Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gender Training #2 (and #3): Completed!

Please click on this link to read the recap and see pictures of our second and surprising third gender trainings that occurred this past Saturday and Sunday, the 14th and 15th of April, in Ganja. This link will take you to the WID/GAD committee's own website. Enjoy!

Also, please check out this new fantastic photo blog by a fellow PCV here in Azerbaijan. The photo journal, Serve for Peace, focuses on the diversity and beauty of Muslim countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve.

Monday, April 9, 2012


I feel like this blog has been doing somewhat of a disservice to my readers in explaining my time here in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Most of my posts are positive, and I try to make them humorous. I avoid sharing too many of my feelings and generally steer clear of problems and failures. Truthfully, that’s just not the way things work here. I claimed earlier in my blog that, during service, the highs are always higher and the lows are always lower. That remains true. But if I don’t spend some time explaining those lows, how can anyone get an accurate depiction of what the Pace Corps is like?

For me, the lows are usually work related. Location-wise, I am in one of the most beautiful spots in the entire country. My two sitemates are two of my closest friends, and my friends and family back home also do a wonderful job of keeping in touch with me, so I rarely feel alone and don’t miss home as much as some other volunteers. What ruins my day and puts me in a sour mood most of all almost always relates to my work.
I only have 7 months left before my service is completed. I am proud of the work I have done so far and have very few regrets. As I move forward and look to conclude my service, I have given my self a goal. Balaken is a new site for Peace Corps. Most of the work I have done, although rewarding, has been just that, MY work. I rarely work with local counterparts when organizing clubs and camps in Balaken. This is not out of a lack of effort, it’s just that the people Balaken have never had any experience with an American before, so they’d rather watch and learn than partake. Additionally, there are not many counterparts to speak of. Those that do exist have other work that keeps them busy, travel outside of insignificant Balaken to bigger cities looking for better work, and, of course, some are just unreliable and impossible to work with on a consistent basis.
I have been here long enough to feel like I belong. I no longer feel like I need to prove myself and crank out club after club in order to make people happy. So, my goal for my remaining 7 months is to not do any major projects (large clubs, softball, summer camps, etc…) without a local counterpart. I want my work to be sustainable to some degree, so I’m not going to break my back organizing local projects and events, only to see them disappear once I leave. All of the national projects I work on have fantastic counterparts, so I don’t think it is so much to ask for that a local helps in the planning and implementation of projects meant for the local population. This goals brings us to the point of this post – to explain the occasional failures and frustrations of my work.

This past weekend was one of the best in a long time. I spent last Thursday in Baku at a ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of US/Azerbaijan diplomatic relations. I, along with 2 other volunteers and our country director, spent the evening mingling with the who’s who of Baku politics and entertained questions about our projects from journalists, foreign diplomats, Azerbaijani ministers, and an envoy of Chiefs of Staff for a number of US Senators. It was an exhausting, yet exhilarating evening. The next day was spent at the US Embassy discussing the country’s softball league, followed by lunch with our departing program manager Elmir (he’s moving to Vancouver) and trivia night with Martin. The nest day I awoke early to catch a bus to Sheki to celebrate Trey’s birthday with a surprise rock-climbing trip I organized for him. The next day, Easter, we had an unbelievable brunch at Steph’s consisting of banana/bacon pancakes, fruit salad, eggs Benedict on buttermilk biscuits, chocolate/banana bread, hash browns, Bloody Mary’s and Irish coffee. What more could a PCV ask for?

Here’s where the failures started appearing. I awoke Monday morning full of energy. My first task was to call Resim (the head of the Youth and Sport office) to see what progress had been made in getting permission to start painting our next mural. He lost all of the paintings. Nearly 15 paintings done by kids from throughout the region, and he lost them. What was worst, he wouldn’t take responsibility for it and claimed that he gave them back to me. He eventually relented and said he’d continue searching for them, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better.
I brushed that problem aside when Arzu, my potential counterpart for the open-mic night event, called me to say he wanted to meet to pick a date. I hurried to his office. As I got there, he said he’d be back in 2 minutes. He returned over 30 minutes later and very simply said, “I am busy, I don’t want to do this project anymore.” Did I really need to wait 30 minutes just for him to say that? I was so looking forward to starting this talent show in Balaken, after seeing how popular it had become in Ganja. Unfortunately, my only real potential counterpart wants nothing to do with it, and as I promised myself , I won’t start anymore major projects without a local counterpart. Fail #2. Just to add insult to injury, Sayyara, my original counterpart and Arzu’s mother, told me that I needed to move all of my stuff out of my office because she was starting some project and needed the space. First of all, what project?! I guess we’re no longer working together. I told her I would take care of it. She said she wanted it done that very instance. I declined and told her I had other things to do and didn’t have time now; I couldn’t deal with it just then. Truthfully, I had nothing immediately pressing. After all, in the span of 20 minutes, my two biggest summer projects at site were squashed. Fail #3.

So, no inspiring stories or funny jokes this time. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. As support for any sort of youth development initiatives seems to be waning in Balaken, I can’t help but ask myself, “How can I help people who don’t want to help themselves?” But, I know that is the wrong perspective to take. Creating that rift of me versus them won’t accomplish anything and will only further frustrate and alienate me. I’m not quite sure of the right perspective; I’ll just keep my head up and continue to move forward, hoping that someone here will come along for the ride.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gender Training #1: Completed!

Click this link to read the recap and see pictures of our first gender training that occurred this past Saturday, the 14th, in Yevlax. This link will take you to the WID/GAD committee's own website.

The Dynamics of the Playground

It has taken me a while to come to this realization, but it’s worth it. Amidst all of the controversy surrounding the quality of education in America, one little facts seems to slip past our attention. School is not just a place of classrooms and teachers; it is where we learn to sink or swim. It’s where our personalities are cultivated, where our social skills are fine tuned. School isn’t just a center for education. Until we graduate, it is the center of our entire life. It’s shapes us not just as scholars, but as people. In America, as education reform takes shape, results seem to be the most important factor. Fewer teachers, shorter school hours, less “life skills” courses and more math; you name it and it is being cut. As long as test results improve, olsun (Azerbaijani for “let it be”). I can’t agree more with the need for higher standards. Our schools are getting weaker. Too many teachers are complacent, and too many students are falling behind. Every performance test strategy that has been presented so far has loopholes that allow just about every school to pass standards. If so many schools are passing state and national standards, why are so many students nearly illiterate still? Why are we falling behind in academic performance to countries we once towered over academically, to countries we still tower over economically?

I admit that may have been a little too much of a rant, but today opened my eyes to a problem here in Azerbaijan that might start poking it’s head up in America if we’re not careful.
Right from wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, how to talk to girls or boys, how to make friends, how to stand in lines and wait your turn. These lessons are not the objectives in a teacher’s work book, not the ultimate goal of the lesson plan. They are the indirect results of the sense of community and belonging that a good school fosters. I realize that school is supposed to be the breeding ground for future success. But what is that success derived from? I believe it does not come as much from the classrooms as it does from the entire school experience. I don’t believe that math or science results completely reveal the potential success of individuals in the future. It is the life skills learned, the life lessons taught, not solely the biology or algebra lessons, that prepare students to be cunning in the boardroom, creative in the studio, or courteous in everyday life as adults.
It is this sense of community that school is supposed to instill in children that is the very fabric of our society and our culture. It is slowly slipping away.
You may ask yourself what would happen if it did. The implications of this loss are standing right in front of me here in Azerbaijan, and they take the form of 25 school children in my English conversation club. 

I love teaching and I love interacting with children, but I do not enjoy teaching English. I am not trained to teach it, and kids truly don’t want to learn it. They want to come to my clubs after school to hang out with their friends and the American and socialize before going home for the evening. I’m okay with that. As I explained above, I think they need it. The weather is nice now and everyone wants to be outside. I’m not going to try and fight it. They have so much energy and can’t sit still for more than 2 seconds. Outside to the field we go; I was a kid once, I understand.

Today’s lesson: 4-Square. The ultimate game of recess! Simple to teach right? So I thought! Let’s ignore the fact that 98% of these kids have the hand-eye coordination and dexterity of a boiled lobster; it was impossible! See what happens without proper physical education courses!
Anyway, I am confident enough in my language skills after this much time in country that I know the directions were clearly explained. It’s not that complicated. However, sheer chaos ensued and two things in particular stood out. Mind you these kids are between the grades of 6 and 8. The should be able to comprehend this, even if it the first time they ever played the game. The two things that struck me most, in fact, had nothing to do with the rules. They had to do with social order.
First of all, the concept of a line. Whether it was Tetherball or 4-Square, the line was paramount when I was in school. Cuts, Chinese cuts, the ole “I’m just talking to my friend” – whatever it was, lines were understood and embraced and it took masterful prowess to avoid them. Despite all my efforts, the kids could not comprehend the idea of a line. One student would get out and then they would just stand in some random place and be surprised when I told them that they, in fact, were not next and had to wait for everyone else to play before they could go again. They’re not too young, and they’re certainly not dumb. They just could not grasp the idea of a line that they had to wait on if they wanted to play. I see it in everyday adult life as well. At the ATM on payday, in the post office, at the market, lines are not a thing and people don’t wait. Is it a lack of courtesy? In a whole society? I think not. I don’t know what it is, but I think I just found where it all starts.
My second observation was a lack of self-governance. The kids got the hang of the game alright, and some of them were pretty good. They understood the rules, knew what was allowed and knew what wasn’t. They knew how to get someone out. Problem was, without me pointing and telling them specifically, “YOU are out”, no one left. The remaining players recognized someone was out, but everyone refused to stop the game and say it. Every single round, I had to stop the game and say who was out. When I asked if they all knew that person was out, they said of course. When I asked why they didn’t stop the game themselves, they had no answer for me. Again, I don’t know how to explain. They knew the rules, but they refused to enforce them. When I was a kid on the playground, rules were usually unquestionable, and everyone in line stood, anticipating their turn, ready to point out with a piercing scream whenever someone who was currently playing was out. I see the same problem in everyday society. Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Everyone knows corruption happens, at all levels. There are those that refuse to partake, but it is a small minority. People know it is happening, but no one says, “Stop, that’s not allowed”. I don’t know if there is a connection or not, but it just seems eerily analogous to me.

So, as I try and foster this sense of community and belonging with the education system here in Azerbaijan, I’ll issue a warning to those back in America. School is so much more than we treat it as. Don’t give up on it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Get Your Glove, It's Softball Season!!!

As volunteers, some of the projects we do are small and local -- conversation clubs, small summer camps, etc. They take a lot of effort, but they're confined to the community where you live. Other projects are national -- national summer camps, health trainings, sports leagues, etc. They span the regions of the country, involve many different volunteers and hundreds of host country nationals. Both types of projects come with their fair share of obstacles. For local projects, will you get community support? Will anyone show up? Where will you host the event? The questions and thus problems are endless.
Recently, I've been dealing with more of my national projects. Namely, the Azerbaijan Interregional Softball League and ABLE summer camp. These too come with some hindrances. Lots of strong-willed volunteers from different walks of life are working on the same project at the same time. Can everyone get along and see eye-to-eye? Where will we get funding from? Is the project sustainable? Yet again, the questions and thus problems are endless.

Softball is in complete transformation mode right now. The league expanded from 5 teams to 12 to 16 teams currently. A grant for over $9,600 was put online in December to pay for all travel costs. To date we've raise approximately $2,500. We've received numerous equipment donations and are currently distributing that stuff to the various teams. We've pursued many local funding opportunities in hopes of securing some league sponsors. We've also implemented team fees for the first time in the league's 7 year history, in hopes of encouraging personal investment in the league. After all, Peace Corps is not a charity and we, as volunteers, cannot cover the costs of every project we do. All in all, the softball team I work with has been doing a fantastic job and I am excited to see where the league goes from here.

Here is the link to our league website. We just released the 2012 spring season schedule. The league will be updated regularly with results from tournaments across the country. Enjoy!