Thursday, November 02, 2006

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!


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