At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir
by Janet Givens (Kazakhstan 2004–06)
Ant Press, August 2014; Birch Tree Book, 2015
$14.99 (paperback), $4.99 (Kindle)
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993–96)
At 55, Janet Givens and her husband, Woody, join the Peace Corps and go to Kazakhstan.
Woody had been a Professor of Speech Pathology at Temple University, and Janet was a Certified Gestalt Psychotherapist. Leaving their comfortable life, their children, their grandchildren and their beloved dog was heartbreaking, but they met the challenge wholeheartedly. Their first months with their host family brought the predictable culture shock, with emotional tensions that nearly shattered their marriage. While Woody expected respect in his university teaching position, as an expert in his field, Janet wanted the grass roots Peace Corps experience, without cell phones or lap tops, learning how to teach young people English in a baffling academic system. Janet embraced their host family, while Woody resented living with other people in a cramped space. Janet expresses Peace Corps’ first goal simply: “One of my hopes was that these local people — who’d never met an American before — would like me. And through me, they would like America.”
Givens takes the reader step by step through her town, her school, her new friends. One of the new words she teaches them is “frustration,” her own. When, in the beginning, she finally releases long weeks of tension by sobbing in front of the post office, sobbing out loud, and copiously, you are there with her. And you feel her relief as her tears melt the iceberg of tension that had been building between her and Woody and her counterparts. She learns to give up control. “My role was . . . to accept them as they were, as they accepted what they believed to be their fate.”
She talks about the unvarying food — samsas shashlik, the lack of vegetables, the holidays, like the New Year’s celebration of Nauryz — “ . . . perhaps the oldest holiday in recorded history, a contribution originally from the ancient Persian religion, ” the influence of moderate Islam in everyday life — don’t count people, don’t sit on tables or even desks, the belief in seven heavens.
Her writing is detailed and vivid. How simply she describes the weather in March:
During mud season, winter hung around all night, spring showed up in the morning, summer was in full swing by noon and, by dinnertime, it was autumn.
Givens writes a memoir that also perfectly fulfills Peace Corps’ Third Goal. The book is dedicated to her closest friend and colleague, Gulzhanan, and to Gorbachev, “without whom this story never would have been.” Vacationing in Denmark, she is offended by derogatory comments about Kazakhstan, and she vows “ . . . to change the world’s view of the country I’d so recently misunderstood myself.” She writes lively character profiles of her colleagues and students, and includes charming photos of faces that become familiar through her words. She tells us not only about the personalities surrounding her, but the country itself. I didn’t know, for example, that Kazakhstan is the ninth largest country in the world, strategically located between Russia and China. I also learned that ancient Kazakhstan was known as the Kazakh Khanate (king) and was divided into three regions, each one called a Zhuze. The North was known as the Little Zhuze, the South the Great Zhuze and the center, the Steppe, is the Middle Zhuze. They had been separate regions since the time of Genghis Khan, until they were slowly absorbed by Russia.
Givens describes Kazakhs’ difficult transition from the Soviet Union, with its Communist dogma that had ruled them for generations, to a rudderless society. As Givens notes, they were going through their own culture shock.
Kazkhs surround her with laughter, vivacity, patience and affection, all the more touching for what Janet sees as their lack of opportunities. Her greatest ambition is to help her deserving colleagues come to America, and she does so in the end, through Camp Counselors USA. Their reunions in the States were joyful, indeed.
Givens got lots of feedback before publishing her book; it shows in that it is finely edited. Though her memoir is from the point of view of a person “of a certain age,” it is of great interest to anyone of any age.
I, also, became a Peace Corps Volunteer at 55. I think that being single made my experience easier and perhaps more fun, as I was constantly being fixed up with Muslim men looking for a fourth wife. Families embraced me as they did Givens, as a Mama, even grandmother, and, if I’d never done anything, my age elicited respect and affection.
Janet and Woody’s re-entry experience was typical; nobody seemed to be interested in their powerful story, and they were overwhelmed by American consumerism. But they eventually retired to a bucolic farm in Vermont, and now spend their days surrounded by family, raising ducks and writing. Thank goodness she decided to write At Home on the Kazakh Steppe, a delight for any reader.
Leita Kaldi Davis was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal (1993-96), then worked for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and one on Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon.