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.

The Moldovan education system is fairly formal, with the respect and distance between students and teachers we would associate with bygone ages.  But in the villages, the school corridors are also inlaid into the twisting streets of the mahalas, where mutual support and the community is literally what enables humans to cultivate food by hand and live through harsh winters.  At the same time this formality dictates distance between teacher and student, then, it is never forgotten who is neighbors or relatives with whom, and thus who a student or teacher can best turn to for help in a moment of need.

With the benefit of our blank slate, volunteers fall along all points of the spectrum in how formal we are with our students.  We all have our own classroom style, from the very formal to a level of informality that can be borderline radical within a traditional educational structure.

Bouncing around the broader neighborhood of Peace Corps’ northern Moldova volunteers earlier this spring, one of my most lasting impressions was the style of my colleague Lindsay Toler, who has an incredibly close connection to her students.  The inevitable glazed over eyes or skeptical brow showed that they don’t always hear or believe her teachings about health.  But the parade of enthusiastic students coming to talk to her in every break made clear that they all appreciate her, and a few she has truly reached even deeply trust her.

Reaching my mahala’s dusty road, returning travel wearied to a house that is increasingly feeling like home, I resolved to emulate Lindsay’s success and foster closer relationships with my students.  Perhaps it has been this resolve, or perhaps it is simply the passing of time as I near the one year mark since my arrival, but in the two months since my return this effort has begun to bear fruit, and nowhere more so than in my mahala.

On the other hand, perhaps my success is merely seasonal, as spring has breathed new life into the mahala, drawing its tenants out from under the thick blankets of their hibernation.  People are out working in their gardens and gossiping over their fences again.  Friends stop by to trade a rabbit as they get ready to breed them, diversifying their livestock’s genetic pool.  Ilie, our neighbors’ son, cradles a chick, returning it to our coop from which it has managed to escape.  Walking to school one still-crisp spring morning not so long ago, even animals seem to have picked up the trend, loudly trading their gossip across yards and streets – it was only then that I realized how much quieter even the roosters are during Moldovan winters.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that I am increasingly the one being called out to from the gate, or the one stopping to trade gossip with neighbors as they seize the opportunity for momentary respite from whatever labors await them beyond their fence.

With spring, I have also begun jogging again, or as it is referred to here, simply “cross” (said with a Romanian flip of the r).  In Moldova, jogging is a clear identifier of somebody who is either crazy or actively fleeing something.  Hence when my host mother sees me putting on my running shoes, she does not ask whether I am about to go running, but rather if I am about to go fleeing.

Recently, some of the boys in my mahala took a less skeptical notice.  In yet another sign of how odd the activity is, the news that Domnul Zachariah jogs quickly became regularly discussed amongst the 350 student body.  Then students started asking when I would next be jogging.  And eventually, some of those mahala boys even joined me.

I have been teaching Health Education in Moldova for a year now, and it is often unclear what, if anything, even my best students are taking to heart.  With a single exception, the mahala boys who have joined me are not amongst those best students.  But stretching before and after, measuring our pulses, and making us take a cool down walk together, I cannot help but think I am definitely succeeding in some small health education outside the classroom.  As we jog, I slip in casual references to aerobic exercise and cardiovascular health.  They cut me off to show me the alleys and shortcuts of our mahala, but I know they’re listening.

Jogging with an older student – the aforementioned “single exception” – our conversation follows the road through the mahala, twisting me through the histories of the families and fields we pass.  Veering towards the country, these breathless histories follow as our conversation turns towards Moldova’s path to democracy, a path that has been as rough as that we are jogging, filled with muddy patches and long ruts.  Treading upon the topic of his graduation just a few days future, we move to the high level of outward migration from Moldova.  I put to him the paradox of his own good versus that of his country: he is amongst the most able to leave the country and find a good job abroad, but it is exactly those capable individuals like him who will be necessary if his country is ever to pull itself out of this rut.  He considers this silently.  By now, we are far from our mahala, past the outskirts of the city, and breathlessness has finally caught up to us, turning thoughts inward and sparing our lungs any extra labor.

Jogging in silence, I appreciate that these are the students I can most influence, and that my best lessons may be taught in classroom of my mahala.  As we near the village again, our labored conversation resumes, my student pointing out his aunt’s field in the dwindling blaze of the sunset.  I make a mental note – his aunt is also the Chief Nurse at my medical center.  And so it is that while I push him to consider his future, he is also giving me the tools needed to succeed in my next year, slowly extending the network of neighbors I can call upon in this or that project.  And then we stretch as the mahala stares, perhaps not such a small success after all.

No comments: