I got back to Turkmenistan on March 2nd and, as per my plan, I hit the ground running and got back to work as fast as I could. I did give myself 24 hours adjustment time in Ashgabat before I flew back to my region, but I was anxious to get back to my town and see everyone. Nobody in my community knew that I was back in Turkmenistan until I called a few people from Ashgabat. When I left Turkmenistan I couldn’t say for sure if I was returning. My decision was pending on my mum’s health, and what I felt comfortable with. This left my community wondering whether or not they would ever see me. My students especially were anxious about my return. When I did get back I received an extremely warm welcome from everyone. When my students saw me at school it was like out of a scene from a movie. They would spot me in the hall, run towards me and throw their arms around me with big smiles and a whirlwind of questions.
As a coping technique to deal with the transition and homesickness, I busied myself with work. I immediately got started on my grant proposal. I had previously approached the physical education teachers about doing a project together, and on my first day back at school I had cornered them and asked if they were still interested in the grant ideas. From the start they were really enthusiastic about everything, and helped me compile all of the data, prices, measurements and information I needed for the grant proposal. Although I had lots of support from the teachers we still needed permission from the director—then the school director needed permission from his director, then the etrap director needed permission from his boss, then that left us with no other option than to go to Turkmenabat and meet with the head of the Ministry of Education himself. At this point I thought that our project was as good as dead. But with help from some other teachers we typed up a letter stating the project’s goals and objectives and I went with the physical education teachers to Turkmenabat.
The head of the Ministry of Education in Lebap region is widely feared and has a reputation of shutting down volunteers’ projects. In Turkmenistan everyone fears their director, and government officials have a talent of making any grown man stutter over his words. Before we got to his office one of the teachers had told me, “I am not afraid of him. The only thing I fear is Allah.” But as we climbed the five flights of stairs to his office, this same teacher looked at me and said, “Okay, now I am scared.” Because I have not been raised in this culture, I understood why everyone was afraid, but I was trying to play the part of the optimistic American. After waiting for almost an hour for him to come back to his office he saw us for maybe two minutes. As the sports teacher stammered through his reason for being there, the minister didn’t even notice me there—-maybe my dress blended in with the shiny wallpaper. It was only until I had squeezed my way into his office before the door closed that he realized I was part of the group. My name was included in the letter, and while he was reading he looked at the paper, looked up at me, looked at the paper and the nodded his head in understanding of why I had not said a single word. I have found that trying to hide my American-ness helps in circumstances like this, with basically any encounter with the Turkmen government. He tapped his hands on the desk, glanced at me and asked in Turkmen, “So, how’s your work?” Maybe I was more nervous than I will admit, because I said “Everything is great at my school,” and I gave him a juvenile thumbs up with a dopey look on my face. He asked how well students know English at my school, and this time I answered with my hands in my lap. Our letter and my spastic responses must have passed the test because he placed his hands on his desk and said, “I will call Ashgabat [the head of the ministry] and tell them about this.” Ta da! And in two minutes we had permission from basically every person on up to the president himself!
Somehow, with help from some higher power, within two weeks we had finished the grant proposal for a USAID Small Project Assistance Grant. We proposed to renovate our school gymnasium, buy new sports equipment, expand the after-school physical education program, and start a big brother, big sister program that matches older students with younger students to teach them about healthy living, sportsmanship and physical education. Now the rest is out of our hands as our grant passes through the hands of several review committees in Turkmenistan and in America. We should hear back in about a month, and then, if funded, we will begin the renovations after classes end in early June.
If you have read this far, you have committed to read to the end! My other big piece of news is that Jennet had her baby on Easter Sunday. She was born at 12:20am at our local hospital and because of complications I was not present for the birth, but I got there as soon as I heard the good news. My host mom delivered the baby and wanted to come home and tell me, but had to go deliver another baby immediately after Jennet. As I previously wrote, Jennet wanted to name her Enejan, after me. I didn’t know about the family politics of naming a baby until the second day after she was born. Jennet was in tears about pressure from her in-laws about names. They told her that she could not name the baby Enejan and that she would have to choose another name. To me this is absurd, and I told her that she should name her baby whatever she wants. But, this is forgetting that Jennet has to deal with these people for the rest of her life, and when your mother-in-law prohibits something, you had better listen. Turkmen women have a real talent for starting gossip and Jennet was afraid of backlash if she ignored her in-laws. Jennet decided to name her Aylar, which means “moons.” She thought that I might be mad about the name change, but I assured her that the name means little to me and that she is my goddaughter no matter what. They don’t usually allow visitors inside the maternal ward, but they let me in for a few minutes during my first visit. When I held Aylar, when she was only 8 hours old, I partially felt that instinctual maternal love for a baby that a mother has when she sees her child for the first time. She has Jennet’s nose. I noticed that immediately. Her tiny olive shaped eyes were so small. While I was holding her she started cooing at me, and I quipped that she already speaks my language. In my arms was my life-long connection to this country, swaddled in a blanket and weighing no more than 8 lbs.