We stumbled in cross-eyed, like with many of our ambitions – (mostly) not knowing what to expect. Flimsy communication…
We went to the Beshalma museum, a regular attraction for our reporting volunteers. The current museum director is the father of Dmitri Cara-Cobani, a Gagauz historian and poet. She always greets us with warmth and a glimmer, an undeniably open woman with a passion for her work.
If you’re interested, you can view one of our EVS Reporters’ coverage of the museum and its history.
I’ve been 4 times for interviews on subjects including history, culture, superstitions… and this time, a surprise. We approached the museum staff for a run-down, they gave us a few vague descriptions of what was to come, and then we retreated outside to the front of the museum to await the director. While we sat in the shade on the concrete garden ledge (yes, Moldovan grandmothers, we willingly freeze our ovaries on this cold hard perch!), students coalesced from across the street and filed into the museum.
We followed, and sought direction. The director smiled with recognition when we approached her during preparations and, more than graciously, urged us to take all the pictures and video we could manage. Often, it’s required to pay – of course, we want to support the museums – but I imagine she also appreciates our promotion and our curiosity. She let us go for free this time.
Moldovan museums (I’ve seen my fair share), though often disorganized and not curated by American standards, are far more than (often) cluttered displays behind clouded glass. But it’s not the collections we admire – it’s the human capital, experience and love. The people are those who should be preserved.
We all gathered in a dim room, a tone of light I wouldn’t have expected to be a strain on the eyes. The bulk of the participants were students – the 9th form – a few oldsters and, of course, we volunteers. I was a little embarrassed (one could say “gut-crunching discomfort”) when the museum organizer began to introduce the panel, and mentioned us as esteemed guests…
All 3 panel members came from Comrat State University. 1 woman teaches philology of the Gagauz language; the 2nd is a professor of history, and also works at the local pedagogical school; the final, a professor of economics. The professor of economics received a little more applause than the others, though he was underrepresented. The student ratio was about 50/50, but there were only 2 adult men present for at least 10 adult women; and of the 3 panel members, only he was male.
After introductions, women dressed in traditional Gagauz outfits flowed from the storage closet at the back and presented the guests with bread and flowers. I had seen this tradition before 2 or 3 times. At the beginning of our Peace Corps training, we visited the village of another volunteer and, at the entrance of the Primeria, they presented us with bites of their traditional bread, which we seasoned with a little rock salt. I asked my organization’s director about the practice, and she says it’s maybe Russian, definitely Slavic and all over Moldova. The bread, religion in the street, symbolizes the body of Jesus; the salt was to represent prosperity. At one point in Moldova’s history, there was a salt deficit, and only the rich could afford the spice.
The 3 presenters eloquated their histories: described their families, where they work(ed) and went to school, how they got their degrees, the people who pushed them and the mentors who helped them move forward in school.
Then, the propaganda (let me clarify this choice of word – in America, when we hear “propaganda,” there’s a deep stigma attached; we think “lies!”, “manipulation!” But in Russian, its usage is common – пропаганда – as in “advocacy” or “outreach.” The term is even included in my organization’s mission statement). With so many young Moldovans leaving the country to find work and a new life, the adults lathered praise of the homeland. They discussed their love of Gagauzia, the happiness of this place – how they couldn’t be without it, live without it. The youth should stay, develop, love their land. There’s a pride in it… One woman gave an aside. Someone asked her once, with a father who was Russian, why she identifies as Gagauz. “Why?” “I was born in Comrat!”
The professor of Gagauz described why Gagauz is a “dying language,” but that she thinks it won’t die. She and her colleagues are working to save the language, although its vocabulary and expressive capability are limited compared to others. And, point illustrated, she and the rest of the presenters proceeded to switch between Russian and Gagauz for the remainder of the event.
So, we stumbled on a “career fair.”
Совет: Providing Moldovan Youth with Platitudes of Success?
1 girl asked how to get through life…
Could you anticipate the clichés? “Treat others how you would want to be treated.” “Always believe in yourself.” “Be positive.” “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
But though I shrank at some of the mundane advice, the presenters spat some real gems. In honor of the audience, I present a collage of quotations fit for a 16-year-old girl’s bedroom wall:
The Only Male Speaker, a Loquacious Fellow
The male speaker began in Gagauz (bouncing off that day’s back-and-forth theme).
The professor went on to praise 1 young man for 1 of his good questions: “Какие качествa человек не хватает?” He responded rhetorically, asking why people returned to Gagauzia… and explained their status as “patriots.” And he dogmatized, speaking of Gagauz materialism (global materialism!), and how these days, people only think about money, money, money…. And neglect to think of their homelands. Yes, they lack patriotism…
But above all, the man spun gold with “ambition.” As a child, he would write a list of goals, and his mother didn’t understand! But he was an ambitious person, and ambition is incredibly important…as a student, he succeeded because he was ambitious. He was from the village, but still, because he worked, because of his ambition, he succeeded with an “excellent” score in school…
I couldn’t help but think of the audience, especially the girls, to whom he was speaking. (And I struggled internally, so tempted to intervene, wanting to stimulate discussion, worrying about the appropriateness of an intervention, challenge shit a bit, wondering whether I was meddling, forcing my perspective in the wrong setting, and… fuck it. Inappropriate? Fuck it.)
I introduced myself as an American. I stated I would be asking a question from a different perspective. I said that I had noticed in both America and in Moldova, it can be difficult for women to be ambitious. So what did he think? How could women become more ambitious?
His advice, a very general response, was for the youth to write their ambitions every morning. They shouldn’t worry about the judgment of others, they should have strong thoughts, make sure to have positive thoughts, make sure it’s a “law” to remember the things they learn.
I admit my dissatisfaction. I won’t criticize the advice – it spoke to the audience as a whole – but I had hoped he would have addressed the girls directly. Whimsy. After he finished his speech, however, I believe the event’s organizer picked up on my intent, and she advised the youth: “Remember, these moments are incredibly important; we must remember the people we meet, and the questions they ask and what they teach us.”
The End Degenerated
Once the panel had worn through their personal anecdotes, the blonde woman from the middle of the table reported that there are 3 new focuses at the university, including tourism. This is a huge initiative being pushed by the Mayor, who talked about it almost endlessly when I went to meet with him with another Peace Corps Volunteer. When we spoke, he mentioned the need for new hotels (which are going up with aid from Turkey! Read about it in my post Painting the Roses Red), smoother roads connecting us to the north, and a celebration of the natural local bounty…
But then, sparks. The especially differing specialists touched on what turned out to be a contentious topic.
The end degenerated into an argument about the use of languages, and learning languages, and while the women encouraged it, the man stated its impracticality… and, “answering like an economist,” he said it can be a small group of people who learn other languages, only what we need. He quipped, a little cheekily, that money will talk for us. He used the example of Azerbaijan where people freely speak Turkish, English, and Azerbaijan because it’s there, everywhere, in the streets. But in a place like this, where languages don’t flow the same and it’s not required for students to study all from the 1st grade, it’s unrealistic.
He couldn’t help it; the brash man suggested taking the words not available in Gagauz (a limited language) from Turkish, and the women – Purists – protested… I wonder if this moment of spirit woke the students up a bit from their over-informed, three-hour stupor.
And! How could I not mention the Grand Moldovan Tradition? Diplomas! All presenters received their coveted certificates – thank-you-for-all-that-you-do – at the end.
And then, for the final entertainment, a group of women (the male professor snuck in….) singing traditional Gagauz songs.
They Need This Shit
We loved the event. It was simple, and perhaps a little too long, but this shit is sorely needed.
I’ve been working with my partners at Miras Moldova on a grant that will (hopefully, fingers crossed, toes crossed, shall we beckon the Universe?) fund a Cultural Reporting Initiative for 8 Comrat youth. For those curious about the challenges for youth in our community, I invite you to read the following excerpt from our grant:
Miras Moldova’s current priority is to involve local youth in innovative activities, promoting leadership skills and volunteering. Miras has been working with local youth for several years, and observations as well as reports from local educators have exposed that Gagauz youth are often passive. Miras has hosted English Clubs in the past, but students are often so shy they will not speak, even when asked questions directly. The organization has also developed a video to promote volunteering in Comrat, and when asking students to provide interviews, girls tended to be more reluctant to participate than boys. Moreover, these students often do not participate in other activities. Of the 5 Comrat high schools, 4 host extracurricular activities, and only 16 activities are offered in all 5 schools.1
Issues are reflected in the teaching curriculum of Moldovan schools, which do not focus on critical or creative thinking. Since independence, there has been no holistic approach to education reforms (1). Moreover, “there is a severe shortage of textbooks, teachers’ guides and supplementary materials; they are essentially non-existent (3).”2
In the Moldova Job and Schooling Decisions Survey conducted by a World Bank team in 2016, “a majority of survey respondents [Moldovan youth] reported not having attended any career guidance activity, and few were aware of existing tools (5).” In response to this need, Miras will include job shadowing at local media stations to provide first-hand experience with a wider range of job opportunities.
These needs coincide with our organization’s mission statement, “Encouraging Development of Gagauz Youth”: 1. To create conditions for the self-determination and self-realization of the Gagauz youth by promoting the development of national and social identities and 2. To introduce youth to foreign volunteers in the spirit of cross-cultural exchange.
Therefore, Miras will involve youth from Comrat and teach critical thinking, vocational, social and project development skills and promote community involvement, civic engagement and volunteerism.
1 Miras Moldova spoke with staff from all 5 Comrat schools to determine the number of students grades 9-12 (569 total) who participate in extracurricular activities. A total of 278 students are recorded as attending all listed activities. Some students attend more than one activity, accounting for higher attendance rates. 1 school, with a total of 141 students, offers no extracurriculars. The largest school, with a total of 220 students, offers 8 extracurriculars (153 students attend). Another school, with 93 students, has 4 extracurriculars (62 attend). The fourth school, with 73 students, has 2 extracurriculars (50 attend). The final school, with 42 students, has two extracurriculars (13 attend). Sports extracurriculars (6 activities) have the highest attendance; others include Drama (2 activities, second-highest attendance rate), public speaking (1), Gagauz (1), German (1), Romanian (1), Choir (1), Museum School (1), Literature (1), and Chemistry (1).
After the presentations, we all filed outside for a quick picture. We were tired, but then the director invited us for tea. She had offered the time before, when we went for an interview on superstitions… And though we had refused that time, we conceded this day. We joined the presenters for tea, cookies and home-made placinta, and then exited early to hitchhike back home.
BONUS: Beshalma screaming ducks!