July 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: New Hampshire Union Leader: Matt Briggs is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Turkmenistan: Peace Corps Turkmenistan : The Peace Corps in Turkmenistan: July 4, 2005: Headlines: COS - Turkmenistan: New Hampshire Union Leader: Matt Briggs is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan

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Matt Briggs is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan

Matt Briggs is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan

Peace Corps volunteer Matt Briggs will celebrate Independence Day in Turkmenistan, where the he was recently sworn into the Massachusetts Bar Association by consular officer Ian Turner.

Matt Briggs is serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan

An ambassador for freedom


Union Leader Staff

Merchants Automotive Group

AH, THERE'S NOTHING we Americans savor more than the traditional Fourth of July cook-out and all of the barbecue-related bounty that comes with it.

There are the hot dogs and hamburgers and chicken and steak. There's corn on the cob and potato salad and watermelon and, if you're an all-American boy like Matt Briggs, you don't want to miss out on the chorba, the pilmeni and the shashlik.

And don't forget the plov.

That's the national dish of Turkmenistan.

That's where Matt will be celebrating our Independence Day today, way over there in the Central Asian desert nation that was once a part of the Soviet Union, where independence remains rather an abstract concept.

Matt's there with the Peace Corps.

He's there to teach English to teachers so they, in turn, can teach English to their students, and seeing as it's Independence Day here, you should know that I'll be engaging in some linguistic free-association regarding the notion of freedom.

Matt has to be more circumspect.

See, the Peace Corps doesn't like its ambassadors to talk politics, so Matt's pronouncements will be skewed toward the social side of life in a land that's about as far removed from his home in Derry as one can imagine.

Take grocery shopping.

It's an extremely social event.

"I get about 10 proposals per week on average," the 29-year-old explained. "I'm a favorite among the ladies who work at the bazaar, mainly because they hope I will marry them and take them to the U.S. I have definitely never been this popular."

Just so you know he's not exaggerating, Matt recently fought off the 100-degree heat that enveloped his hovel in the village of Chardzev and staggered to the telephone, only to discover the Russian-speaking woman on the other end of the line had dialed a wrong number. Before he could get the caller off the line, she proposed to him sight unseen over the phone.

Clearly, Matt's going to have some of the best stories to share when Pinkerton Academy's Class of '94 gathers for its next reunion.

He can tell them about some of his earlier adventures after graduating from Rutgers University, such as when he lived in Korea and Spain so he could teach English to local students, which is how the notion for his current mission took root.

Law school at Tulane University intervened, however.

"But I realized that the work of a lawyer wasn't going to be very fulfilling for me and that my interests lay abroad, specifically in the area of international conflict resolution," he wrote in one of many e-mails we've exchanged in the past week, "so I decided to enter the Peace Corps after law school.

"It's my hope to work with the U.S. State Department after my service to help mediate disputes between countries," he added. "Also, after talking to some friends who had been Peace Corps volunteers, I realized that giving two years of my life was such a small thing to give when we have so much as Americans."

He doesn't have quite so much at the moment.

His fellow law school graduates may be rolling in the dough, but Matt's Peace Corps stipend is a mere $80 a month. That's not bad money in an oil rich/cash poor country where gasoline goes for about 10 cents a gallon, but the reason Matt doesn't have much is because there is so little to buy.

Food, in particular.

Except for plov, that is.

"It's the national dish of Turkmenistan," Matt said. "They fry meat in oil, add water, carrots and salt, add more water and rice and cook. It ends up being really oily, carroty rice. It can be really good or so fatty that you can feel your arteries harden."

In a sense, Matt's living off the fat of the land.

"Chorba is a soup, usually with a nice layer of fat floating on top. Manty is a steamed dumpling made with a really fatty meat. Most of the food is just really bland, the main flavor being fat. My bottle of Tabasco has been a lifesaver."

A lot of Peace Corps volunteers have made the same discovery since they began missions to Turkmenistan back in 1991.

"I'm part of the 13th group of volunteers to be here," Matt said. "We have two programs, health and Teaching English as a Foreign Language. The health volunteers work in local clinics or hospitals and teach Turkmen about different health issues.

"The TEFL volunteers work in local schools in both cities and villages," he added. "We also work on secondary projects that range from trying to bring running water to villages to teaching SAT courses to school kids who want to study in the U.S. We can basically do anything we want, within reason."

For Matt, that means launching a book drive.

"I'm teaching from old Soviet textbooks with dialogs about Comrade Lenin and the joys of being a collective farm or factory worker," he said. "It's a little trippy, so I'm looking for grade school-level books with emphasis on grammar, so if you could put in a plug for schools to possibly organize and send us old English (preferably ESL) textbooks, that would be great."

I'll provide mailing details a little later on, but meanwhile, Matt has one last thing on his plate and it isn't plov or chorba or shashlik.

Before he left for Turkmenistan, he took the Massachusetts bar exam. He passed, and in a most unusual bureaucratic spectacle, his swearing-in ceremony recently took place at the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of Ashgabat.

"According to the Massachusetts Bar Association, Matt may very well hold the record for being sworn into the bar association from the most remote location," noted Peace Corps press officer A. Lyn Bell.

Imagine this All-American scene:

"I went up to the window three inches of bullet-proof glass and I slid my papers to the secretary, who then called over Ian Turner, the consular officer. He looked them over, and I realized that he intended to do all this through the window.

"I was a little disappointed because it seemed so anti-climactic, so I just said 'My parents are going to be gutted because I didn't get a picture of this.'"

This would not stand.

"I think the secretaries took pity on me," Matt laughed, "and after some consultation with the big Marine at the door, I was ushered into the inner sanctum."

The big Marine confiscated his camera, however.

Secretaries to the rescue.

"They ran and got the embassy's digital camera to record the moment," Matt said, "then three secretaries came into Ian's office with us and proceeded to rearrange the office so the picture would look good, so, against the background of the American flag, Ian administered the oath and we signed the papers."

So now his parents (Jack and Marcia Briggs) have the pictures in their Derry home and here's how Matt Briggs, Esquire, describes his first lawyerly endeavor, which is already well under way:

"I'm organizing a camp on international children's' rights and legal issues with UNICEF and the American Bar Association, both of which have offices in Ashgabat," he explained. "I'm also preparing a series of seminars for the following school year on basic rights and how students can effect change."

Since he still has a year and change left in his two-year Peace Corps hitch, Matt will have the chance to better his ever-improving Russian while also improving the quality of life for people who live in a land where freedom is an abstract concept.

It's the American way.

And to Matt Briggs, who is a standard-bearer for us all in a land so far away, here's a heartfelt wish for a happy Independence Day.

Books for Matt Briggs' TEFL classes can be sent to him at the following address: PCV Matt Briggs, US Peace Corps/Turkmenistan, P.O. Box 258, Krugozor, Central Post Office, Ashgabat, 744000, Turkmenistan.

When this story was posted in June 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: New Hampshire Union Leader

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