What do you mean when you encounter people you can’t help?

Dear glamorous-fervour,

Yes. All of the above, though I think where it hits me most is the area of justice. For the sake of all my Kyrgyzstani friends, my point isn’t to knock Kyrgyzstan. There are problems in America too, just as in every country. But right now this is my home and I care a lot about it and so I want to speak some truth to help make my little contribution to the momentum of change.

There is a lot of corruption here, and I encounter a lot of situations where things “aren’t fair” for people, whether that is being blackmailed by police officers, or students not being given a fair shot at getting into university, or women who are bride-napped being overlooked by the judicial system. There are problems that are in dire need of being addressed, but I can’t get directly involved in most cases.

For example, as volunteers we are highly discouraged by Peace Corps from getting directly involved in say a bride-napping while it’s taking place for a couple of reasons: 1) It could be personally dangerous and PC is liable (and they just don’t want us to get hurt) 2) We as PCVs don’t understand all the cultural nuances and what we say or do could potentially make things worse.

This makes me feel pretty helpless and awful when stuff like this happens when I can’t directly do something about it, and it applies to things that happen at school or with friends in general too.

That doesn’t mean we as volunteers can’t do anything. I can give trainings about how to get along with people and show ways boys and girls can healthily interact. I can direct people towards the services that can help them. I can volunteer with an NGO that helps women who have been kidnapped or abused. I can love my host siblings and engage in conversations about these issues that face them and have discussions about what can be done within the cultural and legal context.

I have huge respect for volunteers and local workers who fight for justice through their work here, day in and day out. It can be pretty upsetting and gut-wrenching to serve with a tender heart, but, “Having a soft heart in a cruel world is courage, not weakness.” (As Katherine Henson said, I believe.)

I also have my own limits of giving though, and sometimes I get overwhelmed. When it comes to this point I really need to step back, put into perspective my options, and learn to take better care of myself so I can be in better position to help others. It’s one of my constant inner struggles: wanting to help, trying to help, balancing that against my selfishness and then trying to figure out where that line is between selfishness and need to take care of myself.

Are you thinking about volunteering with Peace Corps? What are your thoughts on trying to help those in need when you know you can’t do everything?

Thanks for the note!


Change is complicated

There are many things in Kyrgyzstan that need to change. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. We are invited to be here by the government because of what we can offer in making the country a little better place. Where I’m stuck, however, is in what that definition of “little” means.

Along my search, let me share an anecdote as example:

Take the English teacher who is inflating grades or changing scores on his students’ tests to make him look better. It would seem at first glance that this is a very morally corrupt man and he has issues that need to be righted. Cut and dry. After all, he’s hurting his students’ motivation to study. When they know it doesn’t matter what scores they get on the test because they will pass regardless, most students lose interest in exerting any kind of effort.

So you approach the teacher and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he is detrimentally affecting his students’ futures. You’re going to make your mark: he’s going to change. But you’re not ready for his answer. He tells you he would love to grade fairly, and it makes him angry to inflate the grades, but if he doesn’t he will 1. Get yelled at by the parents of his students and he has to live next door to some of them 2. The parents will complain to the director that he is a bad teacher and the director will take the parents’ side and 3. The director will himself give him a hard time and possibly even fire him if he doesn’t report good grades.

So you feel sorry for him and your incensed rage and moral compass guide you to the next level. You approach the director and tell him what he’s doing is wrong and that he needs to support his teachers in a united front against all that opposes the forward progress of knowledge. But you’re floored by his response when he tells you that he can’t let anyone in the school fail because if he does the superintendent will yell at him and he could possibly get fired and then how would he feed his family? Not to mention all the teachers who are older than him who would call the superintendent themselves to make up lies about him if he tried to tell them how to run their classrooms.

So you realize the problem lies with the school district. You march right up to the superintendent’s office and you demand a meeting. You tell him directly that he can’t force all schools to allow every student to pass because this is hurting the quality of education and is greatly affecting attendance at your school, especially among upperclassmen. He needs to do the right thing. But once again your righteous indignation is turned on its head—he tells you that if there are any failures in his district he will look really bad compared to all the other districts who are just passing kids through and then someone from the ministry of education will come down, chew him out and put someone else in charge who will take orders.

At this point you’re wondering how far up the ladder you need to go. There are so many obstacles at every level that getting a teacher to grade fairly might require an official decree from the president of the country and enforcement by the executive branch.

Other countries have succeeded in doing this, including the former Soviet Republic, Georgia. The Rose Revolution in 2003 saw massive sweeping changes executed by strong leadership that led to a significant rise in quality of life for everyday Georgians. Corruption wasn’t tolerated on any level and within a matter of a couple years, citizens were enjoying higher salaries, a competent and helpful police force, and fair chances for more people to get a higher education. It took strong, unified leaders with an unwavering sight on their vision to turn things around.

But this is really, really hard to do. It requires a perfect storm of people with the same vision all falling into place at once. Unfortunately for our hapless English teacher, if he tries to stand up and do the right thing on his own he will be quickly swallowed up in a system outside of his—and any other individual’s—control.

I wish I as an individual could change the whole country—stand up and give that rising speech—and suddenly everything would turn on its corrupted heels and march towards fairness and justice. I care about this country and the direction it’s headed because I live here—Kyrgyzstan is my home—and what happens affects my students and my host families and my friends. They’re the victims of these broken systems. Yet a strange fact remains: the same people who are the victims are the ones who are responsible; they’re all so interconnected it’s like a knotted ball where if you pull on just one loose end, the whole thing only becomes more tightly tangled.

Where do we, as Peace Corps Volunteers, fit with trying to help untangle the knot? If we stand up and say something it could be our job as well that’s pulled out from under us to be replaced with a plane ticket back home. Or we could just be noise that’s dissipated by local winds less sympathetic to a foreign voice. Or we could offend our friends with harsh words when our only intent was to help.

So do we just try and do the “little” things? Keep our heads down, teach our classes, give our trainings, lead our camps and hope that something somewhere rubs off on the right people who will stand up and be that change? Are those little things actually the big things that will someday tip the scales?

It’s something I don’t have an answer to. I wish I could be more directly involved. Maybe it’s my job to inspire the voices rather than be the voice. Yet that is complicated too.

imageKyrgyzstan – a country of vast potential

See people as people

If you haven’t yet read the book, Kabul Beauty School, pick up a copy this week. It should be required reading for any Peace Corps Volunteer or development worker living abroad.

In this true narrative, Deborah Rodriguez, known in her beauty salon as Crazy Deb, volunteers for temporary disaster relief in Afghanistan. After arriving with a group of health professionals, Deb starts to question why she, a hair stylist, was put with this group. Not feeling capable of contributing to the plans for clinics and medical care, she ventures out of the compound to make friends with local people. Her honest and sometimes brash interactions with Afghans gets her in trouble initially with her organization but allows her to form deep, lasting friendships with people. This ultimately leads to her launching and managing a beauty school in Kabul, the first since the topple of the Taliban, giving graduating students income for their families and hope for the future.

In a revealing episode early on, Deb is walking with her friend Roshanna looking at all the different people in the streets of Kabul. She starts to ask who these different people are and Roshanna tells her some are Uzbek, Tajik or Nuristani and some are Pashtun like herself. Deb thinks this is odd because she had always thought of Roshanna and everyone else as simply Afghan.

In the book Deb’s heart for all people in Afghanistan burns brightly through the audacious and bold ways she loves people practically, both in her friendships and in her work. Crazy Deb sees people as people.

I grew up in St. Paul, MN going to an elementary school with a large African-American and Hmong population of students. Now, I am a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, boy of Norwegian decent who grew up eating lefse and hot dish. Our family was not exactly a veritable United Nations; however, my school was quite a bit more diverse. I remember as a kindergartener walking to school in the morning holding hands with whomever and never thinking once about the color of his or her hand. Then one day all of that changed.

We were sitting in the corner of our kindergarten room on the carpet having a little discussion with our teacher on being clean; washing our hands, brushing our teeth, those kinds of things. The teacher asked, “What would happen if you never took a bath?” I thought about this—how if you didn’t bathe after playing outside, you would have dirt on you and eventually you would get blacker and blacker with dirt, and so I raised my hand and said innocently, “You would be a black person.”

The teacher snapped.

“Black people have pigment in their skin!” She shouted, “You would not be like a black person. That is a horrible thing to say.”

That day I learned to fear the topic of race, my ears burning with shame as I wondered why different colors made my teacher so angry.

Our education continued throughout those elementary years with more conversations about different people and different cultures. As a white, middle-America boy, those conversations always came with the caveat that I “need to be careful to treat minorities as equal.”

“Treat everyone equal now, especially people who are different than you.” Even at that young age I can remember thinking, “Since we are already equal, why do I have to be so careful to treat them equally?” I learned to see people who looked different than me as different, and though I couldn’t put it into words at the time, it always bothered me.

There is a problem when our cultural education goes so far that we end up focusing on our differences instead of what binds us together as humans.

This can happen with development workers too, who, for very practical reasons receive cultural training in order to be effective within a culture. But sometimes the well-intentioned efforts to be sensitive keep us from focusing on the human level which is the only place where one can truly reach another human being.

I’m not saying unique cultural differences should be forgotten; we should celebrate who we are and who our forefathers were because this can bring us great joy and identity. What I am saying is that we’ve become much too sensitive which has resulted in an emphasis on the differences. This ultimately creates more division as we define people by their culture rather than their humanity.

Today, in the United States, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We share a name, Luther, given to each of us in honor of Martin Luther, the great reformer of five centuries past. Martin Luther fought for the truth that we are all loved by our creator, and from this truth Martin Luther King, Jr. fought for justice amidst the horrendous segregation and discrimination pervasive in his day.

In our day, we still haven’t yet realized a world where freedom rings from every mountaintop. It is my hope and prayer that each day we would proclaim this by the way we treat people—as people. Then maybe some day the dream will come true, where we can walk hand in hand, not because we’ve forgotten what color we are, but because we are defined by our common brotherhood.

imageHow will you help realize the dream?

Own the fight

Something happened this early September that I’m not allowed to talk about here. At least not in the way I’d like to, heavily laden with expletives and a sprinkle of incitation likely to attract an enemy or two. I was going to keep quiet, and for the first 29 years of my life I’ve done just that. Not anymore.

A particular injustice was committed against dear friends of mine, and it made me very angry; the kind of angry that burns like a buried coal, slowly cooking any who dare linger by the surface. That anger ignited me as well, branded me with outrage, and finally lit the wick on that missile called action.

It’s not Kyrgyzstan that forced my hand. There are things about every country that must change. But it was the nature of the injustice, committed against my dear friends that made me start flipping tables. There is a kind of righteous rage, and I will not stand idly by as injustice continues to flourish.

A volunteer friend of mine told me I need to pick my battles. That I’ll go crazy trying to fix everything. I can’t fix everything. I know that. I can only do the work of one person and yet—that person is I—and I will be responsible for every moment of time that I can control and use to steer towards a freer and just world.

There is a fine line in Peace Corps service when it comes to expressing opinions about a host country. How do you pay well-deserved respect to a wonderful culture and turn the screw on the wrongs at the same time? How do you not come across as offensive or disparaging? In my so far brief state of incensed fury I haven’t fully arrived at an answer. But I do know that it party lies in owning the fight. I can fight for America because she is my home, my motherland, because at her breast I was nourished and weaned. But how do I do that for Kyrgyzstan? Ah—Kyrgyzstan is my home too. This is my village, my school, these are my students, my friends, my conspirators, my fellow survivors in the wake of what we call life, plowing its way through our valley.

I do a disservice to anyone I tell that everything is fine, that the nature is beautiful, the food is good and people are generous. Those things may all be very true, but we wouldn’t be here as Peace Corps Volunteers unless there were things that needed to change. Who can deny that corruption ravages a nation? That ignorance is a turn back to the dark ages? That poverty saps the health and joy of a man? These were things I knew existed, but they floated over me like a cloud, just out of reach. Yet no cloud of oppression is innocuous but spreads and seeps quietly until all are caught in its disastrous roar. Unfortunately I didn’t see it until it had settled about me, until it was my lungs filled with its poisonous air.

So I will fight. I will take whatever near or distant hill the limits of my body and circumstances will allow. The battle has always been there, but now—it’s mine.

It’s easy to criticize the guy who’s doing something

There are numerous empty carcasses caught in the interwebs about Peace Corps being little more than a way for over-privileged college grads to pad a resume or drink cheap beer on a two year adventure. People moan and complain about everything under the sun that is wrong with the system, wrong with staff, wrong with policy, wrong with vision. But in the end it comes down to just one thing: the volunteer himself. What are you, given an all-expenses-paid two year stint in a foreign country, going to do? The options for abuse and ineffectiveness are wide and easily available. But the opportunities to do something great are as tall as the stars and as deep as the hearts of the people you live among.

What I’m doing may not jibe with those in the comfy academic or political swivel chairs. And I admit that I’m not saving the world; no development or friendship program can. But at least I’m doing something. I am sharing my skills and knowledge in order to do my part to try and make my little sphere a better place.

It’s easy to criticize the guy who’s doing something, because there’s something there to criticize. The Peace Corps is that guy – is filled with those people. People who stop gaping at the problem and put their hand to the plow.

There’s a proverb in Kyrgyz that reads: Koz Korkok – Kol Batyr. It means, “The eye is a coward but the hand is a hero.” If you merely look upon all that must be done to make the world a better place, the coward emerges to stomp with his boots of judgment and despair upon what little spark of inspiration had flamed. But put your head down and get to work, and the hand will fan that flame into a vibrant energy that can effect a great change.