Friday, October 16, 2009


This last weekend my friend Andrea and I had the rare and awesome privilege of watching an absent-minded man talking on a cell-phone walk straight into a glass wall. It was one of those awesome cosmic moments when all the elements aligned: the nicest supermarket in the country, automatic sliding glass doors next to large planes of unmoving glass, a new sparking cleaning, a loud cell-phone yacker. Step step step SLAM. Amazing stuff. We held it together until he was just out of ear-shot and then nearly fell over in giggles in the middle of the cracker aisle. The story looses a bit in the retelling, but whenever either of us did something silly, awkward, or clumsy for the rest of the night we would look at each other and go “well, at least I didn’t…” and there was no need to finish the statement.

The visual humor aside is a welcome distraction from the biggest news around here: the possible ending of Peace Corps Turkmenistan. I may be over-reacting, but for the first time in 18 years, the Turkmen government has denied entry to our newest shipment of volunteers. Here’s what we were told (slightly abbreviated) from Chris, our acting country director:

“Most of you are already aware that the T18’s trainee input will not happen this year. Our staff was well prepared for their arrival and only was made aware of the Governments decision on September 29th [they were supposed to arrive October 2]. In a dip note sent to the U.S Embassy, they stated that 50 volunteers would be welcome to come in September/October 2010. I will be meeting with the Deputy Chairman for both the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health this week and hope to get a better understanding of their reason for this decision. I can assure you it has nothing to do with the quality of work you are doing in the field and or the mission of Peace Corps in Turkmenistan. I have spoken with Washington and they are working to place the trainees in other countries as needed. All volunteers currently in country will be able to continue with their service as planned.”

So we have a verbal promise that another group can come next year and the program can continue, but I don’t know many volunteers who believe this. The group who arrived at our mid-service – the T-17s -- can continue their last year, but then that may be it for Peace Corps Turkmenistan. The T-17s will finish up their service with no new volunteers to switch up the social scene, the volunteer population halved with only each other for company. I get lonely and bored just imagining it, I hate to think how hard it is going to be for them to live it.

The loss of the T-18s input has the further consequence that I won’t be replaced at site; I am the alpha and omega of Baharly volunteers. In class, since I heard the news, I’ve been hit with occasional pangs of sorrow looking at my brilliant motivated students and knowing that when I’m gone, their window of opportunity for a good education will be shut. If I had been replaced at site they could have had two more years of English language classes and might have learned enough to qualify for a scholarship to an American high school exchange program, but none of them are ready yet. The thought makes me a little ill, honestly, that I’m leaving them all pictures and dreams of a world far away without the skills to reach it. I had hoped to show them a door that my volunteer successors could show them the way through, but all I’ve done is showed them a lock without a key.

My only comforts are my secondary projects which will continue to teach once I’m gone: the world map mural still hangs in all its glory in the school entranceway and the books in the library have become a valuable and useful part of the school. Even if these kids won’t have opportunities to actually visit foreign lands, I’ve left them with the resources to travel there in their imaginations; I just hope they’ll use them.

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