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