Saturday, June 25, 2011

Spending time in “Peace Corps Uzbekistan” and “Peace Corps Russia”

I may be serving in Peace Corps Kazakhstan, but this summer I got to help at summer camps in Uzbekistan and Russia. Ok, maybe I didn't actually go to those countries, but I was within 10 miles of their respective borders. And I even got a text message from my phone company welcoming me to Uzbekistan!

As I was planning out my summer, it wasn’t my goal to go to the far south to help a volunteer with a summer camp, followed a week later by travel to the furthest north site in the entire Peace Corps. But the 35 hour train ride was totally worth it for the fascinating contrasts I was able to observe in the extreme ends of Kazakhstan.

Let's start with the obvious one: climate. Down south, we were boiling every day. A lethargic air overtook the entire village, and we all took naps in the middle of the afternoon. The landscape was scrubby steppe; even near the huge Syr Darya River there was only a mile or so of flooded swampland before the near-desert took over again.

Up in Siberia, however, everything was still green. The grass was knee high when it wasn't swallowed by birch forests. It even rained the first half of the week, and we woke up to 20 degrees F one morning. (Although by the end of the week the temperatures had soared to the low 80s.)

Language and ethnicity were also very different. On the Uzbek border, the people are mostly Kazakhs, with a fair number of Uzbeks mixed in. Uzbek plov, Kazakh beshbarbak, and Central Asian samsa dominate the menus. Despite being a desert, there are many villages built close together. And most of the people speak Kazakh all the time.

Up on the Russian border, however, there's a large mix of European nationalities: Russian, Ukrainian, Cossack, Armenian and German, in addition to the Kazakhs. In order to communicate with such a varied group of people, most people speak Russian with each other, although within their ethnic groups some people speak their native tongue. The food was Russian kotleti and gulash, although we did find some very bland plov. And despite being so apparently lush, the villages were built far apart. (I guess in the dead of winter it’s not quite so green.)

The main event of each week was, of course, the English camp that we were running for three hours a day. However, one other major event happened at each site that I think illustrates how different the cultures of the north and south are.

In the north, we attended a “Festival of Nationalities” where each of the different ethnic groups in the village did a short presentation about their culture. Groups danced, sang, put on a short play, showed off their national costumes, and brought out dishes of their national foods. (For some groups this included such interesting dishes as “boiled eggs” and “butter.”) The festival felt very Soviet to me. The Soviet policy, in my opinion, was to celebrate the superficial aspects of culture, such as music and costume, in order to give people a sense of individuality and prevent charges of cultural suppression, while at the same time subjugating all the deeper aspects of culture under the socialist agenda of equality and respect for authority. (And also a healthy dose of the superiority of Russian “high culture.”) The “Festival of Nationalities” followed the same agenda of unity together with superficial diversity as it celebrated each of the different “nationalities” of the people in the village. Talking to the German girls beforehand, it quickly became clear that they were much closer to a Russian/post-Soviet worldview than a German one. And I can only assume that the same applies to the other people there; the Soviet Union, at least the most “Russified” places in it, might have been an even better melting pot than America.

“Russification” hasn't got nearly as strong of a hold in southern Kazakhstan. Although there are certainly aspects of the Soviet culture there, Kazakhs in the south are much more traditional. This became clear one day when the volunteer who was hosting the camp got a phone call from her former host family. Her host sister, who was 16 years old, had been bridenapped. Bridenapping is one of the traditional ways that Kazakh men get themselves a wife. They grab the young girl they want to marry and take her to their home. Once the girl has spent the night at his house, whether anything happened between them or not, the two are considered married; at the very least, it would be incredibly shameful for the girl to leave and go back to her family, who will often refuse to take her back. To prevent the girl from running away before the night is over, often the grandmother will sleep in front of the door, since it is considered very terrible to step over an older person. Once the bridenapping is complete, the girl is considered a part of her new husband's family and she cannot leave.

Bridenapping is relatively common in south Kazakhstan (although 16 is younger than most bridenapped girls are.) Volunteers have been asked by their unmarried female students to walk them home because they are afraid of being stolen. However, in the north I have never heard of a bride being stolen. A volunteer from western Kazakhstan said that they sometimes have bridenappings, but usually the couple agrees beforehand because they can't afford the wedding; in this case, stealing a bride is more like a eloping.

Everyone at the camp felt terrible for the stolen girl, because, unless her new husband grants her special permission, she won't be able to attend college in the fall or do any of the other things she was planning for her life. There was nothing her family could do, however, because her mother was unmarried and therefore already in a tenuous social position in the community. The volunteer from that village has had people ask her if she is afraid of being bridenapped. She honestly replies, “no,” because she doesn't fear the social stigma of leaving and has no problem stepping over the grandmother in the doorway to do so. The fact that such ancient practices still exist in some parts of Kazakhstan, however, shows me just how different the traditional south is from the northern Kazakh village where I live.

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