Thursday, November 23, 2006

-21 is cold and condom crisis averted...

Well condom crisis averted – managed to get over 200 brought to me from the regional AIDS centre for free so that at least sorts out World AIDS Day but will need to find some more for the volunteers in the not too distant future as they will be carrying out themed seminars and need more. (When I phoned home and spoke to everyone at the weekend on speaker phone it was relyed to me that Dad had a minor fit when I said I had been looking for condoms for the week)

The workshop/training went well and I am quite proud of what it achieved. IN the end I had an interpreter come down from the regional city and then also an AIDS specialist from an organisation working in schools advocating awareness about HIV. I could not have done it without either of them – Alibek, the translator, worked the whole evening translating the materials I had produced and putting them into a work pack which came to 8 sides which is a lot of translating and of quite difficult language. The woman from the HIV organisation really helped because she was able to answer all the technical questions about HIV and AIDS with confidence and also in language that was appropriate although at one point she did say HIV was contained in salvia as proved by transmission through oral sex which, from my understanding and everything I have read completely untrue and that the risk, which is small, comes from the possibility of infection entering the body through cuts or ulcers in the mouth. Did mention this to her but not sure if she listened. Still in my work pack all information is correct – I checked it twice against two different documents (one from the UN and one from and AID organisation). Still if I am wrong please let me know.

Anyway the training as first with 34 college students and went down well. They were interested and seemed to have more knowledge than I expected – I had tried my activities out on some colleagues and friends and thought I was starting from a low base but the college students were quite clued up although not always with the correct information. Then we held a session with the health workers (like sex education teachers) in each of the schools as well as with a few people from the volunteer centre. This session, being smaller, functioned a lot better and I was really impressed with the approach to learning taken by the health workers. They had been brought together to learn from me some interactive ways of teaching about HIV and AIDS rather than in the standard lecture format which seems to be favoured here. Most were writing notes and clarifying how to hold the training themselves. They genuinely seemed to be keen to learn – most know the basics about HIV and AIDS but as they said they have no idea how to turn this information into palatable and memorable seminars for the students. Using the materials I put together next week they will hold the seminars in their schools and I will go to assist each person once. My first training of trainers and I feel proud.

Aside from the HIV training the next biggest thing in my week has been the cold. It has plummeted in temperature and as I write I am wearing two thermals under my jeans, three pairs of socks, a t-shirt, polo shirt and jumper and a fleece. Still it is better here than the room I held the seminar in – I was wearing gloves for most of the day. It is -16 today and on Tuesday it was -21. There is big difference because at -16 the hairs in your nose do not freeze but at -21 they do! All the windows are covered in ice and you can’t see out and in the canteen in the orphanage there is ice on the inside window not just in the gap between the two panes of double glazing. My heater is working overtime and it is still cold when I wake up and my window sill has turned into a fridge which is a definite benefit as my fruit and tomatoes are keeping a lot longer.

Got caught out on Monday with an upset stomach – you have to bring your own toilet paper everywhere. I always manage to hold on until I get home but on Monday I had to use the toilet in the government office which you think would be nice. Think again. And then there were only pages from a book with economic statistics from the USSR available – no double velvet.

It was liver again for lunch which tastes so similar to the smell of dog food it is uncomfortable. Something has recently clicked because I have just received a lot of invitations to people’s houses to eat; I have been given a food package to take home with me and had offers to knit me homemade socks if I buy the wool. Maybe it is because the weather has turned that people are trying to soften the blow of me not being warm again until I go home! Just over three weeks left until I am taking my Xmas holiday –three weeks in one go for Xmas and New Year in Almaty and then Kyrgyzstan with Sergey assuming visa is easy enough to get.

Nothing else of note happening at the moment or not that I can think of. So take care

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Snow and condoms

There is enough snow to make it look like a Christmas postcard at the moment and the difference the snow makes is unbelievable. This industrial outpost suddenly turns quite magical when covered in a layer of white and the best improvement is that the mud, which has been caking everyone including me, is now frozen and things are for the first time since I arrived clean….

Finding it even more difficult to drag myself out of bed in the mornings at the moment – there is ice on the inside of my windows so I think it is to be expected. Afternoons are proving very productive and this week I have written a training session on HIV and AIDS to be given first to social health workers in each of the school and then to the volunteers. I am quite pleased with my efforts – it was quite a daunting task and not really my speciality when I suggested the idea but then I reasoned I am here to learn how to do new things so I have given it my best shot.

Was invited to watch a mix between Pop Idol and bad karaoke yesterday and the day before – Zhitikara Star. Quite fun to watch but musical talent is decidedly lacking and I slipped out after an hour or so each day. I am so surprised people are so keen to get up on to stage and sing – there were 87 entrants and only 25 made it through to this round.

I found out that the Waltz I have been learning is not the ‘Jeanski (womans) Waltz’ but the ‘Vientski (Vienna) Waltz’ so I have been thinking I am learning the womans waltz for the past two months when in fact it is the Vienna Wlatz. To the untrained ear the words might as well be the same! But good to clear that one up – the same as the chacha and salsa.

Trying to find free condoms at the moment for AIDS day which is proving more difficult than I imagined. Most people I ask just start blushing and laughing when I ask them where you can buy condoms (not quite as much as when I was trying to get vaginal fluids translated for the HIV and AIDS quiz I produced – that stopped work in my office for about 30 minutes before people got over me saying vaginal fluids in a bad Russian accent) but I guessed the chemist would be a good place to start. And in true form the chemist I went to decided to get her whole stock out and tell me the merits of each. She agreed to donate 15 to me which is a start so I am going to head to all the chemists and see if they will support the AIDS day celebrations. All quite fun but I get the impression people think I am slightly mad.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

International AIDS Day preparation

The week before last I spent loads to time reading documents I picked up in Almaty. The stuff that interested me most was the info about HIV/AIDS and the projected future trends. With International AIDS day coming up on the first of December I have begun to concentrate quite a lot of my efforts on this area and hopefully it will make a positive impact. Somehow I got manoeuvred into running a drug awareness seminar – not my strong point at the best of times and without an interpreter nigh on impossible. Anyway spoke to Jena who had a game with M and Ms where they are all in a bag and you go round the group and people can try the M and Ms but if they get a brown one they are dead. Something to highlight how you can never know the effects of drugs and you may take them and take them and then suddenly one duff batch will have nasty side effects. Anyway so we held this seminar and all went well and I though nothing of it. But over the following two days people have been asking me loads of questions and advise because it seems to have gone down quite a storm – the participatory and interactive approach to teaching. So apart from being very pleasing for me it has meant that when I went to talk about my ideas of International AIDS day they have been given the green light and I will (fingers crossed) get all the support I need which is a result. I feel I just had a ‘tipping point’ (mum sent me a book all about the tipping point which I am reading at the moment).

First day which was subzero has arrived and I am now bracing myself for winter. New coat working wonders but had to unzip it the other day because I was too hot. Wardrobe changing to the things that I have brought here – the coats, shoes, jeans and jumpers so starting to look more local as the days go by. No longer wearing gel in my hair – doesn’t work with hats however hard I try – so back to a side parting like a 12 year old. Ice on the inside of the windows in the morning which is crazy but not cold fortunately.

Would love to write more but need to get to the market and raid all the fruit that they have – selection really reduced and almost only imported stuff and prices rocketed but not much you can do about it. Trying lots of dried fruits and even found one that tastes a little like marmite.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Winter arrives and how do I get more iron in my diet

So winter arrived and as Jena put in a text message ‘it is all downhill from here’! Today was officially the first day when it was in minus figures for the whole of the day. I count that as the start of winter (walking to work in -7 was not what I would call Autumn). Well I now have a winter coat with a large BMW sign emblazoned across the back. If I can manage to upload any picture of me I will – it makes me look like I have put on twice my body weight and the only thing stopping you for believing that is the stick like legs that are sticking out the bottom of this gigantic coat. The kids in the orphanage think it is really cool which is a good sign and I am snug as a bug but I am yet to test it on the Kazakh winter.

Delivered a drugs awareness training session last week and yesterday and then the guys who I trained held a session in the college today for about 30 of their friends. I had to admit I was very impressed by them – my work is showing some reward which is very satisfying. Most of my efforts for this month will be working towards training people to deliver seminars and information about HIV and AIDS as well as coordinating World AIDS day here. The levels of knowledge even among the informed are not always great so there is quite a lot of groundwork to do in the next two weeks.

This week is half term so there are fewer kids in the orphanage but of those left there are only 3 older ones and so each day this week one of them is shadowing me to work rather than milling about back in the empty centre. This gives me translator for the day – or at least someone to turn my Russian into more understandable Russian when out and about – and it gives them the chance to do something unusual – like come to the Mayors office and work with me – and something productive – the boy today, after helping with the drug seminar then went on to design a new logo for drug awareness which I will try to get produced on the computer.

Finding it difficult to get up in the mornings and feeling quite tired most of the day. I think this is something to do with iron so what can I eat with iron?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Well weekend was good. Not got up to much. Strolled around the town making the most of the weather – it is unseasonably warm at about 8 degrees which is making am a bit nervous as but now I was expecting the winter to be fully in force especially when it snowed way back in September.

I think I had one of the most surreal moments of my time here so far last night when the volunteer centre which does not do much volunteering turned into a yoga class with all the volunteers doing yoga. Not quite sure where the change in direction came from but from now on every Thursday will be yoga for the volunteers. Interesting turn of events and I declined the offer to join in preferring to watch them all find their hotspots and hold their hands above their heads. Each to their own. But, apart from feeling a little uncomfortable, the good thing is that this centre is now finally doing something concrete with their time and engaging the kids so I am not knocking it and being very supportive of a somewhat tangential aside to volunteer work.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

My past three weeks

The last three weeks have kind of been non-stop. It seems like a long time ago but Jena, the volunteer from the nearby town, can over with the coordinator of the volunteer network who is based in Kostani. We held a training sessions – teambuilding games – with the different organisations where I work.

Jena got introduced to orphanage life and was an instant success as she bought her guitar and I even talked her into an impromptu concert. She got me back by making me sing Wonderwall as a duet – now I know I can’t sing but when nobody knows the words or the tune you can get away with it! After three songs the concert kind of evolved into a talent show with the kids doing break-dancing RunDMC style in the middle of the TV lounge.

Jena was not so impressed with the food. Well in particular dinner. It was liver and porridge. Never the best combination it has to be said but I have got used to it now and my spoon ( there are only spoons) is skilful at flicking all the bits of meat to the edge just leaving me with meaty sludge over porridge followed by chunks of bread. My secret is to prepare a salad – tomato, cucumber, onion and triangle cheese and swamp it with some tomato sauce that I have bought from the old woman who sits on the street corner. This sauce – which I have named babushka (grandmother) sauce – has such a kick (tomato, onions, garlic and chilli from what I can work out) it makes everything taste alright and you forget that you are eating sludge and porridge.

Anyway so I headed off on a 12 day round trip to deliver a seminar in the south. I left early on a free ride out with the coordinator and spent three days renewing my visa. I know I should have probably been a little more proactive but I kept on being told there was no need to worry and that all would be sorted out in my town. But when the immigration police in the town said they had no visa papers I had to go to the regional town but in the regional town no one knows me so it took three days to get the visa. The woman was very friendly with it but kept on wanting new documents. In the end I got one for another six months and had a very worried text from mum wanting to know when I was coming home.

With a new visa I headed south on the train for two days. Not nearly as grim as I was expecting. Me and Jena were in the same compartment with two very nice middle aged women who ended up giving Jena a jumper and their telephone numbers to us for when we are next in Almaty. The only thing I didn’t like about the train was that after two days you feel very, very dirty. Before people disembark though they seem to have some special power to make themselves presentable to meet their waiting friends and family. Still I joined in with this and washed my hair in the hand sink, a bit of gel together with cleanish clothes and lots of aftershave and I looked fine. Jena on the other hand could not wash her hair in the basin so was at a significant disadvantage in the competition to see who can look as if they have not just spent two days on a hot train.

We then had a day in Almaty where I phoned international firms – Deliotte, E&Y, PWC etc etc – trying to find out about the corporate social responsibility policy before we headed to a town about three hours away from Almaty to Taldy Kurgan. In Taldy Kurgan we met with Global Exchange which is a programme run by VSO and the British Council. There are 9 English volunteers and 9 Kazakh volunteers who work for three months here and then for three months in Hounslow. They have been here for a month or so and I met the Kazak lot when I was in Almaty when I first arrived. They were having and Educational Day about working with difficult children. Me and Jena had been invited to participate and we gave a little session at the end of the day with some activities people might like to try out. It was great fun visiting a new town, speaking English was also a highlight but I also managed to get quite a bit of work done and took away man ideas as well as materials. Three nights in a hotel and I was a changed man – it really did feel like a million miles away. We were looked after very well by the coordinators of Global Exchange.

Back to Almaty for a day of meetings – with the United National volunteer office, VSO, American Chamber of Commerce working group on corporate social responsibility and also the British Council. Stayed with Tina, who I arrived in Kazakhstan with, and it was great to catch up although she had training to deliver both days so we could only talk in the evenings. On Friday I went out with Karmia, from LSE, and a few of her friends and had a wicked night. Almaty might as well be London! Went out for coffee first to a place with wireless and DJ. I had my laptop so showed them some pictures and her friends were intrigued about what I am doing and why I am here. I felt so at home when the conversation moved onto equity markets and private credit provision – I was back at LSE for one night! Then we went to a club which had a wicked live band doing a Maroon 5 act before heading into a cinema and watching the best adverts from around the world – Tarrent on TV style. Really enjoyed meeting up with her and will do so again at Christmas.

Flew back up north – much prefer flying to the train. Arrived home Sunday night very tired. Took Monday off but showed my face around in the afternoon. It has been very difficult to get back into work this week. Hopefully next week after a weekend to rest it will be better. The ring marked 10 hours a week of interpreting work with me has not materialised and visiting Almaty made me realise that while I am achieving things here my effectiveness is limited without an interpreter although there is very little I can do about it. I feel I achieved more for volunteering development by speaking to key people in Almaty, like the UNVolunteers and also some of the international firms, than I have achieved all week here. While I know this is a common feeling especially as the mid placement time has come my trip has made me realise how much more I need to be getting across to make sure this work will not be wasted. Starting the momentum is one thing but giving it enough speed to take on a dynamic itself is another. Quite impressed with that quote so I might end with that!

Just a reminder to people that my mobile is usually on and that I really appreciate text messages to (International dialling code for KZ) 701 610 31 62 and that post always goes down a treat especially if not expected and my address is
Tom Ketteley
Room 16
Intra-political Department
6 Mik-on, 65 Dom
Zhitikara region
Kostani Oblast

Talking of post my Weekly Guardian has started arriving while I am away as did a package from mum with three magazines from the 23rd September. School boy error in reading the newspaper before the magazine – it is like reading the end chapter of the book first because I now know what is going to happen!

Take care and now I am back in Zhitikara expect more posts.

I'm back again

Quite a long pause.... been on a trip down south visiting some volunteers (9 English and 9 Kazakh) who are working here for 3 months before moving to Houslow for 3 months. Delivered soem training on working with difficult children - activities and games that can be used- spent a few days in Kostani beforehand renewing my visa which I now have for another 6 months and then transited through Almaty. The difference between here and there is so vast and I didn;t really appreciated until I went back south for the first time. Back home now. Not had time to write a blog but been keeping in touch with school and family friends through monthly dispatches so it is copied here for anyone else who has not seen it. Blog to follow soon....

Second dispatch from the Kazakh Steppes….
Tom Ketteley, VSO Volunteer working in Zhitikara, Kazakhstan

Sniffing onions and iodine freckles…

Waltz, tango and cha-cha in Zhitikara…

…and working without an interpreter

Still living in the orphanage and now very settled. I’m popular with the kids although I am no longer an attraction more part of the background now which has its advantages and disadvantages! When I first arrived and had a phone call in the main office the room would clear out and I would be left along but now I have to compete, like everyone else who receives calls, with the radio, washing machine and general hub of daily life. But I have also learnt a few lessons. I now know the handyman is not the person to ask to get your lights fixed – his manager is though – and that as the kids get up really early and steal all the hot water hot showers are only guaranteed after 9.00 which suits me well.

It was only when being forced to sniff onions, with iodine freckles painted on my nose and wearing three pairs of socks and four jumpers by instruction that I realised next time I get ill I think I will keep it to myself. Everyone I know had their own home remedy and being the foreigner I am the prime target for their affection. I was denied any liquids apart from tea and honey and placed under house arrest. For all the remedies, pills, syrups and patches foisted upon me I am pretty certain the only thing to work was the Night Nurse from the UK! But it was no surprise I became ill when the temperature plummeted from a constant 35 degrees to a daytime high of 4 degrees over the space of 6 days. The next time I get the sniffles I will keep quiet I think.

With the winter setting in early the heating has been turned on for the start of October – two weeks sooner than expected – but I have already brought my electric heater to see me through. I figured if I am cold when it is freezing outside what will I be like when it gets to minus forty? When I look out my window to guess what I need to wear for the day ahead I invariably get it wrong and descend to the ground floor fully kitted up for the artic when all I need is a jacket and vice versa. During the day it can be quite pleasant and very bright but as soon as the sun goes down there is a real chill to the air.

On a quest to make friends and become cemented in the town I decided to join a dance class. Three times a week I am now belittled by the stern dance teacher. Although a beginners class all the rest are expert dancers which is not a surprise considering this ‘beginners‘ class started three years ago. My interpreter helpfully informed me after I had paid my dues for the month that I had in fact joined the class for 6 – 12 year olds which explains why most of the students are younger than me! There are a couple of older couples dancing but it does raise a few eyebrows when I mention to people I have joined that dance class. The tuition style is firm and praise is not exactly forthcoming. I find following Russian commands a little difficult so generally tend to copy what people around me are doing. I am a keen student although the only dance I can do is the cha-cha at the moment and even then I am not particularly good.

Work is interesting but slow primarily because I have no interpreter with me for most of my working week. My Russian improving all the time and so for everyday things this is less of an issue but meetings are still problematic. The people I work with often have adjusted their ear into my Russian – ie without correct agreements, grammar or tenses – and so we can communicate quite well but I often need them to interpret my Russian into intelligible Russian for other people we meet with. But considering last month I was almost mute I feel like I can converse quite freely now. Things can only get easier although if I am tired it is a real struggle to keep tuned in to what people are saying. I have started counting in Russian which is a little unsettling.

I have not left the town for the since I arrived and I quite looking forward to visiting another VSO volunteer in the next town soon – she has been out of the country with visa problems for the past month but has just come back. With almost no internet access and no foreign press the world seems a long way away. I keep in contact with friends and family through text messaging – which for me is very cheap – and phone calls – which for them is very expensive – although the phone signal goes down for days at a time here leaving me incommunicado.

Even after spending a month introducing myself, networking and watching how things work I still feel like there is a lot to learn. Each day things are dropped into conversation which would have been so handy to have known before but I guess this is always the case when in a new job. I have been doing a tour of the schools presenting a seminar about volunteering to 15 and 16 year olds primarily to meet as many young people as possible but also to get introduced to the heads, PSHE coordinators and English staff in the schools and take their contacts. This is proving very popular and useful for me as I get out and talking to people. Afternoons are spent thinking, talking things over, visiting organisations and in meetings and seem to fly past.

I am now based in the government building rather than in a room on my own in another building. This arrangement is working a lot better for me – I have colleagues, a desk, access to a telephone – also things move a lot faster when the government office makes arrangements and I am constantly surprised at how my meandering thoughts about who to meet with turn into a fixed meeting by the next day. There only disadvantage is that I am tied more to working regular office hours although I am my own boss I am not a free as that would suggest. I have a lot of autonomy over my work but sometimes feel a little under experienced but then I have little choice but to get on with the task.

I spent much of the first few weeks just watching how things work and I am repeatedly surprised at how top down leadership is even within youth organisations. There seems to be a considerable mismatch between what the organisations say they do on paper and what they do in reality which is only something you find out by working closely with them. I am now starting to suggest some more participatory approaches such as asking the kids what they want to do rather than telling them they will be doing such and such at an appointed time. My suggestions are not always warmly received but then I would not expect that although I with limited Russian a softly softly approach with nuances is not really an option so I think I may be sounding a little blunt at times! Occupational hazard of working without fulltime interpreter I suppose!

I am fearful of rambling on too much so I will bring this dispatch to a close now but there will be more. I’m aiming to release a new dispatch every six weeks and I will do my best to keep to that. If you have any questions or want to get in touch please email me on With the new Ali G movie about Kazakhstan coming out soon I guess I will no longer have to explain where Kazakhstan is! Although I could have my work cut out dispelling myths!