Wednesday, April 6, 2011
Just a couple of weeks into their pre-service training, the new group of volunteers that arrived in Albania in mid-March were sent to visit current volunteers throughout the country. Three came to Korca. They all will work in community development, so they were placed with the two volunteers in the city who work in that area. I joined them for dinner one night.
They are all young, eager and well educated; typical Peace Corps volunteers. I think there are only two over age 50 among the new arrivals. They all had the usual reasons for volunteering. They all seemed happy with their host families around Elbasan. They all seemed a bit frustrated and confused with the language and culture. After dinner they went to a new recreation center for young people. It was recently opened by the city government in the upstairs of a restored 19th century building. I checked it out, and they had done a nice job fixing the space, but it was loud and crowded. I left before my ears were too painful.
I offered to show them the trail to the top of the mountain, but they thought my usual 7:30 am start time on weekends was a bit too early, so I headed up the road to the cross by myself. There were lots of people out since it was a fine spring morning. I saw many of the regulars and we exchanged greetings.
It has warmed up considerably recently. We have had sunshine a few days in a row and temperatures have climbed into the upper 50’s. Daffodils and dandelions are blooming and fruit trees are in blossom; seems like it happened overnight. My neighbors across the alley from my kitchen window have spread out a large collection of shoes and sneakers which they are offering for sale (one seldom sees used household items or furniture, but used clothing is for sale everywhere in Albania). Several families came by to try on a pair or two and I could overhear lively discussions as to price and desirability. I don’t know how long this improvised shoe store will continue. The little general store which my other neighbors ran in their modified garage for years, recently closed when the government mandated that all such stores had to have electronic cash registers that could automatically calculate sales tax (20%). Most of shops like this only make a few dollars a day, and can’t justify the expenditure of a few hundred dollars for the required machine, so there has been a spate of closures around town. I have heard that in other cities, where the enforcement has been lax or the officials more readily paid off, this has not yet occurred.
My Peace Corps experience is limited to Albania, but I have worked in missionary projects in Vietnam and Mexico and have seen the same thing. When a market opens up, entrepreneurial people will jump at the chance to participate. It is only when it is closed by corruption or safety concerns or limited by transportation or other infrastructural needs that it fails to flourish, and even then, there is usually some attempt at commerce.
It seems to me that the best thing we can do for a developing country is to provide market opportunities. Isn’t that really what has helped China develop? Much of the West has provided markets for goods produced by inexpensive Chinese labor and the US Navy provides security for ocean transport. I sometimes think that providing money to a corrupt administration just incentivizes that element of society that finds it easier to steal than to create. That money can come from foreign aid, or from exploitation of natural resources, or from trafficking in drugs, women or children.
The Peace Corps, of course, gives young, eager, well intentioned and, mostly, inexperienced volunteers to do…what? It seems we hang out among “the people” for a couple of years and teach English or health topics or write grants (at least that is the menu in Albania); nothing there to motivate the kleptocracy that rules much of the developing world. I am not sure exactly how it fits into any model of foreign aid. Some projects I have seen do seem to have potential, like the cross border project between Macedonia and Albania to stimulate a garment production industry. The community development volunteer in Korca has been busy with that and seems to be accomplishing something.
The effects of my projects seem more nebulous. Dr. Isufi is making great progress in his training. He is a quick study and eagerly reads through any material I provide. Our course is frequently interrupted by people just barging into the clinic room where we work. One day it kind of got to me, but Isuf just shrugged his shoulders and said, “It is Albania”.
Work with the environmental test equipment at the public health department has been slower. One day we spent an hour learning to turn the apparatus on and off. There is a button on the gadget that is pretty clearly marked as a power switch, but I had difficulty getting that concept across. After we finally achieved consistent performance, we all went out for coffee to celebrate. Later this week we will tackle storing data and downloading it to a computer for analysis. I am working hard to figure out how to present this. Given the problems we have had, I am not optimistic we will accomplish much except consuming prodigious amounts of caffeine.
My life skills class at high school is going ok. My co-teacher is away in the US, having a baby there to procure the child an American passport. I am not confident she will return. There may be another teacher to take the class when I leave, but it will likely revert to the passive pedagogical practice that characterizes the system here. I doubt that the more active curriculum I developed last year will persist in any form, so this time I am doing lesson plans that conform more closely to the textbook. I am also being stricter with the kids if they are disruptive. Isufi has told me repeatedly that when I go home I will be part Albanian. Perhaps he is right.
Catherine continues to spin her wheels in Arizona. Really, except for her evaluations she probably could have done her rehab here in Albania and received a more active program. Fortunately, her clever nephew had the idea to look up computer programs used by the VA for returning Iraqi and Afghan war vets with brain injury. The two of them went down to the local computer store and purchased a couple for Catherine to work on. He works at a Walgreens, and I know Americans often go to the drug store to inquire after over the counter remedies. Catherine is also going to a local gym to participate in an exercise class. Maybe “do-it-yourself” rehab is what the PC had in mind all along. At least there will be no impediment to her continuing this when she heads back home to rural Oklahoma.
In spite of this, I still think she has the potential for a pretty good, if not complete recovery. Unfortunately, it will not be in time for her to return to Europe for our post PC travel plans. Right now I am not confident she will be able even to do the US part of our plans, so I have checked into changing our tickets to shorten my travel time alone and get myself home to Idaho. It is amazing how little credit the airlines give you when you have to change your travel plans. The US portion of our tickets actually cost almost twice as much to change as to buy entirely new tickets with another airline. Europe is more regulated, so I don’t think it will be too bad if I use the value of Catherine’s ticket to come back home a bit earlier, although I have offered it for free to any of the other volunteers in my group who is willing to pay the transfer fee.
This is not the finale I had envisioned for my two years of service, but, I suppose it will have to do. I have been working on my “Final Site Evaluation” document, one of many that is required at end of service (I have learned of this piecemeal, since I missed the classes on this held at the Close of Service conference when I was in London). There are four categories for projects: finished, unfinished, abandoned, and just an idea (never started, but has potential). I have had my share of all of these, and for a lot more in life than just the Peace Corps.