A chronicle of my experiences as a Peace Corps Community Organizational Development volunteer in Bulgaria.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Skills Transfers

The PC has three overriding goals:

1. Helping the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women.
2. Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
3. Helping promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

As volunteers, we are expected to serve these goals. In my opinion, the goals are direct, concise, realistic and achievable. Of the three, however, the first presents volunteers with the most direct challenges during their service. Helping our host nations meet their needs for trained men and women requires us to transfer skills. Some of us aren't entirely certain that we have any skills to transfer; some of us labor along under a false sense of confidence, happily passing along non-existant skills; and some of us have skills but lack the ability to pass them on. Fortunately, none of us works in a vacuum and we spend much of our time helping each other out.

A volunteer working in a small mountain town in the Rhodopes contacted me not too long ago to ask if I'd be able to come down and talk to the people in his agency. He works for an NGO in Borino, a town with a Turkish population, and felt they needed some help in establishing a direction for the agency and in applying for grants. My agency, REDA, has a wealth of experience in identifying community needs, locating appropriate funding, making intelligent applications and then implementing the development projects. I am also a member of the PC SPA committee and, as such, spend a great deal of time evaluating PCV funding req
uests. I assumed that Nick, the volunteer in Borino, had heard of me and my work because...well, because I have a very inflated idea of my own importance.

I said that I'd be happy to come down and help in any way I could and asked if he wanted me to prepare a presentation or would we be participating in a round-table discussion? He said that I shouldn't worry about a presentation and that he knew exactly what he wanted his agency to hear and that he would give them the message. Okay. What, exactly, did he want me to do? He said, "Well, you're older and if you wear a tie, it'll look like you have some authority and they might take this more seriously." Yes, indeed. You don't get to be my age without becoming older and that is a set of skills that I will happily transfer.

So I went to Borino prepared to wear a tie and look 'authoritative' and arrived at Nick's after a seven hour bus trip ready to nail down the details for the meeting the following day. Nick had some friends visiting him and had cooked a great Mexican dinner for everyone. Another volunteer had baked some superb chocolate chip cookies and by the time we ate and cleaned up it was too late to begin discussing business. We woke early and Nick's other guests left, so he and I took a hike up through the mountains behind his house and he began to tell me about his agency. As is often the case, I was a bit confused and a little unclear on what was expected of me but I thought that I could still be helpful once the panel discussion started. I can usually follow whatever is going on in a meeting and begin to participate once I sense
the track. After the hike, I put on my shirt and tie and we went down to his NGO to kick off the meeting.

We walked into a room set up like a university lecture hall. We stood at the podium and Nick looked at the group that had assembled for the meeting, told them I was going to start the seminar and walked off to the side leaving me standing center stage. It's difficult to look authoritative when your mouth is hanging open and sounds are coming out of it that only a monkey might ever understand. Actually, after the initial panic attack passed, it wasn't too bad. Nick had prepared a complete set of notes covering the points he wanted to raise and slid them across the podium to me. He had also arranged for a translator who tu
rned out to be quite a character in his own right. Mahkmoud is the best English speaker in Borino and he is a very enthusiastic translator. So enthusiastic, in fact, that he often stops translating and just engages in long discussions with the group on subjects in which he has suspiciously little relevant first hand information. I was asked, for example, to talk about "in-kind contributions". I started to give the group a basic definition of "in-kind contributions" as they are seen by PC and EU funding organizations. Mahkmoud held up his hand after I'd said one or two sentences to indicate that he would translate that much. He then spoke for ten minutes without stopping, answered three or four questions and engaged in a brief but heated argument with a woman from the Chitalishte. It will be fascinating to see what the town of Borino offers up as in-kind contributions in the future.

The meeting lasted three hours and a lot of good information flowed back and forth and I felt that it had been a very useful exercise. Nick seemed pleased too, so the trip looked as though it was worthwhile and maybe on some small level, some skills transfer had taken place. Bilgun, one of the men who runs Nick's NGO, asked us to join a couple of them later that evening in the local cafe for a rakiya. We went off, had dinner, changed into less 'authoritative' clothing and got to the cafe around 8:00pm. Bilgun ordered everyone a big salad, because you don't drink rakiya in Bulgaria without eating salad, and we began to talk. My ability to speak Bulgarian improves in direct correlation to the amount of rakiya I've consummed and I was speaking quite fluently by the end of the evening.

It was during this impromptu meeting that the most significant skills transfers took place. After we'd beaten 'applying for community development grants' to death, we began to explore a topic of real value to all of us. What do you do if you come across a bear while you're hiking in the woods? Mahkmoud got up from the table, squatted down on his haunches and stated that you had to convince the bear that you were smaller, weaker and not a threat. Then he fell over. Bilgun disagreed and argued strongly that you must run away. Nick believed that he'd heard that you couldn't outrun a bear because they, apparently, are very fast. Yes, Bilgun agreed, but if you run downhill they can't catch you because they don't have thumbs and when they begin to run downhill, they tumble. It was agreed by one and all that thi
s made a lot of sense and Nick suggested that you'd have to run downhill at an angle or the bear might tumble down on top of you. I said that I had thumbs but that I might tumble anyway if I tried to run downhill. My own belief was that all I had to do was outrun the slowest member of the group which led to an accusation that I might not be a team player. So it was agreed that if we saw a bear we would run downhill at an angle but I mentioned, quietly, to Mahkmoud that I thought it would be worth his while to try the squatting thing while we all ran away.

This wasn't the only skills transfer of value that took place over rakiya that evening. I learned the longest word in the Bulgarian language. I'll spell it out phonetically but in Cyrillic it has 39 letters: neprotivokonstitutsionctvuvatelstvuvaite. Six of us chanted that puppy out in cadence for several minutes before I asked what it meant. If I understood Bilgun correctly, it means "do not stand up against the constitution". There you have it.

So I'm back in Stara Zagora now, wiser by far than when I left. I have to begin working on my COS paperwork and getting ready to go home. I've tried to transfer what little skill I have during my time here, I've tried to leave Bulgarians with a positive impression of myself and Americans in general and I've tried to impart the very positive feelings I hold towards this country and its people in this journal. I also hope to mooch my way around the country when I get back, visiting friends and family and telling my stories in person. After a rakiya or two, we can plot strategies for racing camels or design the first working elevator to the moon. As a friend of mine once said, "The world is a brighter place when viewed through rakiya goggles."

This is our official COS photo. Our group of 59 has whittled away to the few and the proud.

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