Whispers of the Village: Who Are These Americans?
Peace Corps Volunteers in Azerbaijan know that when they arrive to their sites it’s not likely that everyone will be awaiting their arrival, open arms ready to embrace the service we are here to carry out. Most people likely are surprised by the presence of a foreigner, and then further surprised to see that the foreigner is sticking around for two years, working at a local organization, be it a school or library or, in my case, a bank. I’m here in Lənkəran, a sizable city, and I’m confident that most people would recognize me as someone who has been around a while, but probably have no idea why I am here. I can only imagine the conversations that are or are not happening about my being here. Some folks know, and I’m able to explain, to some extent, that I’m from Peace Corps and what Peace Corps is. Yet, despite all our chances to get on TV around here, and wildly popular videos like this one, most folks still don’t really know.
With that in mind, I was pointed to a fascinating read from Global Voices Turkmenistan (thanks, Ani). A discussion board took off discussing the existence of an American with a camera who’s been teaching English at a neighboring village:
I don’t know whether you have also a similar situation in the area you live but in the neighboring village an American is working as an English teacher. It is obvious that they [the American teachers] aren’t coming here because of the salary of a village school. At the celebrative ‘toy’ events he is filming everything so that some aunts (elder women) from the village started to swear: ‘The haram who should be swallowed by the earth’ [a Turkmen expression meant for someone who is wished to disappear]. He is exhausting our patience by using his camera. What are your views about them? What do you think they are doing in Turkmenistan?
It was not difficult to see this one coming:
They are learning the economic, political and social aspects of the [Turkmen] people. Hence, they are constructing a ‘vicious’ strategy. In short they learn the anatomy of the people, they learn the strengths and the weaknesses. Like in a struggle they use the opponents’ weaknesses.
And this one was a little blunt:
Who knows what their aims are. We should fear them.
Read the fuller discussion at Global Voices.
That these people are expressing distrust and fear isn’t strange. The concept of joining an organization to go live in the largely-forgotten villages of developing countries is a difficult concept for a lot of Americans to understand; even more so for the people we are living with. On my first day here at AccessBank in Lənkəran, one of the loan officers asked if I was FBI or a spy (I informed him that the FBI is domestic). A strong legacy throughout Central Asia and the former Soviet states is an understanding that foreigners are likely spies. You can imagine how this might affect one’s Peace Corps service.
The fascinating part of that discussion from Turkmenistan, however, is how it turns from the people who express fear to those who push for a more open-mindedness:
I am currently working in the Azatlyk (‘Freedom’) Farmers Union in Yoloten. I am video taping whatever I see because here it looks like Afghanistan. Am I also a spy? LOL to you. Go to see America as well, to see their villages with cameras. You won’t be called a spy. Learn and let your thinking progress. Rather than gossiping about America let your thinking grow.
And, finally, someone with knowledge of Peace Corps pipes in:
The English teachers are being sent by the Peace Corps. Likewise, our people are being sent to the States for learning English. There is nothing to be afraid of. Our people can also video tape there. I have seen with my own eyes that how many of them have been taught English. If my family had allowed me I would have brought a girl to live with us if we were a family but the relatives at home didn’t allow and the Corps said that they don’t locate their people in Ashgabat. When I asked why they said to teach the village people English and second they said it is easier to learn the Turkmen language in the villages than in the cities.
So there it is. If you read the lengthier discussion at Global Voices, you’ll see how the conversation twists from confusion and fear, crosses over to conspiracies of religious imperialism and espionage, and finally ends up with people pushing for a more open view of what’s happening as Peace Corps goes into a country.
The key here, it seems to me, is that this former Soviet space is a place where good information is incredibly hard to come by. News outlets and Facebook are closely monitored. Most people don’t have access to sources of reliable information, and those who have the information are intent on guarding it for their own purposes. You can watch this dynamic all the way from down here in my bank branch with various workers and the branch manager, all the way up to people high in the government. This is a situation that breeds confusion and fear of the unknown, because everything is unknown. No one can be sure that the messages they are receiving are true. And no one is sure that someone else doesn’t have a secret on them. As more people are able to travel from these places, expose themselves to reliable outlets, and acquaint themselves more readily with the unknown, that is when these feelings of insecurity and fear will subside.