For When Internet Jok 7

Although I’m often amazed at how great telecommunications work in this country, there are still stretches of time when internet jok — there’s no internet. In anticipation of those long hours, days, weekends, I like to load up on reading material while at work or cafes. Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.

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Typecast as a Terrorist: “Apart from a Chinese family and a South American pilot battling the indignity with his spotless uniform, the holding pen was filled with 20 slight variations of my own face, all staring at me – kind of like a Bollywood remake of Being John Malkovich. It was a reminder: you are a type, whose face says things before your mouth opens; you are a signifier before you are a person; you are back at stage one.” (PS I’m obsessed with the show The Night Of, which I started watching after reading this.)

America’s Melting Pot is Under Assault – from the left as much as the right: “Many on the far left seem to prefer a vision of pluralism in which different cultures never borrow from one another, regardless of intentions. In this view, white people who wear braids, buy turquoise jewelry, don saris or sing along with rap lyrics are exhibiting both bad taste and bad faith.”

In Syria and Bosnia, women are quietly changing the world: “In Bosnia, the peace agreement was drawn up by a foreign power and signed by the warlords. It has not worked. After two decades of women striving for change, providing services where there are none but being ignored as a political voice, we looked at that peace agreement from a feminist perspective, bringing in feminist academics on militarism, political economy, law and policy with the experience of the Bosnians activists, to devise a way of transitioning from institutionalised conflict, using intelligent economic policies, human rights and international institutions to achieve it.”

The rest of the story: Black women and the War on Drugs: “Once the public has been convinced that culture and choices, not structures or policies, are to blame for bad outcomes, solutions coalesce around individual punishments rather than systemic change. Let’s lock up the bad guys instead of changing the bad laws. The prison population exploded and the effects of that explosion were not gender-neutral. The war on drugs was especially pernicious for black women.”

Kyrgyz Film About Mass Killings In Limbo Amid Russian Visit: “Kyrgyzstan has been talking for almost a year about the Urkun tragedy and what sufferings it brought to the Kyrgyz people — that is exactly why we decided to shoot the film,” Atanliev said. “So many archives have been opened, many books and articles have been written [and] they are all available in the newspapers and broadcast on radio stations. Our film probably shows just 5 percent of what has been written about the tragedy — I do not understand why it is a big deal to issue the permission.”

Kyrgyzstan: Government Notices It Doesn’t Even Have Constitution: So Nicolas Cage maaaaaybe pulled some National Treasure hijinks and stole the Kyrgyz constitution. But actually, no one can find the original copy of the document. Officials are trying to figure out how big of a deal this is, given that there are several amendments to the constitution up for reform soon. “As confounding as it might seem, this means that none of the arguing parties in the constitutional debate can quite agree on what it is that is being subjected to amendment.”

Democratization and the paradoxes of history: “For example, the boundaries and borders, that were in place hundred or hundred fifty years ago and disappeared a long time ago, are showing up unexpectedly in the electoral geography. Those old borders somehow have influenced the ways in which preferences are shaped today. To give you a couple of examples, in Poland when one looks at the number of NGOs in the countryside, one clearly sees that in the old Russian partition, there are significantly fewer NGOs in the countryside than there are in the Austro-Hungarian or in the Prussian partitions. So you can see that the borders between Poland’s partitions still have an impact.”

Stocking Up on Character, or a Multi-Purpose Russian Word: “To sum up: Складывается впечатление, что в складе хранитсясклад идей для людей одного склада ума (You get the sense that in the storehouse there is a store of ideas for people of the same mindset.)”

Play Me a Song, Mr. Komuz Man

With my work situation a bit precarious at the moment, I am spending a lot of time building up my хоббилер, hobbies. Yoga’s fun, and I’ve been reading a lot, but with my time in Kyrgyzstan finite, it’s important to me to develop skills here that I won’t be able to work on as easily back home. That’s where the komuz comes in.

The komuz is one of Kyrgyzstan’s national symbols, a wooden instrument with three strings and no frets. (Be careful though… the temir komuz/iron komuz, another traditional instrument is not, in fact, just an iron komuz, but is a totally different shape/sound/structure and is played with the mouth.) The strings, called kyl in Kyrgyz, are traditionally made from sheep guts; today’s komuzes use fishing line, which I appreciate. The body is made from a single piece of wood, usually from an apricot or walnut tree.

There are all kinds of beautiful legends about how the komuz was brought to Kyrgyzstan, all passed down through the oral tradition from generation to generation. The most popular origin tale of the komuz revolves around a hunter named Kambar:

Kambar would wander through the forests, hunting and enjoying the beauty of Kyrgyz nature; one day, while walking home from his hunt, he heard a strange melody ringing out through the trees. He looked and looked, but couldn’t find the source. Determined to figure out what that beautiful sound was, he climbed a tree, and only when he got to the very top did he see strings hanging across the branches. When he looked closer, he saw they weren’t strings, but actually intestines. The only reasonable explanation Kambar could come up with for how the intestines had been strung there was that a monkey had been playing in the treetops, lost its balance, and impaled itself on a branch. The intestines, which were all tangled in the branches, eventually dried so they made noise when the wind blew through them. Inspired by the noise, Kambar went on to make his own instrument in a similar fashion and taught his children and grandchildren how to make their own komuzes.

(I’ve never seen a monkey in Kyrgyzstan, but who knows what type of wildlife hung out in Kyrgyz forests thousands of years ago.)

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Orozali Tolipov, a Batken-based komuz-maker. Taken from Turmush.kg, Dec 2014

The komuz has come a long way since then, evolving from a scrappy folk instrument played within a yurt to a national symbol proudly echoing through concert halls and massive stadiums. I had an intense whole-body reaction to the thousand-komuz orchestra that performed in the opening ceremony of the World Nomad Games:

But my heart also warms at the sound of a single komuz player when it comes on the radio in long-distance taxis:

After three weeks of lessons and forcing myself to practice for 30 minutes a day, I sound nothing like that; it kills me a little to play badly, but getting a string of notes right or finally being able to tune the thing on my own makes me so happy.

There’s something so nostalgic about the sound of the komuz, and I can’t help but feel like I’m experiencing “A Moment” when stopping for a heard of horses on a dirt road that hugs the world’s second biggest alpine lake. Chingiz Aitmatov, Kyrgyzstan’s most famous author, also recognized the beauty of the komuz and its power over one’s sense of time and place:

“Over the radio came a tune I knew, played on the komuz. It was a Kirghiz song which always made me think of a lonely horseman riding through the twilit steppe. He has a long journey before him, the steppe is vast, he can think at leisure and softly sing a song, sing on what is in his heart. A man has many things to think over when he is alone, when the only sound in the stillness about him is the rhythmic sound of his horse’s hoofs. The strings of the komuz rang gently, like water rippling over smooth, clean stones. The komuz sang of the sun setting behind the hills, of the cool blueness sweeping stealthily over the ground, and of the wormwood and yellow feather grass stirring and swaying, shedding their pollen on the sun-baked road. The steppe would listen to the rider and sing with him.”

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Taken from limon.kg, via Kyrgyz Fotoarkhiv

Sing the Songs of the Land You’re in 4: Kyrgyz Language Day Edition

There’s a Kyrgyz saying: Кимдин жерин жердесең, ошонун ырын ырдайсың, Kimdin jerin jerdeseng, oshonun yryn yrdaisyng. The literal translation is clunky, so I prefer this more poetic rendering: “Sing the songs of the land you’re in.” Having lived outside the U.S. before, I was used to being out of touch with American Top 40 lists, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, it’s part of my job to be familiar with the local culture. “Sing the songs of the land you’re in,” right? At first, Kyrgyz pop seemed cheesy to me, but I’ve come to love the music that plays on marshrutkas and on TV, and I cheer with everyone at weddings when my favorite songs blast on the loudspeakers. And so begot this (semi-)regular feature on the blog: Kyrgyz pop music videos and brief explanations of the songs, artists, and any prominent cultural symbols.

I love this feature and the chance to share Kyrgyz-language music, and it’s even more special this time because on September 23, Kyrgyzstan celebrated Kyrgyz Language Day. The day honors the national language of Kyrgyzstan; Russian is technically the country’s “official” language, which is useful as a lingua franca here given the impressive ethnic and linguistic diversity, but many Kyrgyzstanis are passionate about preserving the language and its cultural heritage. My friend and fellow PCV Mark wrote a pretty comprehensive history of Kyrgyz, its language family, and its role in politics and society in Kyrgyzstan — check it out here.

Since Kyrgyzstan became independent 25 years ago, there have been all kinds of efforts to promote the language. Some, like Kyrgyz Language Day are organized by the government and have the stamp of state approval. This song, the “Anthem of the National Language,” written by Seiit Altymyshov in 2006 for a national competition, sings the praises of the motherland and Kyrgyz people’s mother tongue. “Kyrgyz language is my heart, the flag that father Manas carried. Kyrgyz language is my homeland, Kyrgyzstan is my country!”

Though the music is certainly majestic and the strength of the songwriter’s patriotism is clear, the lyrics aren’t very subtle and songs like this might not be the most effective way to inspire young people to rally behind Kyrgyz language. That’s where pop culture comes in.

Begish and Bayastan, two Kyrgyz rappers, collaborated on this song, called “Mother Tongue.”

As the video shows a Kyrgyz secondary school classroom and kids smiling as they study the language, the chorus assures the listener that Kyrgyz can be everyone‘s language, a message reinforced by non-ethnic Kyrgyz people lipsynching in the video:

This is my song, my mom’s too

The listeners’ and yours

It’s the song of the woman who taught our Kyrgyz classes

These words are my motherland’s

These words are my mother’s

They’re this life’s and yours

Those of the woman who taught you Kyrgyz,

These rich words are the Kyrgyz people’s

I get why songs like this are popular, given how many people are concerned about the degree to which Kyrgyz is spoken in the country. I often hear locals complain (more so in Cholpon-Ata than I ever heard in Jalal-Abad) that children can’t speak Kyrgyz, that people don’t care about the language.

Bektour Iskender, founder of independent media outlet Kloop and Kyrgyzstan’s first TED fellow, wrote an article asking how Kyrgyz could be made more popular. Iskender is careful to avoid taking the position that all people should know the government language; instead, he suggests that it’s better for people to decide themselves that they want to learn Kyrgyz for the sake of learning it. He suggests that the level of Kyrgyz language education should be improved, a point I agree with – Peace Corps volunteers focus a lot on foreign language methodology training for English teachers, but barely do any work with Russian or Kyrgyz language teachers, who could also stand to benefit from incorporating communicative methodologies into the classroom to better deal with mixed-level classrooms (cough native-speakers mixed with non-native ones, all expected to perform at the same level). Iskender continues to say that Kyrgyz language education should be more closely linked to English, a point I didn’t entirely understand and still don’t necessarily agree with, but his final point gets at the contrast in tone and content of “Anthem of the National Language” and “Mother Tongue.” He says that the development of Kyrgyz should come from below, not above, and that a pro-Kyrgyz language movement will be successful only if it comes from within the Kyrgyz-speaking community.

On Wednesday the 28th of September, a few days after the official Kyrgyz Language Day, my school put on a spektakl’ in honor of Kyrgyz language. Students of all ages performed in a play about Manas and his son Semetei, I recited some Manas and sang the National Anthem in Kyrgyz, teachers sang traditional songs, and there was a big dance. After the concert, the director (an ethnic Russian woman who doesn’t speak much Kyrgyz) praised the concert organizers and participants for 15 minutes straight – her enthusiasm for the concert and the students’ reaction to it was genuine, and I think she’s right that this sort of event is important to showing kids the richness of their own culture and language. I’m not sure what to make of the irony that a Russian-only-speaking administrator at a school where classes taught in Kyrgyz are shutting down because of low enrollment praised Kyrgyz Language Day celebrations in the language of a former colonial power (and I’m not sure I ever will know what to make of it), but for the moment, I was proud of being one of ~5 million people on earth to know Kyrgyz.

Kyrgyz may not my mother tongue, but while I’m living here, it’s certainly my language.

Kurman Ait / Eid al-Adha / the Sacrifice Feast in Kyrgyzstan

Айтыңар маарек болсун / Aytyngar maarek bolsun / Happy Kurman Ait! After fasting for 40 days for Ramadan and celebrating the end of Ramadan with Orozo Ait, Muslims around the world gathered for the Sacrifice Feast, one of the most important Islamic holidays.

The Sacrifice Feast is a huge deal for Muslims, and it’s celebrated worldwide each year. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, the date of observance changes from year to year, although it’s always celebrated a set number of days after Orozo Ait. This year, September 12 marked the Sacrifice Feast, which Kyrgyz people call Kurman Ait, and which is also commonly referred to as Eid al-Adha.

The Sacrifice Feast honors the willingness of Ibrahim (AKA Abraham) to sacrifice his son. As Ibrahim slid a knife across his son’s throat, he looked up to see his son’s body replaced by a ram; the angel Jibra’il (AKA Gabriel) appeared to tell Ibrahim that God had already accepted his sacrifice. I love the overlap between Quranic/Biblical/Toraic stories – while the Torah/Bible tells the story as though Abraham’s son Isaac was up for sacrifice, in the Quran, it’s Ismail, Ibrahim’s son with Hajar.

The story leading up to the sacrifice goes something like this: Ibrahim had to leave his wife and baby son in Arabia to return to Canaan on God’s command; the provisions he left them didn’t last, pushing Hajar to run between the hills al-Safa and al-Marwah seven times in search of water. She prayed to God, and suddenly a spring of water appeared to save her and Ismail. (This spring became the lifesource for Mecca, which eventually became a trade hub, bustling desert city, and religious center for Muslims.) Years later, when Ismail was grown, God commanded Ibrahim and Ismail to build a place of worship; together, they built a simple stone structure, called the Kaaba. It was only after this that God called on Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail.

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“Ibrahim and Ismail” via Amaana.org

There are plenty of parallels between the sacrifice story and traditional Hajj (pilgrimage) rites. It’s one of the five pillars of Islam to complete the Hajj (though the logistics of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide trying to make the pilgrimage to Mecca mean it’s not always possible, and the commodification of religion and unthinkable wealth in Saudi Arabia mean the experience can be out of reach for average people). Muslim pilgrims follow the prophet Muhammed’s journey in 632, which involves visiting several holy sites and participating in several rituals. Al-Safa and al-Marwah, the two hills where Hajar ran for water, mark an important stop on the Hajj; pilgrims throw stones in commemoration of Ibrahim’s rejecting Satan; millions of animals (sheep, goats, cows, camels) are slaughtered and shared with the poor; and in the most iconic ritual, Muslims dressed in white walk around the Kaaba seven times. I’m totally fascinated by the Hajj, and you can learn more about it by following Diia Hadid, a correspondent for the New York Times, on her pilgrimage here and here.

I don’t know whether some rituals of Kurman Ait parallel the sacrifice story or Hajj rites or both, but let’s dig deeper into the slaughtering of animals. It’s expected that people will slaughter an animal of some sort (an estimated 100 million animals are killed during Ait every year) and divide the meat into 3 parts: 1 to keep, 1 to share with relatives and neighbors, and 1 to give to the poor. In Mecca, pilgrims can choose from several species for their sacrifice, which reflects the diversity of cultures where Islam is practiced. In Kyrgyzstan, the go-to animal is a sheep.

prepping

At my house, we slaughtered two sheep in the course of three days. The prayers said over the sheep were different than usual, more an expression of thanks for what my family had overcome and enjoyed than a statement of hope for the future: my host mom was treated successfully in the hospital, my host brother started university, the tourist season was lucrative this year, I joined the family, instead of “May you be successful, may you be healthy, may you be wealthy.”

Literally every bit of those sheep was consumed. The intestines were cleaned out 6 times, braided up, stuffed with rice; the eyeballs were pried out and fought over as a tasty delicacy; the brains ended up on the breakfast table the next day. This wasn’t my first кой сой koi soi sleep slaughter, but it was the first time I’ve participated every step of the way, from prayer to standing around awkwardly while male relatives pull off the skin, crouching over several basins of water to clean out the intestines, watching the meat cook over the kazan stove, gathering around the table to enjoy several hours of work.

slicing
burning
braiding
helping

While we didn’t give 1/3 of the sheep to the poor, we certainly did not keep the meat for ourselves. All morning on the 12th, I helped my host mom and several of her sisters, as well as their kids, set our дасторкон dastorkon table for guests. We had salads, figs, cookies, fruit, and nuts to feed an army, and that was before the meat got put out. Meat is served in order from oldest/most honored to youngest, and the oldest man (who also happened to be pretty tanked on vodka) traded pieces with me, landing me the biggest, fattest piece of sternum I’ve ever seen in my life. Fortunately, the whole point of guesting here is to take 75% of your plate with you in a plastic baggie, so it wasn’t considered rude of me to make only a dent in my slice. And in the tradition of packing everything up in cellophane baggies, the 1/3 of the sheep meant to go to friends and neighbors was dispersed to the other homes in my neighborhood.

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house 2
house 3
girl paket

For the rest of the day, and most of the next day, I walked around with the neighbor ladies and their young kids to for “ait-ing.” We spent an hour or so at every family’s home, and with every house, the amount I could eat shrunk and shrunk. I don’t know whether people coordinated on their Kurman Ait menus, but every house had a different display of salads and a unique main course – manty dumplings at Burulcha Eje’s house, lagman noodles at Venera Eje’s, roasted chicken at Mirgul Eje’s. Normally I’d be pumped to eat all these things, but after 6 three-course meals, it literally hurt just to look at the plate of food in front of me.

At a few of the guestings, someone’s husband would show up and recite a prayer in Arabic before we ate, but at most of the visits, the Kyrgyz tradition of praying and “oomin-ing” after the meal was the only show of religion. Oomin-ing involves holding your hands together while someone, normally the oldest woman or an honored guest, recites a бата bata blessing. We took turns giving the bata all day; I had my own chance to give a good one, and the ladies smiled knowingly that I finally know all the bases to cover (may you have a long life, may you be healthy, may your children study well, may we live in peace).

There are tons of ways to say “Happy Kurman Ait” in Kyrgyz, but one stood out to me in particular because it’s a unique call and response greeting. When you tell a person “Айтыңыз маарек болсун Aityngyz maarek bolsun May your Ait be blessed,” they should respond: “Бирге болсун Birge bolsun Let us be together.”

Birge bolsun.

Top 10 of the World Nomad Games

So maybe you heard (and it’s likely you did, given my aggressive social media’ing and the pretty extensive press coverage by international news outlets), but last week marked the second World Nomad Games, held in none other than my site, Cholpon-Ata. I guess “Olympics meets Central Asia, with a dash of flaming horsemen” describes the World Nomad Games (WNG) in a nutshell, but the 1.6 billion som (~23 million USD) event that brought thousands of athletes from more than 60 countries for a week of sports unique to Central Asia was also so much more than that.

Bummer if you couldn’t make it to Kyrgyzstan for this, but you’ll feel like you were basically there after reading this Top 10 list.

10. The Opening Ceremony

The WNG opening ceremony really, truly rivals that of this year’s Olympics opening and those of the past few years. It covered thousands of years of history, from Alexander the Great discovering the walnut to Mongol invasion, and beautifully blended parts of Kyrgyz culture. Watch all 2 hours of amazing song, dance, and performance here, or just skip ahead to 1:50:00 to check out Team USA crossing the stage (but then go back and watch the whole thing).

The video is great, but it can’t capture the giddiness of listening to a thousand komuzes play in sync, of dancing kara jorgo with hundreds of other people, of getting texts from people all over Kyrgyzstan that they saw me on TV, of hearing “United States of America” called and waving to 10,000 spectators. This was, hands down, one of the coolest nights of my entire life.

team usa waving
flag
team usa

9. The Music

You’ll never need to make another pump-up playlist in your LIFE if you download the top hits of the WNG, I promise. The WNG гимн/hymn/anthem alone (yeah, it’s got a freaking hymn) is enough to listen on repeat forever, but some of the other songs featured in the opening and closing ceremonies are also amazing.

8. Nomad Cowboys Playing Kok Boru

The US Embassy flew in a ragtag group of cowboys (half career ranchers from Wyoming, half actors-cum-horsemen from New York) to Kyrgyzstan just for WNG. They learned to play kok boru, which is basically rugby played on horseback with a decapitated sheep carcass, overnight and were thrown into a match against a Russian team from Krasnoyarsk.

I went into the first game expecting the Americans to face plant, but the Russians showed incredible sportsmanship and patience in guiding the Nomad Cowboys through their first game of kok boru ever. Team USA won 7 whole points (despite losing horribly against Team KRS), and it was so cool to watch them figure out how to carry the 40kg goat body and lug it into the kazan (goalpit). The announcers were also excited about the Nomad Cowboys and made all kinds of sweeping generalizations about these guys being the best kok boru players on the other side of the ocean (which may be true, actually), about them learning so quickly, and about them being мыкты оюнчуулар mykty oyunchular awesome players. The crowd loved the Nomad Cowboys, which made watching this match especially enjoyable.

kok boru

7. Kyrchyn Ethnovillage

So the cowboys were busy playing kok boru at the new hippodrome, the wrestlers were thrashing about in a giant sports complex, the intellectual gamers (see #6) were doing their thing in a nearby resort, but way out in Кырчын жайлоо/Kyrchyn jailoo/Kyrchyn summer pasture 500+ yurts popped up out of nowhere (well, from all 7 regions of Kyrgyzstan) to make a little ethnovillage. Each oblast, and then Osh and Bishkek cities, had their own section of yurts, which they decorated according to the traditions and vibes of their region – my favorite was Batken, the 1 region that’s off-limits to Peace Corps volunteers, where I did a short interview about my favorite foods for local TV and drank tea with a bunch of older women in their yurt. But obviously, I was also excited to visit “Jalal-Abad,” drink kymys in “Naryn,” buy some handicrafts in “Osh,” and pose in front of the Burana Tower in “Chui.” Dang, a busy day hitting all 7 oblasts in just a few hours.

The nature was beautiful, the air was clean, shashlyk (kebab) of all varieties was cooking, military jigits were playing American football, tiny Kyrgyz kids in kalpaks were throwing lassos, men were reciting Manas, boys were walking around with birds of prey of all sizes, the list of amazing things at Kyrchyn goes on and on. Most of the fun was centered at the American Corners yurt, where red-white-and-blue streamers hung next to homemade dream catchers and traditional Kyrgyz felt decorations, and which was host to a group of Native American dancers and the Nomad Cowboys for cultural demonstrations.

As you can imagine, I spent most of the day wandering around, my eyes big with wonder trying to take it all in. I can’t believe this place is so close to my home, and I really hope to go back to see Kyrchyn (even without the yurt village) sometime in the future.

jailoo 3
jailoo 1
jailoo 2
ejes from batken
ow

6. Learning a New Game

In elementary school, I played a lot of mancala, but never did I expect that I would play a similar version of the game in an international sporting competition. In preparation for the World Nomad Games, I downloaded two mangala apps on my phone and practiced against myself. (How upsetting when I noticed that I was losing against myself, and how uplifting when someone dear to me reminded me that despite losing to myself, I was still, in a sense, winning.)

The night before my first official game, I played on a mangala board with real korgool pieces (well, not real korgool because that word means sheep dropping; we used little nuts instead) against a real, not-me human player. In that game, I stumbled through picking up and counting the pieces, but quickly learned the parlance (“Start with 5-1 on white,” “4, 6-2 is a good response on D”) and forced myself to have enough patience to count out all possibilities and to think through moves before picking up the pieces. Somehow I turned out to be pretty good at this game, probably thanks to playing mancala as a kid, next up is the more Kyrgyz and more complicated toguz korgool.

team photo
toguz korgool

5. The Judges of the “Intellectual Games”

The men responsible for judging and ref’ing the “intellectual games,” as mangala and toguz korgool are referred to, were seriously amazing people. On the first night before the competition started, they were so patient with teaching us the rules and showing us the ropes of using a chess timer (note: only click it with the hand you used to make the move). Throughout the competition, Kamchybek Baike, the head ref, and Nurbek Baike, a world champ and technically the coach of the Swiss team, cheered on the Americans and checked on our standings after every match. After every win, I was so excited to tell them my korgool count; after every loss, I went to them immediately for feedback on where I went wrong.

(Plus, they treated all the athletes of toguz korgool and mangala to a free, catered boat cruise on lake Isyk-Kul, so there’s that.)

4. Winning a Medal

What a freaking trip to learn a new strategy game a week before the competition, stumble my way through the individual bracket, then dominate the heck out of the team bracket with my oblast-mate and fellow lady boss Sarah. We took the bronze in team mangala, which required beating teams from Yakutia (far northern Russia), Altai (eastern Siberia), and China. I never expected to win a single game, let alone win a medal. Sarah and I took home 1 of only 4 medals won by American athletes at the WNG, say what?

It was such an amazing feeling to have a medal wrapped around my neck while the US flag hung behind us, and it was an even more amazing feeling to donate the 20,000 som (280 USD) in prize money to a women’s rights organization here in Isyk-Kul.

winners

3. Nerding Out About Language

The World Nomad Games were a dream for a Eurasian language nerd. People from all over the Turkic-speaking world showed up in a tiny town in Kyrgyzstan, where they maybe bothered to toss in some Russian or English, but really just stuck to their sub-branch of the Ural-Altaic language family. And while I tried my best to throw out the random Azeri, Turkish, and Tatar words I know (The one word of Tatar I learned at 15 came in handy and made a bus full of swoll Tatar wrestlers laugh, thanks Aigul!), I also ended up just sticking to Kyrgyz when chatting. There was Kyrgyz to Turkish, Kyrgyz to Azeri, Kyrgyz to Turkmen, Kyrgyz to Kazakh, Kyrgyz to Uzbek – and nobody batted a freaking eye that all this was happening. I’ve definitely been the person who scoffed at the idea that these languages are interchangeable, but for the purposes of WNG they really were perfect substitutes. The World Nomad Games were basically my linguistic heaven.

2. Meeting the Organizers and Volunteers Behind the Event

In the week I spent at the WNG, I met so many talented Kyrgyz youth. The WNG brought in hundreds of volunteers from all over Kyrgyzstan, most finishing high school or starting university; they were responsible for all the grunt work, from picking up 60,000 tons of trash to shuttling around the international athletes who couldn’t speak Kyrgyz or Russian to making sure the logistics of the event actually stayed in place.

This event was one of the best organized I’ve attended in Kyrgyzstan, and one of the best designed events I’ve been to ever. All of it – the branding and concerts and events – was the brainchild of young people in the Kyrgyzstani government. Aibek, a civil servant working for the Ministry of Youth, picked me and a few volunteers up on the side of the road while we waited for a shuttle to the Kyrchyn Ethnovillage. On the ride, we chatted in a mix of English and Kyrgyz about the games, about our time in Kyrgyzstan, and our observations about the country. Aibek seemed so focus on getting our feedback for how to make Kyrgyzstan better, but we kept assuring him that the WNG and the young people responsible for organizing it and making it happen were proof that good things are coming this country’s way.

1. Making Connections with Athletes from Around the World

The Azeri teenager who climbed onto my balcony to say “Selam” after snagging an armful of peaches from the tree growing outside our room; the 6 kids from Yakutia who played Memory with me while waiting for results to come up and asked if I knew Justin Bieber and if I liked water, Game of Thrones, and apples; smiley Ainur, the coach of the Kazakh team, who winked and said “I don’t know how to play well!” when I asked for advice on strategy; the entirety of the Pakistani team, especially the tech genius who unfortunately fell ill with food poisoning the night before toguz korgool started and so got DQd; Trevor from Antigua, who invited us all to a waorri competition in 2018; the woman from Bashkorostan who let me wear her traditional headdress and surprised me with her bright blonde hair; the US mas-wrestlers who thought it was hilarious that mas in Kyrgyz means “drunk”; the Brazilian team leader, who never took off his sunglasses or suit the whole 7 days of the WNG and who laughed at my attempted Portuguese; Oscar from Colombia who always wore white on white and danced so adorably at the closing ceremony; Atilla, the Kyrgyz-Turk who was patient with my rusty Turkish and had the best headwear of all the athletes; the trio of super hip Kyrgyz boys who kept the intellectual games room in shape; the Tajik guy who at once pushed a lot of buttons and yet also was so respectful of our boundaries, and who said the most beautiful things about living together in peace and friendship.

azeri girl
tajik guy
mongolia and co
yakut kids

Literally the list goes on and on, because I came across so many people from so many regions of the world, who spoke so many different languages (but made it work in some combination of English-generic Turkic-Russian) and who gave the WNG such a fantastic atmosphere.

Peace Corps trains us to blend in, to avoid being too flashy about our citizenship, so it was really strange to be plastered in American flags and “USA” all over my body for a week. I was nervous for negative attention, especially hanging around Team Iran or Team Afghanistan or Team Pakistan because #politics. But it was so refreshing and really inspiring to see . In his speech at the opening ceremony, President Atambaev complained that sports have become too political, an apt observation after this summer’s Olympics in Rio; he praised the World Nomad Games as a way for people to come together above politics, and I think that ended up being really true.

holding the flag

It’s That Time of Year: First Day of School

Summer’s over (it’s been a long one), which means school is starting. Last year I was so stressed about the beginning of the school year, but this year I’ve embraced the zen life and am having a great time going with the flow.

Technically, teachers have been working since mid-August, but since I’ve been busy with my camp and with finishing up summer projects, I only got called in for the last big hurrah: subbotnik. Subbotnik basically means “group clean-up,” and it usually applies to kids having to clean up the school grounds. In anticipation of all the guests coming to Cholpon-Ata for the World Nomad Games, though, this subbotnik was for teachers. All the teachers from my school (and from schools of nearby villages) gathered for our assignment, which ended up being to pull weeds and sweep the sidewalk around the hospital. We spent a few hours doing this, or more accurately, an hour pulling weeds and then a few hours talking about pulling weeds, standing in the shade, admiring Colleen’s Kyrgyz, asking when there’d be a tea break, and taking pictures. It was a great afternoon, and I felt like I’d finally integrated because I showed up for hard labor wearing a sundress and wedge sandals. All that with the sloppy hat someone lent me had me looking like a real Kyrgyz teacher.

subbotnik2
subbotnik1
group pic subbotnik

With Cholpon-Ata looking nice and clean, and our school gleaming with a fresh coat of paint, it was time for the students to actually show up to school. September 1 is the ubiquitous back to school day in the former Soviet Union, and it’s celebrated as Билим Күнү / День Знания / Day of Knowledge across the 15 former Soviet republics. Day of Knowledge entails a pep rally of sort, with students lined up by grade in front of the school, all dressed up in their галстуки (the little red kerchiefs) and бантики (poofy white hair-ties).
bantiki

At my school, we celebrated the Day of Knowledge with a flourish — a famous singer performed a Russian song about September 1, a 4th grade girl sang a song about being from a little village, and some 10th grade girls performed a traditional Kyrgyz dance. After all the singing and dancing, the director gave a speech imploring all the students to study hard and learn well, and finally it was time for First Bell.

First Bell is a special ceremony that ushers in the school year; it’s a big day for 1st graders, who are embarking on a long journey to primary education, and it’s a big day for 11th graders, who are starting their last year of primary education and have to take test after standardized test this year. An 11th grade boy carries a 1st form kid on his shoulders, while an 11th grade girl walks another 1st form kid in front of all the teachers, students, and school administrators. All the while, the 1st form kids are ringing tiny bells (hence First Bell).
IMG_8002
english teachers

Even though September 1 is the Day of Knowledge, there’s no actual class that day… And there was no actual class today, September 2. The bells rang every 45 minutes, to signal that students were supposed to switch from Kyrgyz language to biology or Russian literature to geography. But, the bells were ignored (except when my 7th grade homeroom class was scheduled to go to gym; then they all got excited to go to their lesson outside) and a group of kids joined my counterpart for a trip to the library to pick up all the textbooks. It’s unclear when, exactly, the regular class schedule will start here, but I’ve got a vibe from the director (a really sharp Russian woman, Lyudmila Nikolaevna, who’s got purple hair) that things will be on track very quickly.

In the meantime, I’ve got a smile on my face as I lead impromptu English games, am paraded around the school to eat pastries and drink tea, and wait for a meeting with the English teachers to figure out how many hours I’ll work with everyone. It’s funny to me now that a year ago my stress levels were through the roof because of the school schedule – maybe I’m less stressed now because Peace Corps really does change people, or maybe it’s just because my students are so dang cute.

7g

For When Internet Jok 6

Although I’m often amazed at how great telecommunications work in this country, there are still stretches of time when internet jok — there’s no internet. In anticipation of those long hours, days, weekends, I like to load up on reading material while at work or cafes. [In this edition’s case, internet jok isn’t so much the problem as ubakyt (time) jok. I spent the summer working my butt off, and reading of all kinds — books, internet — fell to the bottom of my priority list, oops.] Here’s a compilation of some of the things that made me look twice and think a while, mostly about Kyrgyzstan, international development, foreign policy, feminism, and language. Enjoy.

Play Uzbek Music, But Only With Uzbek Instruments: The Uzbek Ministry of Culture and Sports has essentially (but not officially) banned the tar, a stringed instrument with Persian origins from Azerbaijan. The ways the Ministry is limiting the tar, and their control of the narrative surrounding the tar and Uzbek culture, is fascinating. “How far the authorities intend to go to enforce the use of only Uzbek instruments for playing Uzbek songs, or even all of what qualifies as a traditional Uzbek song is unclear (Look out Flyin’ Up).”

Yangalif: My good friend Valentina just finished a year as a Fulbright fellow in Almaty, Kazakhstan, where she was researching alphabet reform and national identity in Kazakhstan. AKA right up my dang alley. Her website is a collection of informal interviews with Almaty residents on the subject, but each page also has nuggets about national identity, geopolitics, and ethnic tension. I’m obsessed, you should be too. “But with Latinization, the Kazakhs might have adopted the letter “j” for the sound “zh,” while the Uzbeks took “z.” This reflected on the pronunciation of words, and opened a rift between the languages. Even today, the linguistic differences between Uzbek and Kazakh, for example, are attributed to the Soviet border-drawing. Praise universality, realize sectionality.” 

That’s a Wrap, Folks (Or, the Jalal-Abad Rural Teachers’ Methodology Camp)

It’s finished!!! After 6 months of work, the Jalal-Abad Rural Teachers’ Methodology Camp is over – and I’m so proud of the results.

Back in March, I wrote a Small Projects Assistance (SPA) grant through Peace Corps to fund a camp for teachers in Jalal-Abad oblast. At this point in time, I knew I would be changing sites, but I wanted a chance to have one last impact on Jalal-Abad. The idea for a teachers’ camp came about through conversations with some colleagues from Jalal-Abad State University, who complained about the lack of opportunities for English teachers in the region. My cohort is the first to send volunteers to Jalal-Abad in 5 years, and even then, the volunteers are clustered around the regional capital – leaving the western raions (think counties) without access to methodology trainings, English practice with native speakers, and teaching resources. Together with my counterparts Gulmira and Aliya, I wrote a grant asking for $1300 to put on a 5-day camp that would bring teachers from the 4 western raions of Jalal-Abad together for teacher trainings and an exchange of best practices and ideas for activities and classroom management strategies.

At the time, writing the grant felt overwhelming, but it turns out that writing it was the easy part. Actually finding a place to hold the camp, gathering 24 teachers to take part in it, buying all the materials, writing all the lesson plans… Now that was something else. Add in the struggles of doing all this planning from afar, and you’ve got a recipe for logistical disaster. But! I managed to work out a system of communication with my counterparts; we eventually figured out who was good with email versus phone calls, who had the network to accomplish certain tasks best, and who could manage the money. The final product looked a little different than what was proposed in the grant application, but the camp was successful nonetheless.

nature mountain

cottages

Check out the cute little cottages where Jacob and I stayed

We held the camp in the beautiful Padysha-Ata Nature Reserve, about an hour outside of Kerben and several hours from Jalal-Abad City. My friend Jacob, a volunteer in the Naryn region, made the trek to come help, and we were joined by 4 local trainers from Jalal-Abad City. We had a day to go over the final camp schedule and all the materials before the participants showed up the next day… and to have a little party with plenty of toasts to the success of the camp.

After registering for the camp, taking a pre-test, and playing some ice breaker games, we got straight to work. The teachers, who had traveled upwards of 8 hours to attend the camp and who have barely any opportunity to practice English at their schools, dove right in to 8 sessions (taught entirely in English) about teaching methods. We learned how to give instructions, how to give feedback, how to set realistic goals, how to write a lesson plan, and ways to better teach the 4 skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening). It was exhausting, both for the participants and for the trainers, but in the end, the trainings seemed effective.

happy face

Registering for camp is so fun!

welcoming
teaching
burger method
hello waving

After the methodological trainings, the teachers were paired up to give demo lessons in anticipation of the 3 trainings they would be required to give in their communities after the camp in an effort to spread knowledge and make the camp sustainable. Despite having only 3 hours to prepare, these teachers came up with incredible visual aids and really fun activities. It was amazing to watch them incorporate the lessons we taught (giving clear instructions, organizing a lesson into 4 parts, using interactive games to practice new material), and I’m so excited to hear reports about the trainings they give at their own schools in the future.
demo lesson 3
demo lesson 1
demo lesson 2

We also did a session about Student Friendly Schools, a project initiated by UNICEF that’s been picked up in a handful of Peace Corps countries. The main goal of Student Friendly Schools is to improve the overall quality of schooling and address threats to participation, which in Kyrgyzstan include bullying and racketeering, pulling kids out of school during the harvest, and kids staying home to take care of younger siblings, among other things. We talked about the roles and responsibilities of teachers in Kyrgyzstan, the way “bullying” takes place, and the link between these two themes. It was amazing to watch certain teachers who had been quiet during other methods sessions really come into their own as leaders during this Student Friendly Schools session; they had incredible ideas for how to improve quality and access of education for Kyrgyz children that I hope will be implemented in their schools soon.

sfs 1_7854

Group work during the Student Friendly Schools session

sfs 2

Our posters for the Student Friendly Schools session

Of course, camps are a chance for volunteers and their counterparts to teach their communities something. In the case of this camp, the trainers definitely succeeded. The pre/post-test scores demonstrate the need for this type of methodological training in rural areas and the effectiveness of methods trainings in a short period of time. The average score on the pre-test was 2.5 / 40. After just 4 days, the average score on the exact same test had jumped to 23.9. While not a perfect average score, I am still so proud of what these teachers learned in such a short period of time, and I hope that with the handouts and materials we provided them, the participants will only continue to fortify the knowledge gained at this camp.

But these types of projects also offer a chance for volunteers to learn something from our communities. In my case, it was learning to let my American need for precision and order fall away in favor of savoring The Moment. One afternoon, when I was cranky and grumbling about the fact that we were 90 minutes behind schedule, I let go of the plan and followed my counterpart into the woods on “an excursion.” And thank goodness I did, because walking across rickety-clickety bridges gave me a new appreciation for my life and civil engineering, I got a hundred selfies with my teachers in various spots around the park, and I learned just how delicious wild plums can be.

the river

The view of the river during the “excursion” my counterpart took me on


sunset

So the camp wasn’t all work, and we tried to incorporate some organized fun into the schedule. One night, we played Jeopardy, with categories ranging from TOEFL vocabulary to American Geography, and there was a Final Jeopardy about Beyoncé (because who else?). Another night, Jacob taught everyone the Bunny Hop and the Cha Cha Slide, until the Kyrgyz songs came on and he wowed everyone with his Kara Jorgo skills. It’s not a camp in Kyrgyzstan, after all, until there’s an eje dance circle.

dancing

Now the camp is over, the evaluation forms have been filled out, my report to Peace Corps has been submitted — now I finally get to enjoy a short week of summer. Any bad memories of receipts or budget spreadsheets or scheduling confusion are gone, and I’ve got the thought of hugging all these teachers goodbye and wishing them good luck in my mind. That’s a wrap on my last big project for Jalal-Abad, folks!

group pic

The participants of the camp

Summer + Crunch Time

The Peace Corps Blog it Home contest is still going on (STILL, yeah, I know)… TL;DR about this contest: I’m a finalist in a blogging competition and if I do well in this final round of voting, I can go to DC for a conference with other volunteers that will involve all kinds of cultural exchange and professional development opportunities. Please cast your votes for my blog by clicking HERE and hitting “like” and pressing “share.” Sharing is caring, after all.

This contest is just one week in a summer that’s felt like forever. I’ve been all over the country this summer, taking trips for work and for leisure. I’ve attended trainings, given trainings, lounged a lot, and sipped on enough kymys to last me a lifetime (slight exaggeration, I’ve come to like the stuff).

I’m tired tired tired out by summer, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I won a grant to organize a summer camp for teachers in really rural areas that haven’t had Peace Corps volunteers in more than half a decade, and I’ve got less than a week to wrap up the budgeting, the lesson planning, and the organizing. Maybe I’ve earned myself a few gray hairs from putting this camp together, but I am so looking forward to working with these teachers (and, admittedly, the moment when the camp is finished, the selfies are taken, and I’m on the road back to Cholpon-Ata for good).

And now, the last month in pictures. Apologies that there are barely any pictures; my camera roll is sparse, which means I these must have captured some good moments.

osh sunset
aika is 13 now
kara jorgo kids
yurt
toktogirls
the lake

“Blog it Home,” Welcome to Prekrasno

If you landed here thanks to Peace Corps’ Blog it Home contest, welcome! I’m Colleen, and I’m glad to have you here reading this blog. Please cast your votes for my blog by clicking HERE and hitting “like.”

For the competition, I had to choose one (yeah, ONE) photo to encapsulate all of Kyrgyzstan. It wasn’t easy, but after sifting through thousands of pictures and making shortlist after shortlist, I settled upon this gem:

ejes on a mountain

It’s not a super flashy picture, there’s no yurt or closeup of a baby — but this is Kyrgyzstan to me. There’s the young-meets-old dynamic, in which a young girl in a t-shirt and shorts helps an older eje in a headscarf to slide down a rock; there’s the reimagining-the-traditional dynamic, in which these people have gathered on a sacred mountain that served as a pilgrimage points for Muslims during the Soviet Union; there’s beautiful Osh City with its windy mahalla streets and monster samsas for sale down below. I love this country so much, and there’s just something about this picture that speaks to that love.

If you’re a first-time reader, I’d suggest looking at the “About” pages to get to know more about me and Kyrgyzstan. Once it’s all clear who’s writing this stuff and where this country is, you’ll be ready to graduate to the big leagues. If you’ve already read my 10 favorite posts, here are a few more gems from the past 15 months of service:

Thanks so much for reading Prekrasno – whether you just stumbled upon this blog today or you’ve been reading for years (looking at you, GGP), I’m thankful for your support! Voting lasts from August 11-August 15, so first VOTE then tell everyone you know to do the same. Let’s bring KG to DC!!!