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Peace Corps Volunteer Cayenne Smith frustrated in Turkmenistan
Peace Corps Volunteer Cayenne Smith frustrated in Turkmenistan
Peace Corps dreams turn to dust
By Pamela Gibson Special to the Index-Tribune
Caption: Frustrated and frightened during their Peace Corps assignments in Turkmenistan, Sonoma Valley resident Cayenne Smith and Nathan Hutto of Boston are heading to Prague, the Czech Republic, to teach English as a second language.
Photo by Robbi Pengelly /Index-Tribune
02/03/04 - Cayenne Smith dreamed of making a difference in the lives of children. She applied for the Peace Corps, trained to teach English, and was sent to a small city in Turkmenistan, a barren, seemingly peaceful country in the volatile Middle East.
But reality was not the stuff of dreams.
Treated like a spy by local authorities, she was continually followed, harassed and controlled by the secret police. She could put up with phone taps, opened mail, confiscated packages, and being watched constantly. She could not endure threats to her host mother, her sponsor or not being allowed to teach at the school where she was assigned.
"It wasn't worth the time because you weren't allowed to do what you were trained for," Smith said. "It was frustrating and becoming dangerous for those I cared about."
Smith is the daughter of Sonoma City Prosecutor Bob Smith and Vicki Smith. She grew up in the Sonoma Valley, attending local schools before earning a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology at San Francisco State University. Now 24, Cayenne Smith still considers the Valley her home base.
Smith and others with similar experiences left Turkmenistan at the end of January - bitter and angry at a government agency that was either not completely honest about the experience she would have or had lost touch with the reality of the situation in Turkmenistan.
"They take people with ambition and determination and put them in a place where they can't be effective," she said. "It's two years of your life that is gone, if you count the application process, and you're not allowed to reapply."
"There is a real question about whether the Peace Corps should even be in that country now," said Nathan Hutto, 26, a native of Boston who was also assigned to Turkmenistan and accompanied Smith home to Sonoma. "Even if there is a change in the government, the successor is rumored to be even more oppressive."
Turkmenistan, once part of the Soviet Union, is a country tucked between Iran, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Eighty percent of the land is desert, and villages are very primitive. Cities, "modernized" during the Soviet period, have amenities such as electricity and running water.
The country was considered safe, even though it is run by a dictator, Sepanyrat Niyazov, who calls himself Turkmen Bashy (which means Turkmen the Great.) For years, it has welcomed Peace Corps volunteers.
"I always wanted to be in the Peace Corps," said Smith. "You can apply online if you have a university degree and some volunteer experience."
The application process takes a year, including the medical exam and interview process. Once through that, applicants are nominated to be volunteers. While they can request an assignment in Asia, Africa or South America, most take what they get.
"I was accepted last February, but it wasn't until May that I found out I would be sent to Turkmenistan," said Smith. "In July I flew to Washington, D.C., for two days, then was sent to the host country for two months of training with other volunteers assigned there."
It was there that she met Hutto, who was trained in the Russian language, which is still spoken in parts of the country. Smith was taught Turkic. The training was done in small villages and was in two areas: technical and cultural.
"It became apparent they had no real plan for teaching English," said Hutto. "I think the government wanted to maintain a relationship with the United States, and vice versa - the least intrusive way was through the Peace Corps."
Hutto was sent to Balkanabat, a city with a Russian cultural background and fairly well-developed housing. It was on the opposite side of the country from Bayramili, where Smith was sent to live in an apartment with a single woman she called her "host mother."
"I was assigned to a school with a teacher who had applied for me," said Smith. "She spoke English and had worked with volunteers in the past. The school had fourth- through ninth-grade students in classes of 10 or 20. There were seven classes a day, but I was not allowed to teach."
And things got progressively worse.
"I lived near other volunteers, but we couldn't work together," said Smith. "We couldn't visit a school we weren't assigned to.
"Everything gradually changed. It was like carrying a weight that grew day-to-day because of the oppressive environment."
There were many rules, enforced by the KNB, a secret police fashioned after the Soviet KGB of Turkmenistan's past.
"Every person in the Peace Corps had a member of the KNB assigned to them," she said. "They worked hard to make your life miserable.
"They would call the person you lived with to find out what you ate, if you had pets, what you were reading. They would check on you at school to make sure you weren't teaching anything forbidden. You weren't allowed to take pictures. You had to get permission for everything you did. Your sponsor and host mother were threatened. There were rules for everything, and they were constantly changing."
While the situation was annoying for those raised in a democracy, the Turkmen people, living under similar conditions, did not openly rebel. Both Smith and Hutto believe this acceptance has roots in history.
When Turkmen Bashy first rose to power, after the breakup of the Soviet regime, he revived the country's history, restored culture and instilled pride. He also provided free housing, but at the same time isolated the country by not allowing any foreign media or the Internet.
Like most dictators, he became increasingly paranoid, peppering the landscape with pictures and statues of himself, renaming months after his own family and violating human rights. The situation worsened after an assassination attempt two years ago that he decided was foreign-inspired.
"I feel a great deal of empathy for Turkmen people," said Hutto. "They are so much more conflicted. People could not share their real feelings. Once in a while someone would open up, but it was rare."
People generally liked Americans.
"I wore traditional Turkmen dress which covered most of my body," said Smith. "But I did not cover my head with a scarf, so they knew I was an American."
"Everyone wants to marry an American," she said, "so I would say I was already married. Unless married, foreign women are not treated well by men in Turkmenistan."
In some respects it wasn't a lie. She and Hutto had gone through a Turkmen wedding ceremony during training, which proved to be helpful to Smith, although she had a hard time explaining why her "husband" was on the other side of the country.
Having shared common experiences, Smith and Hutto have become close friends and are going to Prague in the Czech Republic this month to teach English as a second language in a new program not affiliated with the Peace Corps.
"I'm looking forward to teaching (in the Czech Republic)," said Smith. "I expect a much different experience."
Although her time in the Peace Corps was disappointing, she felt she learned quite a bit from it.
"No matter how much you read about a country, or even see it as a visitor, you can't really understand a country until you live and work there. If the Turkmen people choose democracy in the future, perhaps I'd go back. "But not before."
|By M (proxy.auca.kg - 184.108.40.206) on Tuesday, September 25, 2007 - 11:30 am: Edit Post|
I totally disagree with this article. I am originally from Turkmenistan, and I have hosted four Peace Corps Volonteers. All of them had a great time teaching at our schools and working at the hospital. That is so sad to know for me that volunteers say their good words when they are in the country and as soon as they leave they saying horrible things. Wearing long dresses is in our culture. Nothing is wrong with that!!! Oh, I forgot, Americans does not have a culture. so, how will u understand>>> Actually, pure turkmen individuals will never marry turkmen guy, or marry an american girl. This is taboo!!!! Goodness, lived two years in T-stan and does not know this things. My volunteers never had any problems.
I am so disappointed!!! You Americans bunch of people jerks who try to force their ideology to the world. Can you please stop doing it! Maybe some people does not need your democracy. Democracy that happened in Iraq, Afganistan??? You call it democracy??? Tell me. Yes, probably I sound very emotional right now, but seriously think about it. Now, I know why you send volunteers to our place!!!
Child of a Golden Age!!!
Yes., I know what you are thinking!!!! this child is brainwashed, believe me!!! NO! I know what I am talking about...
|By Anonymous (220.127.116.11) on Saturday, May 31, 2008 - 3:06 pm: Edit Post|
i live in uk and would like to volunteer for turkmenistan,if u can help, firstname.lastname@example.org