HCN Remembers The Peace Corps In Turkemenistan

[This is from http://www.eurasianet.org

Written ‘Guljemal,’ a pseudonym for the writer, a Turkmen citizen. Editor note.]

Turkmenistan: Reflections on the Demise of the Peace Corps

September 19, 2012 – 4:12pm, by Guljemal

As a young Turkmen woman who was deeply influenced by interaction with Peace Corps volunteers in the 1990s, I was filled with a wide spectrum of emotions upon hearing about the Peace Corps’ departure from Turkmenistan.turkmenistan_map

Everyone who followed developments in the country suspected that the Peace Corps’ days there were numbered. To some, it was strange that the government of Turkmenistan dragged it out for so long. Even so, the late August announcement was sobering.

Reflecting on the Peace Corps’ legacy in Turkmenistan, some questions popped into my head: How effective was it in promoting democratization? How great a loss is its departure for the Turkmen people? How much did and could it achieve in the country where no decisions can be made without the government’s approval? And I’d really like to know how the US Embassy would substantiate its claim, as stated on its web announcement, that the Peace Corps’ programs “have been extraordinarily successful in terms of achieving its development and cultural exchange goals.”

I can’t say I have answers to these questions, but I do have impressions: my Peace Corp volunteer friends always encouraged me to think critically and question cultural assumptions.

The last time I visited the Peace Corps office in Ashgabat was in 2010, and I was shocked to find that the way it operated had changed. It was not the office I remembered and was fond of. It was an office with half of the volunteers gone, surrounded by a big security wall, where I had to declare my name and intentions before I could enter.

The atmosphere in the office was not welcoming, and the diverse staff of the ’90s was long gone. Just a few staff remained, and those that I met with were neither confident nor able to make any decisions independently. The observed changes did not help foster the organizational mission of “helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” When I described my visit to others, many thought the Peace Corps had left Turkmenistan long ago.

My ambivalence about today’s Peace Corps presence in Turkmenistan will surely anger many former volunteers, including my friends. But if lessons about the closure are to be learned, it’s worth trying to pinpoint when the Peace Corps stopped being a welcoming office with efficient programs that made a difference in the community? When did it start stagnating?

On a personal level, there may be a lot of young people who can talk about their wonderful Peace Corps friends and encounters with friendly and charming Americans. Yet, on a programmatic level, it would seem that the Peace Corps’ decline was not sudden. In the 2000s, there was already much talk among locals that the quality of volunteers was deteriorating-meaning that their educational level, behavior and cultural sensitivity were not appropriate for the country.

My disappointment cannot override my wonderful memories. I will always cherish my friendships with volunteers I got to know. I will always remember the office where I could simply stop by-no security check needed-and hang out with volunteers, discussing the latest political developments, debating cultural issues, borrowing dangerous books like “The Catcher in the Rye,” and learning what Big Brother means. I will always remember an honest, dynamic and vibrant Peace Corps in Turkmenistan before it internalized the stagnant culture of the host country, became inefficient, and worst of all, turned a blind eye to oppressive practices it encountered day in and day out.

The last hours of the Peace Corps and its negotiations with the government will remain a mystery for most of us, probably forever — or at least until Wikileaks provides us with diplomatic cables on the topic. I just wish that the Peace Corps had “died” with more dignity, speaking out against the stifling realities in the country, rather than going quietly to its grave.

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  • Eleven years after the end of my own Peace Corps service, I visited the Peace Corps office in Quito, Ecuador. The situation there was much the same as described above- in 1988. When our unarmed ambassadors of peace have to be defended by trained, armed mercenaries, maybe the world has changed. Maybe good intentions are not enough. The volunteers themselves have not changed much. They are still generally young, educated and full of zeal. However, the agency is quite different as is the world.

  • Thanks for posting this. Several things went through my mind as I was reading.

    To begin, I was there from 2002-2004. I am not sure I can speak to the change in security measures, but I think that they were beefed up after 9/11. I was in the T-11 group, which was the first group to come to the country after PC evacuated in 2001. There was never a hippy vibe to the place while I was there, but it was somewhat relaxed on the first floor. Friendly even. The PCV lounge on the second floor was much more relaxed. I always felt that people in the office were professional. The sense of feeling unwelcome by security is understandable, but then again so too is the real/perceived threat towards PC. I had two friends who were detained by police and threatened. I was once followed by a stranger who made me feel like I was in the CIA. I was not and still am not. I was also picked up by cops and taken to a police station one night while trying to walk home. So, to make it seem like PC is unwelcoming, I can only say that in my experience that wasn’t true. Also, it reflects changes in America too. The high school that I work at for instance, requires that people enter at the front and to go to the main office. There, you must state your purpose and provide ID. But, no one is rude about it. It’s just to keep track of everyone for safety reasons.

    One thing I might agree with is that it’s possible that PCVs didn’t want locals in the PCV lounge. But, that’s not because we weren’t friendly or professional. Rather PCVs often treated their office lounge like a mini-American refuge and preferred to carve out a little piece of home in there. That may have led to locals feeling unwelcome, but it certainly wasn’t intentional. It spoke more to Americans’ sense of longing for home or “normalcy”. If we imagine that Turkmen came and lived in the US, it would be perfectly normal and acceptable for them to have their own space to be themselves. Americans simply wanted a space for that in Turkmenistan as well.

    I think it’s interesting that the Turkmen gal commented on the cultural sensitivity (or lack thereof as the case may be) of PCVs and the relative drop in professional ability. I can only speculate on both points.

    In regards to cultural sensitivity, during my time there, I saw my fair share of ridiculous behavior from PCVs. There were times too when I was a part of them. Typically, however, PCVs tried to “let off steam” in private or semi-private quarters. There were exceptions, no doubt. But T-stan, is also not as permissive as the US, and I know for a fact that some PCVs were more inclined to buck the system out partly out of personal frustration and partly to show Turkmen that they didn’t agree with the culture norms. I’m not saying that this makes a PCV’s actions right in a cultural context, but that there may have been legitimate reasons for them to have acted they way that they did. And it some cases, I would defend that right even if some Turkmen don’t think that we should.

    PC did try to recognize cultural norms and teach sensitivity through training courses. Overall, they were helpful and prevented more issues than we have seen. Of course, people are fallible, and at times, Americans will do what they please regardless of the consequences. I think that Turkmen would benefit by challenging authority more. But all this speaks to cultures clashing more so to the PC lacking professionalism, as far as I’m concerned. There were several times when Turkmen were not particularly well-educated, well-behaved or culturally sensitive either. That’s life. It’s going to happen. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a decline in any of these things.

    With that said, it is possible that the quality of the volunteer was lacking. I felt that this was true, but only to a degree. I suspect that this could be said across a majority of PC sites worldwide, as PC has tried to increase its numbers. Inevitably, that means some people who otherwise wouldn’t have gone would now be able to do so. So, maybe there is some truth to this.

    Yet, like most things, there are other factors at play. I know, for instance, that the Turkmen government banned business as a PCV field. It seems to me that business attracts professional-minded people. When that went away, so too did quality PCVs.

    Additionally, being able to discern that PCVs were somehow becoming less educated and sensitive may be a matter of learning more about them over time. That is to say, I know plenty of adults who are not particularly mature, but present themselves well the first few times you meet them. It may be that as the PC became more and more invested in T-stan, that Turkmen began to learn about our faults as humans. That is not so much a commentary on PCVs or PC, but rather an indication that you are more aware as an individual of what really goes on. That’s a part of growing up. Former illusions fall apart because you realize they were illusions. In the US, PCVs are regarded pretty highly. But, it’s not because of what we actually do, it’s because of what people perceive we do. I suspect that on some level, those who realize that PCVs are mountain movers, have held onto that belief, but are now starting to realize that we are simply people. We fail. Sometimes miserably. But, our intentions are generally noble and just and we seek to benefit those we serve in the best way that we know how. I worked with some wonderful and very intelligent individuals. I do not think it fair to let a few bruised apples to spoil the bunch. My hunch is that this is what’s happened. Then again, I could be wrong.

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