How to count

Counting here starts with the most important word of all: Beer. If this wasn’t a sign Kyrgyz was going to be the most awesomest language ever, I’d never drink another Jiboe again.

Each day in PST language classes, we learned to count as we learned to take baby steps in the culture.




One, two, three days in training…one, two, three trainees sleeping…one, two, three sessions on diarrhea…one, two, three months to go ‘til school starts…one, two months to our Close of Service conference…one, two, WHAT?!?

Somehow I skipped a few numbers in there. How did time go so fast? Life during training seems like a whole different lifetime. But that’s the funny thing with numbers and time. It seems so long ago, but feels like it went by so fast.

So as I begin to count down the days, how do I make the days count?

Math instruction for the village kid — falling asleep has never been so easy

I’m wanting to extend for a third year, but even if my request is approved, I’ll still be leaving this village. Forever. It’s a shot in the gut, realizing that. It gives me that scrambling sense, the one where I’m told I can keep as much as I can hold and so I’m grabbing at everything, stacking it up in my arms, stuffing things in my pockets and they’re tumbling down, hitting the floor, slipping through my fingers.

I think about each of the “lasts.” The last hike up the red hill in town. The last dinner at my friend Maksat’s. The last time I’ll see these familiar mountains as they slip away in the rear view mirror.

It can’t end. It won’t. I still know these people, this valley. I’ve sewn my life into these hills and it will stretch and maybe even tear a bit but I will always be part of this and it will always be part of me.

I told my family when I was leaving the states that it wasn’t a forever goodbye. “You guys make this seem like you’re mourning my funeral. I’m not dying you know. And it’s just Kyrgyzstan. I’m not climbing in a rocket for the moon.”

Maybe fifty years ago the Peace Corps was like that, where you might as well have been serving on the moon, helping the mooninites improve their cheese production or something. Where volunteers sort of just disappeared into the countryside for two years, a letter occasionally wriggling its way loose and inching towards America, reassuring its recipients that the volunteer was still alive two months before.

Now we have cell phones and skype and facebook and tumblr and a thousand other little gadgets and applications where we connect and stay in touch. We use those to connect back home in the states, but really they’re for connecting to wherever home is.

So in counting down, I never reach zero. Because I’m not in a rocket ship for the moon, I’m on the same planet, looking up at that same orb above our heads. And while our views may be from different angles, I’ll always know we’re just a phone number away.

They already know how to fish

Part 2 of ‘Delegate’

There’s an oft-quoted proverb that goes, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” The meaning here is it’s better to teach than to give. For example, if you teach a student how to open an e-mail account rather than sending an e-mail for him, he can use this skill when you’re not around.

But the proverb goes deeper than that. The mentality behind it is so veiled that it has slipped undetected into the subconscious parts of our American brains. What this really means is that we, the fishing instructors of America, think we have all the answers and that we are saving the world, one new fisherman at a time.

And just look at the numbers—we’re more efficient, get better results, are backed by the latest research. You can’t argue with science—our life expectancy, GDP per capita, university rankings, GIQ—we’re winning at everything so everyone should follow our lead.

But maybe we’re winning because we made the scales. Rather, we should be asking ourselves, is the value of life found within these numbers? Does a higher GDP mean more joy? Does a diploma from an ivy league school create self-worth? Does living a longer life really mean living a better life?

Even if these are true indicators of peace, love and happiness, those goals are going to have to be arrived at using different methods because countries that are developing have vastly different variables to work with than the U.S. has had over the past three-hundred years.

imageNot only can they catch fish, they can cook ‘em too

The U.S. is here doing development work because we can afford to be. We have the capital. But that doesn’t mean we have all the answers.

We spend billions of dollars trying to implement policies created in a different culture and different context, and the world is littered with the skeletons of failed projects ranging from the benignly obscure to the disastrously infamous. I won’t deny some of the incredible advances in quality of care for people living with HIV or inroads into better crop irrigation, as examples. But we need to be spending a lot more time and money supporting the solutions that are being created “by the people for the people” within the cultures and nations we try to serve.

We say, “Let me teach you how to fish,” but really we’re saying, “Let me teach you how I would fish.” We still miss the mark in this well-intentioned proverb.

So what are we doing here? If people are meant to simply use their own methods and do their own work, can’t they do that without us?

In a large part, yes. Peoples around the world should be free to choose how they live, work, and solve their own problems. Therefore we should go abroad not to implement our methods but to make human connections and come along side people to support and encourage—more like a fishing buddy than a fishing instructor. Yet this is not well received by the people who control the dollars because it cannot be tallied or counted like the number of fish distributed or fishing lessons taught. “Sure the stories are great,” they say, “but show us the results.” But how do you clearly measure the effect of believing in someone? What’s the quotient for consistently showing up in a child’s life? How do you put numbers on relationships? These are the things that won’t make it to a spreadsheet or statistical report, yet they are the things that are making a difference.

So don’t give a man a fish. Don’t even teach him how because he probably already knows. Instead, strive to make a lot of fishing buddies and see if that doesn’t just change the world.



  • ½ kilo of flour
  • 150 mL of water
  • 1 Tbs sugar
  • ½ Tbs salt
  • 1 Tbs oil
  • 2 Tbs yeast

Put flour in large bowl. Make a well. Stir in all ingredients with water. Work in flour. Add additional 150 mL water, work in. Flour bowl. Cover by heat 30-60 min. Punch down, flour again. Bake in oven. You didn’t forget the yeast again, right?

My baking has improved. It’s incredible what a little help from Jamie Oliver can do. (Don’t tell Peace Corps I’m using a Brit’s recipe.) I’m learning to put all the ingredients together in just the right ways and let them work their own magic.

I was talking with my Grandparents on the phone this past weekend, telling them about the different projects I have going this semester and how classes have started. I’ve started to get a handle on how to delegate, which is amazing since it’s something I should have come in being able to do. We’re inundated from Day 1 with words like “sustainability,” “skill transfer,” and “capacity building.” Every era has its code phrases—you know, the ones you want to list on your grant applications for high visibility—and these are the ones that we’re immersed in even before we meet the culture. Delegation would seem to be step one in these code-word endeavors, yet there are several things that make delegating difficult.

It is really tempting to want to do everything yourself. When you do something on your own, you don’t have to try and explain it to anyone—in English that is, much less another language—nor do you need to depend on someone who might not come through with their end of the job. When you work by yourself, you’re the boss, middle management and common laborer and no part of the vision gets lost in translation. (Figuratively and literally.) Delegation can also be difficult because sometimes you assign tasks to people who don’t care about the project at all. And then there’s the amount of time to consider. If you delegate work out to someone, it might take a week for the task to get done when you could have done it in an afternoon.

This all might seem like a waste of time at first, but in the long run you are going to be able to accomplish not only a lot more in terms of volume but in efficacy of your projects as well. There are two things at work here: felt need and ownership. On some level delegating can seem like “kindly forcing” but when done correctly the delegator should be a catalyst for already existing potential energy.

First do your homework. The Peace Corps calls this “Participatory Analysis for Community Action” which is a complicated way of saying, “Ask a lot of questions.” Who are the movers and shakers in the community? If you’re doing a project at the school, what’s their calendar like for the year? Are there times where people will be on vacation? Harvesting potatoes? How is the community physically laid out? Can mothers get their children to the proposed kindergarten and pick them up again? What are the priorities? Does anyone even care if the volleyball court falls apart? This is how you discover what the members of the community want to do, not what you think it needs after your initial bleeding-heart dash through the neighborhood.

If you set this up correctly it will be much easier for the community to take ownership over the project. I used to say, “Oh, I’ll do that, don’t worry about it.” But then I would end up with a business plan in English and an owner who couldn’t read it, or a teacher who couldn’t check her e-mail account because I was gone on vacation. Spend the extra agonizing hours helping your counterpart double click icons and type in her password and I’m telling you, it’s going to pay off. Not only will you be able to say, “Hey, can you check on that e-mail?” and it will be taken care of, but after you leave she’s going to keep doing it on her own for her own purposes.

Which is the entire purpose and point of our existence as Peace Corps Volunteers. We fall out of a plane, wander around in the woods for awhile, then barely after finding our bearings are spotted and pulled back home. Two years can seem like a lifetime, but when compared to the actual lifetime of the people we serve, it becomes a brief window in which to get anything done.

That “anything” turns out to be not what projects you can lay claim to after you’re gone, but the skills your counterparts gained, the knowledge your students gleaned, the confidence of leaders, and all their own personal successes that will give them a better chance at actualizing their own dreams.

“It’s like leavening bread,” my grandpa said over the phone, “All the ingredients are there. You just have to make it rise.”

Live in priorities, not schedules

How are those New Year’s resolutions going?

Mine are going great! The secret to making your resolutions last into February is to not make them until Jan. 31st. (My secret’s up.)

New Year’s resolution time is always very exciting for me because I really like lists. I have all kinds of them taped to my wall, saved on my computer, jotted down in the notebook I carry in my pocket and on sticky notes on my desk. I love shopping lists, packing lists, and to-do lists—I love them all! But the lists I love the most have to do with future plans. I love brainstorming career paths, degree programs and grad schools. I love new teaching semesters because I get to schedule out my week in neat little tables. And I love making plans for my day. The problem is, my future doesn’t take orders very well.

imageOh joy! A list identifying and intervening on my Peace Corps induced problems!

I’ve complained up and down during Peace Corps service about things not going to plan, time being wasted, and unexpected things popping up for a year and a half and yet, until the middle of my second year I still had a detailed schedule hanging on my wall of everything I would be doing each hour of the day.

6:00am               Wake

6:00-7:00          Fire & Breakfast

Boil water, put on work clothes, headlamp, take out ashes, bathroom, get bucket of sheep poop, light fire, monkey with it, reboil water, wash, eat breakfast, monkey with fire again

7:00-7:30           Scripture, Prayer & Journaling

7:30-8:30           Get ready for the day

Brush teeth, dishes, straighten, food prep, empty water bucket, pack bag, restoke fire, get dressed, short phone calls

8:35                   Out the door

9:00-3:00         Work in all its unpredictable glory

Classes, clubs, lesson planning, project work

3:30pm             Arrive home

3:30-4:30         Light fire, eat, exercise.

4:30-5:30         Study Kyrgyz

5:30-6:15         Nap or writing or guitar

6:15-6:30         Prepare bag for evening. Print, etc.

6:30                  Leave house

6:45-8:45         Work and drink tea

8:45                  Excuse myself. Thanks for the evening!

9:00                  Arrive home, stoke stove

9:15-9:45         Scripture, type day’s reflections

9:45-10:00      Bathroom, straighten, brush teeth, eye drops

10:00               Lights out

I don’t think I ever followed this for a single day.

It was completely unrealistic to think I could keep a schedule when there are so many variables and unforeseen hiccups and other people’s schedules to deal with. Or their lack of schedules to be more precise. If I were to keep a schedule it would be better to look something like this:

Sometime in the morning:      Wake up

Day time:                               Do some things

Evening:                                 Potentially back at own home

Night:                                    Sleeping of some sort

Though I might be getting a little too detailed with that Evening slot.

The fact of the matter is, it’s a bad idea to live in schedules because you’re never going to get everything done, and this can be frustrating and disheartening. There will always be un-ticked boxes and line items that get carried over for another day (week, month). Yet—there are still really important things on that schedule that need to be accomplished. So how is this done?

As always, it can be solved with another list:

My priorities

1. God – hang out time with Jesus, scripture, journaling, showing people grace

2. Lay down—Get up schedule

3. Dialing America and other volunteers

4. School – classes, lessons, clubs, teacher trainings

5. Project work

6. Kyrgyz study

7. Writing

8. Reading

9. Hanging out with friends

10. Chores

11. Travel

12. Everything else

Live in priorities. This way, when you lose your way along the crazy twists and turns that each day takes, you can pull out your priority guide for direction. It won’t always be perfect because—hey—the world is not a perfect place, filled with both disappointing detours and serendipitous scenic routes. Yet, if you resolve to live in your priorities, you will always know that what you’re doing lines up with your deepest beliefs and desires. And that’s a resolution worth keeping.

The government loves acronyms

PCV1:  Dude, have you checked out the PCTs?

PCV2:  Yeah man, that one SOCD? I mean, SCD now – Rockin’.

PCV1:  Which one?

PCV2:  The one with the crazy LCF.

PCV1:  Eh, the SCD’s ok – the HE’s better.

PCV2:  Too bad we’re not PCVTs…

PCV1:  Hey, did you get your SPA?

PCV2:  No. Stupid SPA rep’s got it out for me.

PCV1:  You should just do a PCPP – a lot easier, you know.

PCV2:  I might throw it at VAST and see what happens. Oh! Did you hear who ET’d?

PCV1:  No!

PCV2:  That K-20 who didn’t send BAS to the DO and the SSC flipped out. The CD started AS but she didn’t want to deal.

PCV1:  VAC should say something.

PCV2:  You going to see your PM at PST?

PCV1:  Naw, I still haven’t done the VRF… But I might have to see the PCMC for some Cipro. I popped ‘em all last week.

PCV2:  Rough, man.

Was this a Peace Corps conversation? Or secret code in some shadier dealing?

If you’re in the application process to become a volunteer, you’ve probably already run into some of these abbreviations. Many of the Peace Corps publications include a list of acronyms or initialisms on the opening page so you’re not lost after the first sentence. There was even a special session during our Pre-Service Training explaining some of the more common ones. I was like, “If we have to spend all this time sorting out abbreviations, is shortening our phrases actually saving us any time?” The inevitable “huh?” that comes up in these conversations coupled with the explanation can end up taking several times longer than just saying the original phrase.

imageThis message is going in the T-R-A-S-H

And then there are the conversations that get sidetracked because no one really knows what the acronym stands for.

“Hey, the PCMO—”

“No, she’s the PCMC now.”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t know…Peace Corps Manager of Care?”

“No dude, the M still means Medical. I think she’s a Choreographer or something.”

“That doesn’t even make any sense.”

So far in my volunteer service for the government I’ve learned enough acronyms to fill a pallet of alphabet soup. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I learned the government has a federal bureau of abbreviations. Or in their love language, the FBA.