“A British adventurer traveling through what is now Turkmenistan during the 19th Century once described the Kara Kum desert as the epitome of death…I thought it was an interesting comment because it left so much up to the imagination; just what exactly does death resemble? Yet now, in the middle of my second Turkmen winter and with the last Turkmen summer fresh in my memory, I can understand what that English explorer was talking about…”
David Kirkland ’03, has become accustomed to the ups and downs of life in Turkmenistan, one of the fifteen former Soviet Republics and also one of the poorest, since his assignment began in the fall of 2003. Besides being tossed from one host-family to another, Kirkland has experienced the disheartening reality of Peace Corps work- it is what you make of it. Despite press releases boasting the achievements of western organizations, very little progress has actually been made, and ambitious volunteers such as Kirkland often find the unnecessary amounts of downtime frustrating. The Turkmenistan government presents even more of a hindrance by prohibiting NGO funding and turning volunteer work into a bureaucratic nightmare. Even as a registered member of the Peace Corps, Kirkland says, “I find myself often spending whole days procuring stamps, signatures, and approvals just to go help another volunteer with a youth camp.”
After a few months spent in the western city of Balkanabat, known to locals as “Nebit Dag” or “oil mountain,” Kirkland realized that in order to accomplish much of anything, he would have to design his own projects and handle the logistics himself, while speaking a language he hardly knew in a society overrun with corruption. In the past two years he has risen to the challenge, undertaking a major project that will bring a community information and resource center to Turkmenistan this fall. The center, already physically complete, contains a library of English. Turkmen, and Russian language books on various topics, and will provide daily youth clubs and computer training sessions. Kirkland hopes that the center will serve as a meeting place for members of the community to come together, since up until now the city has been divided, with very little interaction between foreign oil workers, volunteers, and locals.
In order to fulfill his official role as community health educator and youth developer, Kirkland conducts health seminars on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, hygiene, and water sanitation. Additionally, in collaboration with a local counterpart, Kirkland wrote an English, Russian, and Turkmen language health education manual, which describes methods of teaching health to younger audiences. Working in youth camps proved to be Kirkland’s most rewarding experience, and the gratitude shown by the kids after ten days of English lessons, mock game shows, and nightly discos, “really made me feel like I had changed some lives, a feeling that is nice given the static nature of life in Turkmenistan.” In addition to the youth camps, Kirkland spent time in the run-down fitness center working with disabled and handicapped kids. “They were by far the most impressive people I’ve met [here], and their persistence was amazing to watch week after week.”
This month Kirkland will return to the United States and begin job-hunting in the D.C. area, looking for a potential career in international development or foreign policy. Though in many ways his experience was a trying one, (only 50% of all volunteers remain in Turkmenistan upon arriving), Kirkland learned to take the country and its many oddities with a grain of salt. In one of his earlier letters home he wrote, “Everything here (including the people sometimes) is either trying to protect itself, kill you for food, or marry you.” In a situation like that, getting out alive is a job well done.
by Alix Roy ’07
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 77, No. 1, Fall 2005
Posted November 02, 2005