Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 in review

It’s the week of lists and reviews, the year in review, top 10 lists of the year past, and lists for the year that is just hours away.  Well, if newspapers can do it, then why not Embarkations?  So, forthwith and without pause, looking back on the past year.  (Skip to the end to see the most popular stories.)

Sparing for a last minute run-up in the numbers, 2011 saw:
·         3,385 visits from 2,346 unique visitors (about 9.3 hits/day)
·         The average visit lasted for a little over a minute and looked at 1.4 posts
·         68% of visits were from new visitors

Top countries of origin were as followed:
1.       United States
2.       Moldova
3.       Canada
4.       U.K.
5.       Romania
Although by far, the most interested readers came from Moldova, whose visitors stayed longest and visited the most pages.

Some surprises coming from the U.S., where I’m most popular in Tennessee, followed by California, New York, Texas, and then Illinois at #5.  Colorado came in ninth and Iowa fourteenth.  Overall, visitors represented 95 different countries and all 50 states.

In life, 2011 was a pretty awesome year, with a few strong highlights:
·         Friends: ringing in 2011 in Brasov with Amanda, Sinh, and Miranda.
·         Service: finishing my first year, and all of a sudden being the “experienced one” in the Bloc
·         Work (youth): Winning Plural+ Moldova with my students’ first short film
·         Work (medical center): opening our public showers and hygiene improvement project for the elderly who use the soup kitchen
·         Work (partners): seeing my partner teacher coach new partners through practice school and standing next to my nurse partner – who is terrified of public speaking – speak to a room of more than 80 women about breast cancer
·         Vacation: hard to choose, they were all so amazing, but I think I’ll choose Krakow and Berlin for the HIA conference.
·         Family: seeing Keith and Eugene get married in Korea (cheating, I know, it’s also vacation)
·         Integration: My host-sister Rodica’s wedding
·         For the Peace Corps family: Thanksgiving (integration points for killing a turkey)

I’m also critical of lists, of course, because they tend to wax over the daily flow of life and make it all about the big moments.  In reality, life, and most of Peace Corps, is what happens in between the big successes.  Still, when most readers are so far away, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to distill things down a bit.

And finally, what were the year’s most read stories?
·         Most read story written this year: Another Cup: follow-up on Greg Mortenson, with 523 views
·         Most read post of the year: My Peace Corps Aspiration Statement (posted prior to my departure with Peace Corps), with 1,467 views
The Mortenson piece also generated the most daily traffic I’ve ever seen, garnering 200 visitors in a day and earning first place as the most commented piece on the blog.  Maybe I should follow scandals more often in 2012. (Kidding)

This time last year, I had finished my first semester, and thought, wow, 25% done, looking forward to a productive year of new initiatives.  Now, I’m looking around and saying, wow, it’s almost done, but there’s still so much to do.  How am I going to tie it together?

So, with that, here’s to what has been a great 2011 of successes (and trials)! And here’s to a great 2012 ahead, a year of transitions.  And what could be truer to Embarkations’ theme than that?  Happy New Year and fiți sănătoși!

Monday, December 19, 2011

First place at Plural+ Moldova!

Our film, Casa Parinteasca, took first place at the 2011 Plural+ Moldova National Youth Film Competition!

First Place!

See this Embarkations' post for background on migration in Moldova and our film, which can also be viewed on YouTube here (click the Closed Captioning button in the bottom right of the video player to enable English subtitles).

Plural+ is an international youth film competition run by the International Organization for Migration, but because migration is such a pressing issue here in Moldova, the local country office also runs a national version of the contest.

The film was entirely made by my student film club I run with my partner teacher Olga.  The club's name is "Tinerii Operatori" (Young Camermen), but the kids publicly named our "production unit" Carahasani Studios. The club first started when I mentioned in passing to Olga my intention to post the call for submissions and ask some students if they'd like to participate.

The premier and awards ceremony was held last Friday, at Malldova, Moldova's first (and arguably only) rich-country style mall. (Malldova, Moldova, get it?) The IOM invited all participating teams to the premier ceremony, and even made it possible for teams such as mine to attend by paying for transportation costs.

One thing that seems to transcend Moldovan-American culture is the role of the mall in a teenager's universe, so I knew the event would be a big deal for them.  Still, it's hard to transplant oneself into the place of a rural teenager from a developing country, and even harder to imagine the culture shock they must feel when suddenly dropped right into the center of American consumerism, something only the most elite of the country have access to.  It really hit home for me when Dana, a 9th grader who sat next to me on the bus we rented, squealed at the site of the city.  Then she leaned over, and in a barely restrained whisper told me this was going to be her third time in the city.  Third.  I probably spend more time in the capital in meetings alone during an average month than Dana has spent there her entire life.

We spent a lot of time trying reign in students' expectations ahead of time, saying the cliche types of things that parents say, but that kids always wonder if they really mean.  "It's not about winning.  You've learned so much in this process.  Let's just go and have a good time at the awards ceremony."  I stand by all those statements, but turns out, yeah, adults still want to win.  In fact, watching my students beam after the ceremony, I realize adults probably want the kids to win even more, because winning something yourself doesn't even begin to compare to the feeling of watching your students win something they worked hard for.

Three students (left) giving an interview.
After the awards, our students were the stars of the show.  They took pictures, made friends with other kids, laughed, ate, and even gave 3 interviews (radio, print, and television).  Thankfully, they did not give their dear teachers heart attacks, who had been a bit nervous about chaperoning 24 6th-9th graders from a village around a 4 story mall in the middle of a bustling capital.

As a reward, we took them the the central plaza to see the national Christmas Tree and New Year's decorations.  They'd all seen it on TV, but most of them had never seen it in person.  For those readers who don't grasp Moldovan kids' obsession with taking poze (posed photos), the sheer joy this reward provided cannot be overstated.

Chisinau's National Christmas decorations!

While Plural+ was our initial impetus, once Olga got involved the group became about a lot more than this one contest.  We're already storyboarding our next couple films, a documentary about the village school and a public service announcement about a health topic.  It's incredible how much the kids have learned; in their first attempt, they were able to come up with a sophisticated metaphor where a house personifies the feelings of those left behind in a country that has fallen into disrepair.  Meanwhile, Olga is already planning how to continue Carahasani Studios after I leave.

Celebrating on the bus ride home, (dance party!)
Poze, at Moldova's National Christmas tree.

The Carahasani Studios team (well, most of it; some of them were
running around taking more poze...)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Trans-theoretical Moldel of Behavior Change: Presentation

Human behavior is at the center of global health challenges today.  Whether trying to decrease smoking, increase hand washing, or advocating more balanced diets, changing a few key behaviors holds more potential to improve overall human health and wellness than just about any treatment-based solution.  Consequently, it occupies a key place in public health - the core preoccupation fueling the growth of the entire sub-field of health education.

Likewise, behavior change campaigns - or in the case of youth, often negative behavior prevention campaigns - are at the center of Peace Corps Moldova's Health Education program.  Everything we do, from classes to community initiatives, is essentially part of a broader strategy tackling the slow and difficult process of helping people to take control of their own health for the better.

Needless to say, I've spent a lot of time thinking about behavior change these past couple years (after all, it's also key to Vitality In Action Foundation's work).  I'll have some thoughts on the broader process of behavior change in a future post, but in the meantime, last month I had the pleasure to lead a 5 day In-Service Training on community-based behavior change campaigns for 33 Health Education Peace Corps Volunteers, Moldovan nurses, and community partners (social assistants and teachers).

Below is the presentation I gave on behavior change theory, primarily focused on the Trans-Theoretical/Stages of Change Model.  Contact me if you'd like to use; slides also available in Romanian.

This entry is cross-posted here to "The Vitality Blog".

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Casa Parinteasca", our submission for the 2011 Plural+ Moldova contest!

UPDATE: Subtitles are now live!

The last month has been a busy one: a trip to Korea, teaching a 5 day In Service Training for the M26 Health Volunteers on Behavior Change Communication, and putting together a civic education grant in collaboration with Humanity in Action.  (Hence the short updates of late)

By far, however, the biggest success has been working with my students to prepare a entry for the 2011 Plural+ Moldova Youth Film Contest.  Plural+ is a film competition that challenges students to express themselves creatively on migration issues.  We finally submitted the finished product yesterday, and I'm awfully proud of my youth.

(for subtitles, hover over the player and click the "cc" button in the lower right corner)


Moldova has one of the highest outward migration rates in the world, about 25% of the population is working abroad, and the economy is sustained by remittances.  This fact of life becomes one of the quiet themes of just about every volunteer's service in Moldova; I never give students homework to "go home and talk with your parents about ..." because about a quarter of them are living with aunts, uncles, grandparents, or other relatives.  Oleasa, who is like my host sister, is actually my host cousin, but she's been raised by my host mom, who's sister has been working in Italy for 10 years.  Rodica's wedding in September was the first time my host parents had seen their elder daughter in 5 years; she's been working in Canada and couldn't leave without losing her spot in the residency line.

I was deeply impressed with how my youth artistically confronted such a sensitive topic. The film above is entirely their work (with a lot of guidance from my partner and I, of course), from the story idea to writing the script to the filming and narration.  It's the story of a house, the home of your parents, that is abandoned when its new owner leaves to work abroad and earn money so she can buy a nicer bigger newer house.  Pretty good metaphor for a bunch of teenagers.  (Don't worry, it has a happy ending.)


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Goal 2.3: technology

The last goal of the health program refers to transferring ICT skills.  I sometimes think of this as the "goal of chance", b/c much like you can't force a cat to take a bath or get your parents to text, you just can't really force technology on somebody who doesn't want it.

I thought I had this goal all lined up when my medical center got a computer last spring, but 8 months later the regional health directorate has still given no instructions as to what, exactly, they expect anybody to be doing with that computer.  Also, their programmer still hasn't been around yet to install internet or any other standard office programs.  (It's okay, we've actually made very good use of the printer it came with for our health education activities, so it's all for the better.)

But early last summer, Olga - the most amazing and driven of my 4 partners - got a laptop.  (Or rather, her husband returned from working abroad with a laptop.)  And thus began my work on goal 2.3.

Fast forward five months and that's how we end up with me spending my Saturday night shouting back and forth over the phone for an hour as we try to work through the notion of an email attachment.  (Shouting is the culturally recommended volume for any phone conversation, there was nothing acrimonious about the call.)

Two 15 minute phone calls, 5 different explanatory strategies, one hour, and 10 synonyms for attachment in both Russian and Romanian later, and we figured it out.  On the other end of the line, I could hear her entire family trying to help, including her 20 year old son who is studying English and Geography at university. (The fact that he had no idea what an attachment is shows that this is more than your standard age gap here...)  Of course, it doesn't help that I don't interact with any of my partners technologically, thus I have absolutely no grasp of this vocabulary in Romanian.  Nor would it have mattered anyway, as my partner's email account is in Russian.  In the end, it took the paperclip symbol and some email attachments I had sent her a couple weeks ago, as well as an intimate familiarity with her file organization to succeed.  (On the upside, I know how to find everything on her computer b/c most things were put there by me.)

It's not as glorious as a multi-million dollar water project, but it's what we do day in an day out in the trenches of development.  Just another Saturday night.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Small Victories: my favorite moment of the week

My favorite moment of today happened when I was sitting next to my nurse partner, working on a plan for a health education program.  Laying open next to us was the book* where the Medical Center is required to record all of the health education activities it does, as health education is a required component of every nurse and doctors job.

The Chief Nurse poked her head in the door and started chastising my partner, "You haven't written in the book yet!"  To which my nurse partner Galena replied, "You all write, but we actually do."

SNAP.  Well said Galena.

*Most of what's written in that book is fiction.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cross-Cultural Reflections on Professor's Day

October 5 in Moldova is "Ziua Profesorului", or Teacher's Day.  (Yes, the word for teacher in Moldovan is profesor.  As an American, it's great to be called Mr. Professor.)

What this firstly means is that I get lots of roses, sometimes gifts, many congratulations, and listen to many poems and a lot of prose about "The Nobel Profession."  Seriously, what could make one feel better?  (Okay, maybe societies that didn't continually cut teacher's pay, combine classes into ever larger unmanageable melees, and parents that didn't pull kids out of school to harvest...but at the superficial level, what could make one feel better?)

Secondly, at my school the way they run things is that the older students teach class that day, which means I don't have to prepare lessons, and instead get to sit back and watch students teach my subject.  Then I get some food and permission to go home early.  Awesome!

Though less stressful than my typical day of exercising as much magnanimity as I can muster while herding cats teaching the world's future leaders, it's no intellectual free-ride.  In fact, approached analytically, it is one of the best pedagogical learning experiences ever.

It's surprising how quickly as a teacher one can become caught up in the perspective from the front of the classroom.  Going back to sit in the kids' seat immediately renders teaching methods, personal styles, and subject specific information in a new light.  After watching an 11th grader teach nutrition using some techniques I myself used last year, it is clear I definitely have a lot more thinking to do about my methods before attempting that subject again.

Finally, there was this very intriguing cross-cultural nugget from the end of the day.  A group of my 9th graders had to arrange the following values in order of importance: education, family, health, career, citizenship, religion, liberty, and economic security.  This is what they came up with:
  1. Family
  2. Health
  3. Citizenship
  4. Religion
  5. Education
  6. Career
  7. Liberty
  8. Economic Security
In the notes scribbled to myself, I wondered:
  • How would we as Americans arrange this list?
  • How would I list Moldovan values based on behavior?
  • How would American values be ranked if based on behavior?
It's one of the most felicitous activities for cross-cultural understanding there is, so I'm curious to hear readers' opinions.  Thoughts?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Nunta Moldovaneasca (Moldovan Wedding)

I finally got to a Moldovan wedding!  Last Sunday, September 18th, my host sister Rodica and her longtime boyfriend (a Moldovan she met in Montana) Andrei finally tied the knot in Chisinau.

I'm trying something new this time, and going to tell the story through video.  It's my first try at making a video, so, here goes!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Classroom Pictures

Finally, after a year I finally collected enough necessary materials to make my collage map to explain to my students
where I'm from.  Translation: "The native place of domnul (Mr.) Zachariah." (It sounds better in Romanian.)  It
also features such fun facts as state populations and industries, and the size of Maryland (comparable to Moldova).
Credit to Craig Laurie for the map, Oma and Aunt Jan for the Iowa postcards, Mom for the Mt. Vernon calendar, and
dad for the Colorado postcards.

The back of the room, with a table featuring magazines and the "anonymous health questions" box.

A new addition this year, a display to feature the best student work of that week.
The title reads "take joy in what WE have made!"

Friday, September 2, 2011

Two Interesting Articles on International Service

Two articles that recently caught my eye on international service; the two go well together.  Definitely an interesting read for any idealists considering Peace Corps or shorter term stints abroad.

Two Hell With Good Intentions, by Ivan Illich

IN THE CONVERSATIONS WHICH I HAVE HAD TODAY, I was impressed by two things, and I want to state them before I launch into my prepared talk.
I was impressed by your insight that the motivation of U.S. volunteers overseas springs mostly from very alienated feelings and concepts. I was equally impressed, by what I interpret as a step forward among would-be volunteers like you: openness to the idea that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers, as such, as hopefully beloved or adopted ones without any way of returning the gift.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Day of Monday, August 15, 2011

Written two weeks ago, but forgotten in the shuffle of preparing for the school year.

Sometimes one experiences one of those day.  The kind of day that captures wonderfully the rhythm of life here in Moldova, all the while betraying little idiosyncrasies that if understood, can show something much larger about the culture.  Today was one of those days – extraordinary for the normalness of its rhythm, and revealing in comfortable responses to a syncopated tune that is so different from the American melody of daily life.

So remarkably normal, it seemed worth sharing.  I try to point out the cultural aspects that might be amusing or illuminating to an American audience, but I certainly can’t explain them all. So, in simple bullet point form, I present the day of Monday, August 15, 2011.

  • Woke up to an alarm.  Vague awareness that summer is ending.
  • First morning revisiting my school year morning routine: drinking coffee while reading priority email/news, realizing it’s too late for breakfast, leaving late.
  • Arrive at school, where we (the teaching collective) are all waiting for the district level officials to come so that we can choose a new director.
  • Stand outside talking to male teachers about our summers for 45 minutes.
  • Find out that the district officials won’t be coming today.  Modus operandi of the Education Ministry.
  • Go inside, and almost get sucked into the teachers lounge, which promised to have been a 3 hour talkathon.
  • Am saved by my amazing partner teacher, who suggests we go do some planning.
  • We realize we can’t plan b/c classes haven’t been divided amongst teachers yet, which can’t happen without a director, which can’t happen without the district officials.  All teachers, however, are required to be at school, so we decide instead to discuss our general goals and ideas for this year, including new ideas my partner teacher received while being a mentor for the new M26 Health Volunteers, and various ideas I have that reflect health education theory.
  • Brief aside in the Vice-Director’s office for plotting and gossip top-off.
  • Back to planning.
  • Convince my friend Victor (the art teacher) to come to our house to drink a ceai (tea), which is a pretext for a favor I have to ask of him (which he knows), which is itself a pretext for another favor I have to ask of him (of which he doesn’t know).  He accepts the concept of ceai, but refuses my offers of lunch.
  • Victor fixes a painting I bought in Lviv, Ukraine, which had become somewhat loose on the frame.
  • I meanwhile secretly communicate to my host-cousin who is more like a host-sister that indeed she should put out a full lunch.
  • My host mother calls to inform that Vasile Kirilovici has asked for my cell phone number. Kirilovice (his patronymic) is the richest man in the village, running the agricultural firm that farms 2100 hectares (5000 acres) and employs 250 people (my host father included).  In a town where I enjoy incredible access – greeted by the traditional kiss and embrace from the priest, and being able to walk into the mayor’s office without an appointment – Kirilovici is the only key leader I’m not on regular terms with.
  • As Victor finishes the picture, I insist he stay for ceai.  He accepts with the words, “well, as long as it’s just ceai.”
  • I put as much food out for ceai as possible, including fruit, cookies, cheese, honey, lemons, bread, jam, etc.
  • We sit down to eat, and I casually observe that a warm lunch has been set out us as well.  I proceed to insist he eat.  He is trapped b/c he knows I haven’t had lunch yet but can’t eat unless he does, and he knows I know he hasn’t had lunch yet.  I will later be congratulated on this maneuver.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Peace Corps Moldova M26 Health & EE Swearing In - Oath

On Wednesday, after 10 grueling weeks of training, 27 new Health and English Education Volunteers from the Moldova 26 group took their oath, and with that, officially began their two years of service.  As our Country Director, Jeffrey Goveia pointed out, it's the exact same oath of office every Federal official serving the United States takes.

One year ago Thursday I stood on a stage and repeated those exact same words; I'd already been in country for 10 weeks, had already begun working with Moldovan children and counterparts during practice school, was living with a host family, and struggling through my limited Romanian.  But still, I remember distinctly the chill that ran down my spine when taking the oath.  It was one of those rare moments of absolute clarity in life when one feels the full power of an ideal much larger than oneself behind one's actions, when that "something larger" you're a part of becomes so tangible it can be touched, if only briefly.

From here on out, it's now not just halfway, but less than a year to go.  To all the M26s who just took that oath: savor it, it goes quicker than you expect.  Also: congrats, you guys are gonna be great.

Friday, August 19, 2011

If Moldovans didn't think I was crazy before...

They certainly did if they spotted me today biking across 30 km of Moldovan countryside looking like this!

Laden down with Haiducii supplies, including the all-important and ubiquitous Haiducii Rubber Chicken.
Yes, I biked to Olanesti and back like this.

The occasion was for Ziua Sanatatii (Day of Health) which my rock-star raion-mate Shannon organized for her organization's summer long day camp.  The day included lots of outdoor activities, including some awesome relay races.  I was there to conduct some Haiducii activities in the afternoon.

Warm ups.  Very important.

The little kids got to cheer.

Water relay.

Sac race!

Which inevitably ends in this.

Balloon volleyball.

Explaining the rubber chicken game,
"Pirate's Revenge


Friday, August 5, 2011

Summer it has been – summer vacation it is not, PLUS: Haiducii vid!

Adam leads his students in a Zen Walk.
If I was expecting summer to be somewhat more relaxing than the school year – I was – then I was clearly mistaken.  While there have been two nice vacations, they have only managed to condense the amount of time remaining for a chaotic eclectic assortment of tasks.  There has been teaching PST, a project at the soup kitchen, ongoing work at the medical center, and enough political intrigue in the village to require numerous visits to shore up friendships amongst the two main factions.  There was also a great 50th Anniversary Concert in Chişinău that I MCed (credit to Ohad Sternberg for the post and photos linked to there).

While I like to stay busy, one downside of this is that there has been less time than expected for Haiducii, a secondary project I joined last spring (when still expecting a lot of free time in the summer).

Quoting from that last post:

Probably the coolest of my groups, Haiducii (pronounced Hi-do-chi) is a Robin Hood like character in Balkan folklore.  In Moldova, we are an injustice-fighting band of PCVs who go around teaching teamwork and leadership skills to youth through outdoor teambuilding activities (the type common in U.S. summer camps and low ropes courses).  We won’t really ramp up until the summer season, but as a throw back to my Boy Scout days, I’m looking forward to this group.  It involves lots of hitchhiking around Moldova, but then, isn’t that how Robin Hood travelled too?
Finally, with most of my partners now on vacation, I was able to lead my first Haiducii session up in Edineţ this past Monday for fellow volunteer Adam's Leadership Summer Camp.  Working with fellow Healthy and Haiduc Melissa – aka Yoga Mama – we made the 4 hour trek up there to meet a great group of future Moldovan leaders who were willing to brave the cold and rainy weather for our outdoor activities.

The Spider Web
It was a great group of kids to work with for my first session, and dare I say, after we made them repeat Spider Web three times, they even seemed to draw some lessons about teamwork.  My favorite moment was when we came to the conclusion as a group that without Alina – a very bright but shy girl – they never would have solved the mental puzzle to what is an otherwise rather physical activity.  They even got the take away – after a little prompting – that sometimes, good leadership means listening, because if you just shout and only the leaders get to say their ideas, the best solution might be drowned out, because sometimes the quietest person has the best ideas.  Now, if only our politicians back in the U.S. could come to that same conclusion…
Melissa debriefs. Alina, work done, yawns.

Then we played Jedi Knife Fight.  Theoretically, there’s a lesson in that game too, but mostly it just involves letting the teams whack each other with foam noodles after a hard day’s work while we try to enforce the games rules.  A casualty of that enforcement tends to be getting whacked yourself.  So, for all those readers who’ve been wanting to wallop me with a noodle but can’t because I’m here in Moldova, poftim (enjoy)!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Another Cup: follow-up on Greg Mortenson post

Three articles have caught my eye in the months since my first post about Greg Mortenson and the accusations of wrongdoing within his Central Asia Institute (CAI).  Unsurprisingly, they drew my attention in part because they pick up on two main themes of my post: the difficulty of verifying development dollars on the ground (which works in Mortenson’s immediate defense) and the uneconomical/unsustainable nature of the CAI solution (a longer term but also more damning critique).

We’ll start with the good: a February report by 16 education aid agencies currently working in Afghanistan offers two vindications for the CAI, (the Guardian also provides a nice summary). The report and article both contribute an arbitrating neutrality, having been published before the CAI news broke.  Two key points as they pertain to the Mortenson story:

First, the report points out the overall impressive gains in female education that have taken place in Afghanistan since 2001.  On paper, $1.9 billion has been spent on education, 2,281 schools have been built, and female enrollment has jumped from 5,000 to 2.4 million.

Secondly, the report simultaneously draws attention to the fact that these gains are significantly inflated on paper.  Potentially 22% of those new students are classified as “long-term absentees”.  A shocking 47% of the 2,281 “schools built” have no physical building, and school closure due to insecurity remains a chronic problem.

For CAI, the first piece of news is certainly a positive indicator that their efforts have been having some effect – they have been part of that collective school building campaign.  Let’s not forget we’re talking about one of the least developed countries in the world that is still battling some very repressive views towards female education.  In such a context, those gains really are impressive, and CAI is part of that story.

The second vindication is more bittersweet in that it demonstrates that many of the 60 Minutes’ claims regarding the schools themselves – the claims that suggested far less on the ground success than CAI claims on paper – are in fact not at all unique to the CAI.  Given those statistics above, in fact, CAI may be having far more than the average success in getting schools open in Afghanistan.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Graduation Ball Waltz Video

On June 18 the liceu (high school) where I work hosted its annual Graduation Ball, which is the Moldovan version of a Graduation Ceremony rolled up in prom.  It is for all the graduates, as well as teachers, families, and the rest of the village in general.  The evening begins with the Ball, which includes speeches, flowers, and a releasing of the doves, and then moves on to a feast at the local banquet hall (normally used only for weddings), where the feasting, dancing, and toasting go until sunup, at which points the graduates depart their parents to watch the sun rise over a lake on the outskirts of town, and continue their celebration with barbecue and more feasting well into the next day.

Not so different from American Prom, this is the occasion when many boys buy their first suit, and the gown shopping for the girls, well, I guess some things just transcend cultures.

This year, the graduates decided they wanted to perform a waltz at their ball.  For reasons still unclear to me, they also decided I was the most qualified person to teach them how to waltz.

The trophy, erm, statue, I got for teaching.
So, beginning back in May, we started going over the basic waltz step.  A month and a half later, after most of the class became casualties and the traditional Viennese Waltz was declared "insane and impossible" due to its speed, the remaining four couples danced beautifully to the first waltz I've ever choreographed.

One of the beautiful things about Peace Corps is that one inevitably ends up teaching things one is dramatically under-experienced in and has little relation to the primary program assignment.  Prof. John Riker and Marcia Dobson, wherever you are, I'm glad I dropped in your ballroom dancing classes during that last month of college.

Oh, and afterwards, they embarrassed me with a far too gracious speech and this statue.  Very Moldovan.

Another beautiful thing about Peace Corps is that even when you don't fancy yourself a dance teacher, it doesn't make you any less proud of your students at the end.

So, without further delay, the Waltz of the Graduates.

(Email viewers will need to enable images to see video)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Medical Center Success – pairwise ranking session!

My Program Manager recently asked me to lead this summer’s training sessions on medical center work for the new health volunteers.  Thus, while the events of this post took place a couple of months ago now, it constitutes one of my bigger successes here in Moldova and is something I’m thinking about a lot while preparing to teach the new volunteers.

One of the hard parts of the Health Education program is that we straddle worlds – we must work in both the highly structured educational system, and the much more fluid world of community medical centers.  Work at the school begins very quickly after arriving at site, and similar to English Education (EE) volunteers, the fruits of our labors become quickly visible.

Facilitating a needs assessment session at the med center.
At the medical centers, however, our job is much closer to that of Community Organization and Development (COD) volunteers – work at the organization goes in fits and starts depending on how busy they are and how effective we are at identifying projects they are motivated to collaborate on.  These two cultures can often be hard to bridge, with the fast pace of the school making it harder to be patient with the incremental change at the medical centers.  This is one reason I think so few healthies work at their medical centers for the entire two years of service.

As a result of the less structured environment of medical centers, the needs assessment stage is a much longer process.  Facilitating good needs assessment, in fact, is not just necessary to choosing the best health education topics, but is in of itself a key skill we need to transfer.  Good needs assessment is also the first step of any long term planning process.

After coming up short for months in trying to get my medical center to write a one year health education plan, we’d had a number of needs assessment discussions that fizzled.  I finally decided it was time to try a different approach, and reached out to my COD friend Craig.  One of the downsides of bridging programs is it doubles the number of competencies a successful volunteer needs to possess; one of the upsides of Peace Corps is that we have colleagues like Craig who bring the perspective of a different program.

As part of its heavy emphasis on local sustainability, Peace Corps teaches the PACA  approach to needs assessment, (Participatory Analysis for Community Action).  More than a set of tools, PACA is a whole philosophy that calls for empowering community members instead of the development worker to set the agenda through participatory activities.  It also includes a toolkit of creative needs assessment activities.  The results are better needs assessments and thus an increase in the number of stakeholders, which lays a stronger foundation for resulting actions.  The analysis itself helps build consensus amongst participants by demonstrating that the agreed upon needs were not a foregone conclusion.

For my medical center, Craig recommended we try an approach known as Pairwise Group Ranking,

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

One Year

I just got back from a post-school year vacation in Odessa, and suddenly lots of 1 year anniversaries are crashing over me, much rougher than the gentle waves of that Black Sea port.  Today, June 8, marks one year to the day since I reported to staging in Philadelphia.  Yesterday marked my departure from Denver, and the day after tomorrow will make 1 year in Moldova.  It’s still 10 more weeks until the August 18 anniversary of taking my oath and officially becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, but with the school year now over and the new trainees arriving in a couple hours, those 10 weeks seem more like a formality.

It’s half over.

Soon, there will be fewer days in front of me than behind me.

I’m more about metaphors than theories of physics, so I’m not sure what the Theory of Relativity has to say about the actual passage of time, but it feels a lot like reaching the peak of a roller coaster: the first half of the ride, the climb, goes much slower than the plunge back down.

This could provoke all sorts of reflections; hopefully in the weeks to come some will make it into this space.  But for the time being, perhaps in the most telling sign of reaching the halfway point, there is little time for reflection.  Despite classes being over, I have a full roster of community projects to implement and training sessions to design for the new volunteers.

So, here’s to the first year of memories and the plunge into the second!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Small Successes: the Mahala Boys

Mahala is a word deceptively simple given the complex construct it houses.  In fact, it is probably this complexity that makes the word so thoroughly Moldovan.  In Moldoveneşti, mahala means neighborhood.  It is descended from the Turkish (and in turn Arabic) word mahalle, a term introduced throughout the Balkans during the period of Ottoman rule.  In literary (i.e. Romanian) Romanian, however, mahala has come to mean more of a slum.  Before even arriving at the complexities of the actual Moldovan mahala then, the word itself is a signpost showing the historical fork between Romania and Moldova.  It is a very Eastern European dark irony that the word for neighborhood in Europe’s poorest country means “slum” in the same language spoken by its richer neighbor to the west.  If Romanians often point out politely that Moldovan Romanian is an archaic and rural dialect, then the word mahala captures the subtler unspoken chauvinism between these richer and poorer neighbors.

Even in Moldova, however, a mahala is so much more than a geographical boundary.  It’s an agricultural system, a living map of generations of familial histories, and a complex network for the exchange of gossip and information.

One never really leaves their mahala in Moldova.  The village knows where you grew up, and if you move, somebody has relatives there too.  Even if one moves to the city, they might well choose to live in an apartment next door to somebody else from their village – it simplifies the flow of fresh produce coming in daily from relatives on the morning bus from the village.  Our own small village has a mahala reaching as far as Billings, Montana.

We volunteers, on the other hand, come from outside the system – we arrive mahala-less.  So often, we are reminded of the frustrations that implies when trying to work with our adult colleagues – not knowing the right person to talk to in order to cut through the red tape, not knowing a particular history that prevents two potential partners from working together.  But our tabula rasa also grants us some potentially powerful freedoms, particularly with students.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Secondary Projects

In PC lingo, a “secondary project” is any project that falls outside of one’s primary program goals and partnerships.  In my case, that would be anything outside of the health education domain.

Most, if not all, PCVs worldwide have secondary projects.  For many, in fact, secondary projects often become primary projects, if not formally at least in the amount of time they take up.  There are a number of reasons for this.  First, it’s often unclear where a program ends and a secondary project begins.  At my site, for example, my work at the mayor’s office and the soup kitchen are both outside of the primary assignments at the school and health center that the HESC program manager set up for me.  But both include a significant health promotion component.  So is it primary, or secondary?

Second, the very nature of long-term intensive grassroots work in rural communities is such that the partnerships Peace Corps arranges for a PCV before they get there are often not the most fruitful collaborations.  Sometimes the organization doesn’t have two years of work, sometimes the local counterpart didn’t fully understand that a PCV normally means more work, or sometimes everybody just agrees there’s a different local organization the PCV can better help.  Peace Corps understands this, and it’s one of the reasons the organization is flexible and encourages secondary projects as a way to find the best uses for one’s time.

Finally, contrary to popular opinion, PCVs are human beings, and few human beings find total life fulfillment in their work life.  It just so happens that PC is so all-life encompassing that just about any non-work non-familial social activity is likely to be a secondary project, whether it’s playing basketball with community members or playing with kids at the pre-school.

There are two main categories of secondary activities: the kind one does at site, and the country wide Peace Corps activities.  Posts tend to have a number of these activities, which are run by volunteers and tend to focus on key national level development priorities.

Besides working at the soup kitchen and mayor’s office, I’ve also been working on a number of the country wide initiatives.  It’s fun to work with other volunteers, as it so often seems much more straightforward and there’s no language barrier.  At this level, my main secondary activities have been the Gender Workgroup (GWG), the Small Project Assistance Program (SPA), Girls Leading Our World (GLOW), and Haiducii.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Greg Mortenson, and when it’s hard to know how many cups there are in three cups

The humanitarian philanthropic world is aflutter this week over the news of Greg Mortenson – literally, he became a trending topic on Twitter two days ago.  For those unfamiliar, Greg Mortenson is the co-author and main protagonist along with his charity the Central Asia Institute (CAI) of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea and its recent follow-up Stones Into Schools.

The mountaineer turned humanitarian started building schools, primarily for girls, in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan after a failed attempt summiting K2.  Or so everybody thought, until 60 Minutes aired an investigative wackjob last Sunday that called a number of books’ claims and CAI’s finances into question.

Some serious questions are already being asked of 60 Minutes’ reporting, but if its story holds – and indeed it has been followed this week by a much more in-depth, researched, and less sensationalist work by Jon Krakauer – then Greg Mortenson is in danger of becoming the Bernie Madoff of international philanthropic humanitarianism, not because Mortenson is being accused of anything criminal (yet), but because he risks becoming the symbol of something much larger.

Friday, April 8, 2011

March Wrap-up and my Great Trek North! aka, Site Visits (slideshow at end)

Well, March was certainly an action packed month!  At site, school had a week of spring break, my nurse partner and I held our second public health education activity for the community, my work with the soup kitchen has been going full speed ahead as we finished off a grant application, I planned my first seminar for the teachers at my school, and I facilitated a raft of needs assessments with partners.

A lot of these projects were long on the to do list, so spring break came at a welcome time to do some catch up.  Break it was not, and come to think of it, neither was it spring (though the latter was finally making some progress this past week, with the exception of last Monday’s rather unfortunate snow…)

Both for better and for worse, action packed also meant a month when I was away from my site far more than normal – a full third of the month by my tally. Previous posts have already covered the exciting 50th Anniversary Kickoff  and even more exciting visit by Vice President Biden.  Aside from that, other travels that pulled me away from my non-routine routine at site included facilitating two GLOW seminars (Girls Leading Our World, a global Peace Corps girls empowerment program) and an extended trek through the north of Moldova to 5 other volunteers’ sites during the final week of the month.

“Site visits” are a practice heavily encouraged by Peace Corps.  There are a number of reasons for site visits, but they generally involve some combination of work, learning through observation of fellow volunteers, and cultural curiosity/travel. I’ve hosted a number of volunteers on visits at my site.  Melissa came to facilitate a Schimb de Experienta for my youth club – twice, in fact, as the you may recall the first one was snowed out.  Craig came out of a general curiosity in the HESC program, and another time just to keep me company when my host family was away.  Most recently, Lindsay (my BFF here in Moldova) spent the night after we co-facilitated a GLOW seminar in a neighboring village.  Yet despite all my own hosting and Peace Corps’ encouragement, I had yet to pay visit to other volunteers.

My own trek north was an odyssey of long-overdue social visits, youth programs, and classroom observations.  It was my first time north of Chişinău, and in the space of a week I doubled the number of raions (districts) I’ve visited, from four to eight.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Biden visits Moldova!

Opera house decorated for the visit.
I know I’m a little behind on this one, but on March 11, Moldova played host to a very exciting visit from our Vice President, the Honorable Joseph Biden.  In case you missed it (his visit happened the same day as Japan’s earthquake and tsunami), here is the AP story.

The Vice President’s visit marked the highest level visit of a U.S. official to Moldova in its history.  Though he was only on the ground in Moldova for 6 hours, you wouldn’t have known it from the country’s enthrallment in all things Biden for a good solid week before, and many days after as well.

Biden met with the government while Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden toured a wine cellar outside the capital with the Prime Minister’s wife.  The Vice President then gave a speech to a large crowd in front of the opera house (video embedded at the end of the post), which was followed with further meetings, and then a closed door event for U.S. Embassy Staff and Peace Corps Volunteers.  Needless to say, volunteers were more excited than even the Moldovans, and I’m not just talking about your own political junkie of a blogger here.

The only picture I've been able to find that offers proof I met the Vice President.
Where's Zach? Look to the left, in the top row.  It's a little like Where's Waldo...
(click to enlarge)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Happy 50th Anniversary Peace Corps!

Last Tuesday, March 1, marked 50 years to the day since President John F. Kennedy - less than two months into his presidency - signed the Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps.  It would take Congress an amazingly short additional six months before approving the final legislation on September 22, but the first group of volunteers were already in training by June.  Since that time, over 200,000 American men and women have served their country as Peace Corps Volunteers, working at the grass roots levels in 139 countries.

Those early days were heady times, filled with idealism, learning moments, and a healthy dose of experimentally making things up on the go.  It's hard to remember sometimes in todays globalized world that the notion of volunteering abroad was a radical new idea in 1961.  Today, many (most?) volunteers have already studied abroad in college before beginning their service.  In 2008, over 1 million Americans reported doing some form of volunteering abroad.

Despite the change a half century inevitably brings, however, Peace Corps remains unique in the length, depth, and quality of that service.  We stay for two years, living in our communities, learning the local language, and participating in the events of a daily life, from work to celebrations.  We don't helicopter in and disappear, and we're not paying a travel agency or firm for the opportunity to do our work.  We have host country nationals as bosses and co-workers, and we grind through work with them on a daily basis.  And in the end, well, it's probably still a little too early for me to finish that sentence...

The 50th Anniversary is more than just a one day commemoration, it is a yearlong period of reflection and celebration, both for the organization and those of us here in Moldova.  Check out Peace Corps' 50th Anniversary website, where I particularly recommend the interactive 50 year timeline.

My Health Education poster for the Coffee House event
You can also discover the action closer to home - well, my home - at Peace Corps Moldova's 50th Anniversary website, "365 Days of Peace & Friendship."

Here in Moldova, we kicked off the anniversary year with a round table and coffee house event in Chisinau.  Volunteers from each program were asked to prepare posters at this event, and yours truly was one of the representatives for the Health Education program.  Check out the full story here! (If you just want to see me, mom, scroll to the bottom.)

This is unlikely to be my last reflection on this unique American tradition, but as it is my first, I'll let President Kennedy have the final word.  I find those words to be as relevant today as they were in 1961.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Youth Club Blog

Hey readers!  It's been almost a month, and I've been heckled a bit for that vacation update.  Well, instead, today you get a whole new blog:

This blog follows my youth club at the school (described in general as a program objective heretangentially here, and by Melissa here).

The youth in my club are 10th - 12th graders, the age group I've probably enjoyed working with more than any other.  Back in PST when my Program Manager was interviewing us for site placements I stressed that I wanted to work with high schoolers.  Only a few of us healthies teach students this old, and most of the health clubs are for 5th and 6th graders.  She listened to my request and it's been one of the best decisions I've made in "making my service my own," (a mantra emphasized by our Country Director).

My youth chose the very descriptive title "Club de Sanatate" for our group, which can literally be translated as "Health Club".  Since choosing the title, however, we've gone more in a civic engagement direction.  In the HESC program objectives, these clubs are designed to teach youth to be peer health educators, but with this age group, I find it important to give the youth leadership over their group's direction.  For me, as long as they're learning, we're succeeding.  And as they take control over activities and lead their own projects, there is no doubt they're learning.

Their first activity was organizing a Halloween party.  After that, my partner and I attended a training on Public Achievement, a program designed in the U.S. but now used around the world. The training was organized by awesome second year COD volunteer Vince N., his wife Jessica (a fellow Healthy), and his partner NGO Speranta as part of their Active Citizenship Initiative ("Cetatenie Activa" in Romanian).  The youth agreed to give the Public Achievement method a try, and now they're working on a community project they initiated: building a park where local students can sit and relax next to the school.

Unfortunately for readers back home, this is a Romanian language blog - it's designed as part of our reporting requirements for the Public Achievement program.  But it will also include lots of pictures and even the occasional video of the club's activities.  So, if pictures know no languages, and we combine that with another cliche, then there are thousands of words there that anyone can understand!  So, check it out and watch our progress from project idea to completion!

One more time, here's the link:

R. Sargent Shriver, Jr., 1915-2011

Sargent Shriver Portrait
    R. Sargent Shriver, the founding director of the Peace Corps, passed away at the age of 95 last week.  The timing is significant, as the Peace Corps approaches its 50th Anniversary in March.  In his New York Times obituary, he is quoted as saying:
‎"Break mirrors. Yes, indeed. Shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor and less about your own.”
Below the jump is a historical excerpt from his time as Peace Corps' Founding Director.  R. Sargent Shriver left a lasting legacy of public service, not just amongst the more than 200,000 volunteers who have served in the agency's 50 years, but amongst all Americans.  The Peace Corps family is grieving the loss of this incredible public servant this week, but more importantly, we are remembering his call to service.

Thank you Sargent, for all you taught us.