Tag Archives: Peace Corps Volunteer

Book Review: Diane Chandler, “The Road to Donetsk”

I was recently contacted by Blackbird Digital Books to read and review a new digitally published novel, Diane Chandler’s The Road to Donetsk. I received a free digital copy of the book and no other compensation. All thoughts and opinions below are my own.

Photo from Google Images

In May 1994, fresh-faced 26-year-old Vanessa arrives in newly independent Ukraine from Manchester, England for her first international aid stint. From Kyiv (Chandler spells it Kiev, the Russian transliteration) Vanessa will oversee the implementation of a £3 billion program to help set up job centers and training to battle rising unemployment after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One of the first non-Ukrainians that Vanessa meets in Kyiv is Dan, an American working for USAID in Ukraine. Before Vanessa is properly introduced, we find ourselves in a propellor plane with her and Dan, on a last-minute trip to Donetsk for a coal mine tour. (Donetsk and its people, we quickly sense, will become a central part of the novel’s narrative.) Vanessa is immediately attracted to Dan’s relaxed American charm, and it does not take long before a romance develops. However, for the first third of the book the romance feels forced and awkwardly dropped into the otherwise fascinating and insightful commentary on Ukraine in its early days of independence.

Chandler vividly and accurately depicts Ukraine in its many guises: simple, sparkling yet laborious village life alongside grim and grimy underpaid miners; expat communities in Kyiv; vast steppe and birch forests; crumbling balconies and garish curtains; complex people who are hard to get to know. Chandler knows her stuff, having managed aid programs in Ukraine around the time she sets the novel. Vanessa’s story at times reads like Chandler’s memoir, so accurately and sensitively does the author portray Ukraine.

Vanessa begins her time in Ukraine as a stereotypical self-professed altruist; she feels a need to “help improve” the lives of the Ukrainians and yet shies away from learning from the people, about the people. Dan emerges as her mentor as well as her lover, feeding her astute commentary such as:

…it’s the way it is here. They expect you to come up with the answers. They always come prepared with their set piece, they toss a problem in the air and then they sit back wanting you to fix it for them. [..] Look, in the Soviet Union, you didn’t speak out, you didn’t offer solutions… (69)

Myriad cultural differences lie under the surface, differences so ingrained into each culture that Vanessa needs all the help she can get to begin to understand them. A surly Ukrainian colleague on the aid program staff helps dispel Vanessa’s naivety:

But do you really expect that we should welcome you here as missionaries? To show us the right ways? If so then you are misled. Because we are more clever than you. Have you any idea of the intelligence we needed simply to survive under communist regime? (355)

This could not be a more timely book, highlighting Ukraine’s precarious position between Russia and Western Europe that has been the case for much of history. This position is particularly relevant since the Euromaidan demonstrations starting in 2013 that have led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine. In the context of the novel, a Ukrainian tells Vanessa at one point that Ukraine stands “at the crossroads between East and West, we are the prize which you and Russia fight over. It is like a tug of war” (354). How times have not changed.

As Vanessa struggles with her position as a western aid facilitator in a complicated country, her romance with Dan also develops its own complexities. The novel’s romantic elements start to feel less forced as Vanessa’s attraction to Dan develops a balance between Dan as a more experienced mentor in the aid world and Vanessa’s fresh, somewhat naive take on it. Recalling that this story is told as an older Vanessa’s memories, we start to sense that something may happen to doom the relationship. Will Ukraine get in the way?

Overall, Chandler’s novel is insightful and enjoyable to read. There are some inconsistencies, such as when Ukraine’s Independence Day is stated as August 25th (it is actually the 24th). I  also found some of the British slang stilted: Vanessa sits “keening silently”; why not just “weeping”? Despite these rough patches, The Road to Donetsk improves greatly after the first third and illuminates important and timely aspects of the aid world.

My reading experience was further enhanced by having lived in Ukraine for over two years as a US Peace Corps Volunteer. I often identified with Vanessa’s feelings and observations about the Ukrainian people and their lives. For example, I never did discover the answer to this conundrum:

…the young for the most part attractive and svelte, while the older peasant women had become almost tubular with age, their skin gnarled. At what point did this transformation happen? I wondered… (150)

Discussion of how Vanessa’s aid program impacts the country and people at the grassroots level also struck a chord with me, as this is what the Peace Corps aims to do in sending out volunteers to communities around a country. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) strive to “walk alongside” the people to foster cross-cultural connections and transfer skills. I remember having similar feelings to Vanessa upon reading this passage near the end of the novel:

That we expect a programme to bring about a lasting and yet so radical change in three short years is unfathomable for me – although I did genuinely expect this back then. […] All those people who came into contact with our programme took with them skills and experience into the local economy, into their future… (383)

Many PCVs begin their service with expectations like Vanessa’s; however, we soon learn that despite all the grants we write and trainings we lead, implementing something sustainable in a country with such a different history, culture, and mindset can be nearly impossible. But the people who do come into contact with a PCV or other aid program take away skills and experience, along with memories, into their futures. The exchange is mutual and it changes us for the better.

———

The Road to Donetsk has been named a Finalist for this year’s People’s Book Prize. You can purchase Diane Chandler’s novel from Amazon UK and Waterstones. Many thanks to Blackbird Digital Books for the opportunity to read and review this fascinating novel.

 

Advertisements

International Women’s Day 2015

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” -Gloria Steinem

Happy International Women’s Day (IWD)! Today is the day to celebrate the achievements of women around the world but also to recognize barriers that many women continue to face and emphasize the need to keep pushing for greater gender equality.

I wasn’t really aware of IWD until my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in Ukraine, where IWD is a national holiday. (I’ve written a bit about how IWD is celebrated in Ukraine here and here.) The holiday isn’t really celebrated in the US — I was talking about this strangeness recently with Hannah, who is currently a PCV in Georgia. Perhaps because it started in Europe, it has never really been adopted by the US (correct me if I’m wrong — I haven’t lived in the US for a while!). It’s only an official holiday in a handful of countries, but today the United Nations recognizes and issues remarks about it.

Anyway, Women’s Day is one of my favorite holidays because it does have a two-pronged effect of celebrating women’s achievements and also drawing attention to the still-rampant inequality across the world and what work still needs to be done to ensure that women have the same rights and opportunities as men.

Along those lines, there are two great initiatives worth learning about and supporting: Emma Watson’s HeForShe campaign, “a solidarity movement for gender equality,” echoing Steinem’s quote above that gender equality is a human rights issue, “not only a women’s issue.”*

The second initiative is Let Girls Learn, a US government initiative “to ensure adolescent girls get the education they deserve.”** The even cooler part of this is that Michelle Obama just announced that The Peace Corps is partnering with Let Girls Learn to continue expanding the areas and ways that girls are encouraged and educated around the world. There will be more targeted trainings for PCVs,  grants for gender-related projects, and more PCVs trained to focus specifically on “advancing girls’ education and empowerment.”*** So good.

Women’s Day also holds a special place in my heart because the work I currently do is exclusively with women. I work at a charity in one of the most deprived boroughs in London; we provide settled migrant women with the opportunity to learn English (my role), learn new skills, gain confidence, and train for future study and work. My students inspire me every day and I am proud to be making even a small difference in the lives of other women.

How do you feel about IWD? What are you doing to make a difference in the lives of women and girls?

*http://www.heforshe.org
*http://www.usaid.gov/letgirlslearn
***https://letgirlslearn.peacecorps.gov

———

“So many things were different, yet the experiences had much in common”: Peace Corps from father to daughter

The following post is inspired by this, from the Peace Corps Passport blog, about a woman whose father, like mine, was a Peace Corps Volunteer before her. Below, with the guidance of some questions asked in the model post, I reflect on how my dad’s stories and experiences as a PCV inspired me to apply and serve. This has been a work in progress for a while, but I thought now was a good time to publish it because in addition to my dad, I now have one more close Peace Corps connection: my good friend Hannah leaves this weekend for her own Peace Corps adventures in Georgia.

my dad and I, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

father & daughter, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

How did your dad’s Peace Corps service inspire you to serve?

I grew up hearing my dad, Terry, tell stories about teaching math and physics at an all-boys high school in rural Mpwapwa, Tanzania, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 1964-1966, in the first five years of Peace Corps’ existence. (Terry writes that Mpwapwa “was a small town, with a small hospital and local population of little more than 1000, which swelled to nearly 5000 when all the 6-7 schools were in session, including the expatriate population of 200 or so, mostly teachers and their families, plus some employees at the Teacher Training College and the Agricultural Station, both a few miles out of town.”)

I might not have joined the Peace Corps if it weren’t for growing up hearing Terry’s stories. He told us about all the cool trips he went on during vacations — I especially liked hearing about his time as an Outward Bound counselor and climbing Kilimanjaro (I can’t remember if those happened together or separately). There was also a story about a Jeep getting stuck in the mud and about his star pupil who would read novels at the back of the classroom and whom Terry always tried to challenge intellectually.

I wanted to have adventures like my dad.

Did your dad encourage you to apply, or was he surprised?

Terry didn’t specifically encourage me to apply. During my senior year of college, I was tossing around gap-year options and he might’ve suggested Peace Corps. Or I came up with it on my own; I can’t remember. I struggled at first with the length of commitment — 27 months — PC service would require. Terry didn’t push me either way. Eventually, I realized that 27 months is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things, so decided to go for it. I don’t think Terry was surprised, though of course he couldn’t have anticipated it when he was a PCV:

Little did I know when I boarded a giant jetliner in the blowing late December snow at Kennedy Airport in 1964, bound for a posting in East Africa with the newly formed Peace Corps’ first group of secondary school teachers, that my daughter would be heading for a posting in Ukraine 46 years later, just shy of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary.

Do you think you went into service with a different perspective because of stories you had heard about your dad’s service? If so, how did those stories shape your expectations and decisions?

Definitely. Because I knew that I’d be serving almost 50 years after my dad, I tried not to let his stories shape my expectations or decisions. I’d be going to a different country at a different time, so I had very few concrete expectations going in. That said, Terry’s stories helped prepare me for big cultural differences and taught me to be open-minded and flexible toward opportunities that might come along. Of course I ended up in semi-rural Ukraine rather than rural Africa, but throughout my service I often reflected on what it must have been like for my dad when he was a PCV.

Did your dad visit you while you were in Ukraine? Did he provide any insight as to how things had changed since he was a volunteer?

My mom and dad visited me during my second spring in Ukraine. They spent valuable time with me at my site, experiencing how I lived and meeting my pupils, colleagues, and friends. Terry has provided a lot of insight as to how things have changed since he was a PCV in Tanzania.

1) The Internet didn’t exist when he was a PCV; no email, no Skype. No cell phones, either — my dad had to go to the larger town/city in order to make the very occasional phone call home. Snail mail was the best option for keeping in touch and sharing experiences with those back home. Terry writes:

We received all our mail, the thin blue folded aerograms from family and friends (that took 10-14 days transit time in both directions), at our school, P.O. Box 3, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.  I believe I had only two telephone conversations with my parents during my two years there, on the only phone available – also at our school in the Headmaster’s office, telephone number: 4, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.

In contrast, many contemporary PCVs — myself included — keep blogs during their service. I Skyped with my family almost every week for the 26 months I was abroad; Skype also allowed me to keep in touch with close friends. I still wrote snail mail, but email certainly played a larger role in regular communication.

2) But despite being fortunate enough to have technology access, I had to learn an entirely new language (with a different alphabet) for my Peace Corps service. Terry didn’t have as much of a language barrier to overcome in Tanzania; Swahili and English are both official languages, and he taught in English. Many fewer people speak English in Ukraine than in Tanzania. Also, my Pre-Service Training consisted of 11.5 weeks living with a Ukrainian host family in a small village. Forty-six years earlier, Terry was trained in the US — here’s what he says about that:

Our 3-month pre-service training had been in the U.S. (common then, as overseas facilities for most of the nascent programs had not yet been established) – ironically, ours was at Columbia Teachers’ College on the upper West Side of Manhattan, a strange setting, it seemed, to prepare us for two years in Tanzania, yet we were taught well.  Except for two things.  First, that my two weeks of practice teaching at Charles Evans Hughes HS on the lower West Side, with daily fights in the hallways drawing occasional blood and mostly indifferent students were a far cry from the disciplined, if rote, eagerness of the African boys at our school, for whom it was a privilege and honor and pass to a future life of their dreams.   Indeed, the greatest class punishment I could administer (as caning was the Headmaster’s prerogative) was to ask a student to leave class for the day – because they feared that some minor topic I would cover in their absence might appear on the comprehensive O-Level Exams (the British system still held) they would take in their senior (Fourth Form = 12th grade) year far in the future.  Second, our linguistic training comprised some 3-5 hrs of Swahili per week (a paltry amount compared to any program now), justified by telling us that we really wouldn’t need Swahili because we would be too busy teaching, and our servants would be able to take care of all our local needs.   Sadly (for me, as I enjoy learning foreign languages), Columbia was right – I taught between 27 and 35 hours per week in class during most of my two years there, and our students never wanted to speak Swahili with us, as they (correctly) claimed “It is much more important for us to learn English, Sir, than for you to learn Swahili!” 

Interesting, no? I’m fortunate to have been trained in-country, teaching “real” Ukrainian pupils and intensively learning the local language. The other striking difference between Terry’s and my service is the fact that Terry and his PCV roommate, Roger, had two servants:

Though we protested about having [servants] initially, we succumbed to social pressure that it would have been snobbery to deny the employment (the Tanzanians also enjoyed working for Americans more than for other “wazungu” = foreigners), but that we had to limit their wages to $1/day so as to not out-price the market.   We also succumbed to dire necessity, due to teaching load and the competing viscissitudes (sp.?) of our life on the school compound – cooking and hot water depended on stoking up the cast iron “kuni” (wood) stove before 6 am (classes began at 8) with the chopped wood (when would we have done this?), and we were expected to wear freshly cleaned and ironed white cotton shirts and shorts for teaching each day (oh, yes, the washing and pressing?).  Our food, whether tinned or fresh from market (shopping too, and the expected bargaining in Swahili?) was cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tea ready for our short morning and afternoon teaching breaks, and served promptly and graciously by Amoni; his “shamba boy” helper Edward did the wood chopping, market shopping, other errands and such gardening as our tiny plot would yield in the arid Central District (ann. rainfall ca. 12″).

Did you catch the fact that Terry taught 27-35 hours of class per week? As far as I know, no PCV teaches that much nowadays: in Ukraine, we were told to teach 16-20 hours/week and use the rest of the time to develop extracurricular projects like English clubs, interest groups, and grants in our communities.

———

So there you go: a brief “then and now” snapshot of my dad’s PC experience in Tanzania (1964-1966) and my experience in Ukraine (2010-2012). It’s amazing how some things are vastly different, yet others have not changed much.

Are you a PCV/RPCV? Do you know anyone who served in the Peace Corps during its early days? How did his/her experience differ from yours?