For those of you familiar with the Peace Corps time line, this is old news. For those of you not as familiar, this is my PC time line. We started training the week we arrived, the first week of October. This is like the NFL training camp of Peace Corps service, with slightly less emphasis on tackling, and slightly more emphasis on cultural sensitivity. We spent the first few days at a posh hotel, as you read below, and now we’re moved in with our host families for pre-service training (PST). We’ll hang out doing language classes, cultural events, and technical training until December, when we’re sworn in as true Peace Corps Volunteers, moving out into the regions of Azerbaijan. Right now, I’m just a lowly PC Trainee.
We’re all assigned to “clusters”, small groups for language and culture learning, and each cluster is assigned a Language & Culture Facilitator (LCF). This all sounds pretty dry until you meet my LCF, Mahira. In short, she’s amazing. She is an older Azerbaijani woman, with an always-ready warm, hearty laugh, and an awesome well of knowledge. She speaks, and has taught, Russian, Azeri, Turkish, French, and English (with a little German sprinkled in) and has worked for other NGOs, including the UN. Although all of our LCFs are rather excellent Azeri people, Mahira is like another Azeri mother for me.
In addition to the language classes, we also get “technical” training. This is where the Community Economic Development part of my training comes in. We have a program manager, Elmir, and program assistant, Fuad, who come to Sumgayit each afternoon to lead this training. It usually involves some group work analyzing community development concepts, guest speakers, and discussions with current Volunteers of the types of assignments we will receive. Elmir has been doing this for five years with the Peace Corps, and he strikes one of the more impressive figures of our training team. He’s got a supremely-sculpted beard-mustache combo that is severe by Azeri standards (most Azeri men don’t maintain facial hair). He also brings us treats like M&M’s on tech training days.
Our guest speakers have been interesting, too. The first speaker we had was an American-trained economist who heads a research group in Baku. He gave us the run-down of the current state of the Azeri economy, including things like the oil sector, recent growth, NGO development, and the severity of bribery and corruption (check out their Transparency International rating). Another speaker is currently with a group called CHF, working on development projects in Azerbaijan with their own specific community development strategy. She described the process that they use for determining projects and elaborated on a few of the projects they’ve implemented, like an education program for women about the problems with early marriage.
The last piece, which has probably been the most illuminating, is when current volunteers come to speak to us about what they’ve been doing and how they’ve approached their work in their communities and with their host organizations. People work with a great range of organizations, from international NGOs to microfinance institutions to agricultural support groups. Some volunteers even work with banks because, despite it being a for-profit business, the needs of the financial sector are so basic that PCVs can really make important changes that affect lots of people.