There’s a joke by the late Mitch Hedberg that goes something like this: “You ever heard someone say, ‘Hey, wanna see a picture of me when I was younger?’ Every picture of you is when you were younger. I’d like to see a picture of you when you were older. ‘Hey wait a minute—lemme see that camera.’…heh heh, yeah…”
Have you ever looked back on one of those photos—one where you’re younger—and noticed what’s in the background? Most of those things have probably improved since the sepia toned days of your youth. Consider the finned monster of a car you dad was driving, or the crib you’re standing in—you know, the one with the side that opened and closed like a guillotine—or the polyester pants you’re wearing at the July 4th parade, melting onto your thighs.
Yes, we’ve come a long way since those bare-leg-on-vinyl days, when cars guzzled a gallon every 6 miles and kids sat unbuckled in the backseat clutching throat-sized toys doused in lead-based paint. We’re so used to things changing and improving that somehow those words have become synonyms. But in reality, not everywhere experiences forward progress.
Welcome (back) Home
There are many people in Kyrgyzstan who pine for the old Soviet days. While most of life was dictated by a bureaucracy on high, that life held a calming order and sense of security. No one had to wonder where they would find a job or how they were going to feed their family. Teachers were respected and schools were given priority in government budgets. Students flourished in an education system that put the first human in space. People enjoyed leisure time taking effective public transportation through cities and towns dotted with green parks and running water.
Three-and-a-half bouncing hours south from the capital lies my own little Peace Corps village. Its school, constructed just before the breakup of the USSR, was built with every modern convenience. The school boasted multiple networked computer labs for the sciences linked to a central station in each room where the teacher could listen by headphones to individual work or display work on a raised monitor. There was a coal-burning heating plant pumping hot water through a system of radiators to three floors. Each floor had its own bathrooms with flush toilets and running water. The cafeteria served hot lunch for all attending students.
But, shortly after independence, things began to quickly fall apart. The director cut many of the radiator system’s pipes out of the school, installing some in his own home and selling the rest for a personal profit. Along with the heat, the running water went too, when pipes from the nearby spring broke due to lack of maintenance and were dug up to be sold.
The school’s lunch program degenerated into cookies and tea, now served only to grades 1-4 in a 10 minute passing period. Today I trip on old metal tubes in my classroom that ran the wires for the networks, their stubs jutting out, betraying where computers once stood.
A school that once graduated significant contributors to science and math in the USSR is now part of a national education system incapable of producing enough engineers and skilled workers to take their own gold out of their own land, instead relying on foreign companies who reap the majority of the profit. The breakup of the USSR is a macrocosm of all the little systems that soon broke apart as a result.
What infuriates me about all of this is not the fact that things got worse or that there was no longer money to keep things going. This is understandable. What brings my righteous rage to a full boil are the personal choices made by individuals to hurt their own country. Here we are huddled together in school, all winter long, trying to form English words between chattering teeth because the previous director decided he wanted to steal the pipes for his own personal gain. It’s maddening.
But I also need to check my judgment before walking through that door. (Which is really, really difficult to do.) Who is to say I wouldn’t react in the exact same way if all of a sudden the U.S. was to split up into 50 different countries and in the chaos the paychecks stopped, shops closed down and it was every man for himself? If something can be taken advantage of in the face of no oversight and without any chance of falling fate to some ill consequence, many are going to go ahead and do what makes sense for their own personal survival.
Sure independence had been declared, but it wasn’t after a long battle for freedom. Independence was sort of thrust upon Kyrgyzstan after the breakup of the Soviet Union and all of a sudden people needed to figure things out for themselves.
I asked Nazgul, my counterpart, what it was like back when the Motherland collapsed and Kyrgyzstan found itself stepping out on toddler’s legs, blinking into the dawn of independence. “There was no bread,” she said without pause, offering no lofty ideals of freedom or independence nor mention of a nation-state bearing the name of her people. She was only 9 years old at the time; those aren’t the things one notices at that age, but rather a father conspicuously home from work, a hungry belly and the crumbs that line the bottom of the bread basket. “Kyrgyzstanis may be more free,” one man told me, “but you can’t eat freedom.”
Teachers enjoying flatbread with great Kyrgyz poets and thinkers
The task before us is huge. There is so much work to be done. There is a definite need for Peace Corps Volunteers in education, health and business to work with locals to establish right practices and effective methodology. There’s an even bigger need for Kyrgyzstanis to work for their own fellow citizens. We need people willing to invest their time, energy and strengths to build a nation, not place more obstacles in its path.
It’s not that most people are totally complacent. People want more and demonstrate so, but they turn to old desires for authoritative control and to central government for finding solutions to pressing issues. We do need a public system of checks on citizens’ free reign decision making, but corruption continues to eat away at growth. Many people still haven’t worked up the full committal of courage to take these challenges head on and are just beginning to feel their way gingerly out over untested and fragile ground. People must be willing to change, to sidestep culture to a certain degree, to invest money, to make unpopular yet necessary decisions, to put in the hours and to know they have a chance at seeing results commensurate to their level of work. Bit by bit, people are coming around, and more than any other demographic, it’s Kyrgyzstan’s youth leading the charge.
This new generation is at an unprecedented point in history—they are the first to have been born into an independent Kyrgyzstan, a country now responsible for its own future—and are more removed from its soviet past. I’ve worked with groups of youth who dream big but more importantly, have a track record of applying their learning and have logged hours upon hours working for the betterment of their communities.
One such youth attending a goal-setting session stated she would study English three hours every day until she won a spot in a study abroad program to America. I told her I thought maybe that was a bit ambitious and how was she going to balance that with school and other demands at home? She answered that she already studies English three hours a day—after finishing washing the evening meal’s dishes—and this was sort of just a recommitment. Far be it from me to discourage her. She exemplifies the future hope of this nation. This is the way forward.
Kyrgyzstan—may your future be as bright as the sun that blazes upon your flag, high and free.