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 MoldoveneĊŸti, 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.