of societal and cultural norms. Especially in villages you are expected to have children, cook, clean, serve food, milk the cows, help neighbors cook and clean if they call, and still work if you have another job. The sad truth here is that, though it is illegal, many women are still bride kidnapped by men they’ve never met. Men and sons don’t offer to cook or help cook even when there are large celebrations. When my host mom leaves, we eat bread and chai until she gets back unless I cook because I am the next oldest woman. In the states, if someone thrust a cup or plate at me and demanded chai or food I would have told them to get it themselves, that they’re an adult to act like one. Here, such a comment would be beyond disrespectful. Furthermore, if you do not produce at least one son it’s often viewed as a reflection of the woman’s inequity.
Thankfully mindsets such as these are slowly changing, women are empowering themselves slowly but surely, bit by bit. After living in such a culture, I will NEVER take my freedom as a woman for granted again.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has Peace Corps service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
On Saturday, April 25, I will have officially been in Kyrgyzstan for one year. June 19th, a year of my actual service will be over. I have 15 months left in country. Which, as I’m sure any volunteer will tell you, is mind-bogoling. Our newest set of volunteers arrives Saturday to begin this weird and awesome journey and I can’t be more excited for them. Your first year flies and crawls by at the same time. To define what’s been the most rewarding parts I have to account for the greatest challenges as, for me, they’ve gone hand in hand. Furthermore, it’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t lived abroad in a country where you don’t fluently speak the language that the day to day successes often become the most rewarding memories. Like, showing my host dad that I could, in fact, pitch hay and hike a mountain. Or finally rolling the dough out to the perfect, Apa approved thickness. Holding an actual, deep conversation with a friends host family and realizing how far my language has come. My two year old host sister speaking more English than Kyrgyz at the dinner table and running to me when her older siblings have done something she doesn’t like instead of just hiding behind her mom. After countless hours of arguing, re-teaching, frustration, and wanting to give up, seeing my counterpart give a solo training on interactive whiteboards to twenty teachers from around our region. My third grade class lining up quietly outside the door waiting for me to let them in the classroom (trust me, this is huge! Usually students enter in a stampede whether or not there is another class in the room.)
The challenges of learning, using, and understanding the local language, even a year in, can be frustrating. My counterpart leaving class for one reason or another to teach by myself or just not showing up for planning has been a daily challenge. As a woman in this country, being questioned by every person I meet as to why I’m not married with children at my age (a whopping 24); being told that because I’m not married that I will be bride kidnapped or should marry so and so’s son, joking or not, has probably been the greatest stand out challenge for me. It’s hard to be a woman in this country, it gets tiring deflecting unwanted attention or answering the same five questions about my marriage status to the same old man on the street. Or when you try to explain to men, students, even women, that in America, women aren’t required to serve tea and that my purpose here is not to be the new kaolin (daughter-in-law) and they just say, “yes, but you live here now.” Changing perceptions and expectations of women have to be done through example and that can be difficult when the culture you are trying to integrate into continually tells you that if you don’t wear panty hose year round or wear shorts as a woman then you are shameful.
It’s these challenges that have made me a better volunteer, a being more self-aware and confident in who I am, and, above all else, more observant, sensitive and thoughtful in how I act and present myself. What did I expect of PC service? Everything and nothing at all. Have my expectations been met/surpassed/trampled on? All of the above. I was told not to have expectations from a RPCV, but as a human I am prone to them try as I might. Each day is different with things that make me want to laugh, cry, crawl in a hole, or have a musical number and film dedicated to my service. Trust me when I say that the smallest thing can turn your whole perception of service around and this changes day to day, even if it is just a funny looking chicken that you happened to walk past.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
I joined the Peace Corps for a myriad of reasons. I had been thinking about it for a long time, a life goal, per-say. I wasn’t ready to go to grad school and wanted to travel while still doing something worthwhile. A big reason though was because I had become comfortable. I had a professor in college who, when talking to her about my future in academia and life, suggested that I take a gap year between undergrad and grad school to discover life. Too often, she said, we become so used to life as is that we forget that it’s the things that are difficult and different that push us to grow. Our discussion turned slightly philosophical, as such things are wont to do, fleshing out options. She said to become a better historian, to become the more rounded person I so longed to be that I should experience and observe a culture 180 degrees different from the privileged one we enjoy in the states. That coupled with many discussions with my dad and one moving speech by the Dahli Lama, I knew I had to do something that would push me out of that comfortable pattern I had built for myself. What better way than the Peace Corps?
A year in, I think these reasons still apply just as I think I have discovered new reasons. I can confidently say that I have most certainly been pushed out of the monotonous pattern life had taken and has renewed in me a sense of wander at the world and its diversity.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
People who say the Peace Corps is outdated or no longer worth funding/support of the U.S. Government or the investment of one’s time, are crazy. Do we have quantifiable results as soon as our service is over? Are we just a bunch of liberal college kids with no direction? Absolutely not. Our service and effectiveness is not and should not be defined or criticized based strictly on numbers of things built or invested in. We are grassroots. We are human to human.
We give face to a variety of ideas, people, and opportunities that may not before have been considered. The impact PCV’s have often isn’t seen for years but it is there. It’s in the kid who grows up to be a diplomat or an English teacher. Who, because of having worked with, met, lived with or was taught by a volunteer, sees an opportunity to better their own lives, their government, their country. The Peace Corps is an opportunity for Americans to invest their time and come out with a better understanding of the people and world around them. To change the way people stateside view an issue. To put a face and personality to a group of people that are stereotyped and vice versa. Serving with the Peace Corps has convinced me that no matter what type of service you do, EVERY person should serve in some way–the military isn’t the only way you can serve your country.
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps or getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Be willing to go anywhere, do and eat anything, and ALWAYS keep your sense of humor. Without it, life will be bleak. The new system allows people to choose a place to serve. I strongly encourage people who are thinking of applying to leave it open. If I had been able to choose it wouldn’t have been here and I would have missed out on meeting and experiencing people and a culture that the world so often forgets but should absolutely remember. If you read this and you are getting ready for staging or are starting PST, know your limits, keep your humor, and try your very best to embrace the various functions of your body in all their grossness.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
The plan for post-Peace Corps at the moment is to go to grad school and get my PhD in history. If grad school falls through for that initial return, I’m considering applying for Teach for America.
Traveling immediately after is definitely on the agenda. But who knows, I have a whole year left and a lot can happen in that time.
People who enjoy skiing, trekking, yurts, nomadic traditions, or just want to visit a beautiful country should definitely come to Kyrgyzstan. Also you should check out some awesome volunteers in Kyrgyzstan talking about how they learn language: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YP64BukSkE&feature=youtu.be So come visit. We’ll drink kymyz (fermented mare’s milk), dance to a traditional dance, and sing! Also if anyone reading this IS interested in serving with Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan, feel free to look me up and contact me directly!
You can read more about Rebekah and Kyrgyzstan at Rebekah’s blog!