Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Work or Something Like It

I was not a naïve Peace Corps Volunteer that thought they would be changing the world when they arrived in country. I knew that most volunteers struggled to make major accomplishments, and you had to learn to relish the little victories. However, I thought there would be some work toward the little victories. My biggest struggle so far in the Peace Corps has been trying to find actual work that makes a difference. Any work.

I’ve hinted that I don’t understand my organization before in previous posts. And yes, it is true. I have no idea what we are supposed to be doing. We are supposed to be a business incubator, and honestly, we don’t have enough funding for that. And because of that, we just kinda give up helping businesses in any way. It is already the end of February and we haven’t written our plan for the year. Whenever I bring it up, my director just says, oh, we should have done that. We’ll do that soon. We are supposed to be helping small and medium businesses, but I don’t ever see any results. Occasionally, someone comes in and wants help with a business plan. That’s happened three times in just under three months. So far, none of those people have actually completed a business plan.

I am still the main consultant for how to write a business plan, despite the fact that I don’t speak Russian very well or Kazakh at all. Yeah, I can get by in conversation, but when it comes to asking about what the annual income of someone’s target market segment is, I don’t get very far. I don’t know why my director hasn’t taken the time to read the materials I prepared or the professional materials I obtained from PRAGMA (a group that works with organizations just like mine) to learn how to write a business plan.

One of the most common and aggravating questions I get from family and friends here is about work. How’s work? It’s meant with the best of intentions, but it really just puts me in an anxious mood. I don’t like saying, What work? So I answer: slow, boring. It goes. What I should really say is, I get to work. Say hi to people. Play flash games. Listen to Russian tapes for an hour and a half. Go home for lunch. Come back and repeat the sequence. Go home for dinner. Maybe I prepare my lesson for an English Club or write up a future project plan that will never happen in the mean time.

I do have a long list of ideas though that I say I’m going to accomplish. Unfortunately, they are my ideas made by me. And I’m an outsider. I don’t really know what the community needs. And I don’t know how I can accomplish these things on my own. I mean, I can try, but the for sustainability’s sake, local people really need to get involved. And right now, there’s no enthusiasm within my organization to do anything. So I’m trying to network some, meet people that can help. Befriend them, and then I plan on asking them to work with me on a project.

For example, I had this great idea for a project. There’s a local museum in town about this guy named Baurzhan Momushuly, but there’s nothing readily available in English about who he is. So I wanted to work with the museum to translate their displays into English using a group of local high school students. The students would get to practice English, the museum would get a free translation. And then I would teach the students about Internet research, Web 2.0, and wikis. And we’d post the information about this national Kazakh hero online for the world to know about. I thought about a ton of things that could go wrong with the project: the students not knowing enough English to translate well, not having readily available Internet access, not enough time, etc. But I didn’t count on the museum saying, oh, why would we want the displays translated into English. Any English visitor we get always has a translator. And while that is true, my entire project idea was temporarily put on hold by that one. I’m not giving up on it though, as I for one want to know more about this guy was that my town is named after.

Further ideas I have that have yet come to fruition are: formalizing the business plan consulting services that we offer at the business center, creating a guide for how to open a small business, centralizing all of the legal forms required for opening a business in our office, creating a local volunteer club, introducing freeware software at the library to be checked out, offering computer training classes for locals, creating an English dinner club, promoting Internet usage among the youth, creating a speakers’ series for the practicum students at the Akimat, and teaching about business in the schools. I have two years, right?

But for now, I practice Russian, play hearts, play Bubble Snooker, plan English Clubs, do English Clubs, plan projects, and nag my director. Even with lowered expectations, it’s not quite the Peace Corps experience I expected.


Richard Morgan said...

At least you're not bored in the tundra, right?

heidiinprov said...

Your situation isn't uncommon...sorry to say. Do what you can to start your own projects. In the 80s, I started my own project with a secondary school because I wasn't getting very far w/my main project. That kept me hopeful. Is this the first phase of the business incubator? That can also be part of why it is taking long to take off. My project was the 1st phase of a 6 year project. I understand that by the last 2 years, it was quite successful. But getting it started was quite deflating.

I think your museum idea is great but you have to get the local folks to buy into it. If they don't look for a local person who is as into an idea as you are. That's where you'll find your success.

Good luck and don't lose faith.