Peace Corps Volunteer – Karatau, Kazakhstan
I served as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Kazakhstan from June, 1997, until July, 1999. I served as a Secondary School English Teacher in the Karatau Lyceum, a private school located in Karatau, Kazakhstan. I enjoyed my 2 years in Kazakhstan, learned how to speak both Kazakh and Russian, and acquired a taste for “Beshbarmaq”, the Kazakh national dish made up of noodles, mutton and onions. After leaving Karatau in June, 1999, I made a return trip in November, 1999, while I was traveling to Talas, Kyrgyzstan, with the American Councils for International Education (ACCELS/ACTR). This would be the last time I would ever see Karatau and my host family again.
My Kazakh Host Family, “The Orazimbetovs”
While serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan, I was lucky to able to live with a Kazakh host family during my two years in Karatau. Being with a Kazakh family helped me to learn the Kazakh language quickly. The Orazimbetovs took me in from day one. My host father, Asan, is the school director (principal) of the Karatau Lyceum. My host mother, Adigul, is a Physics teacher at the same school. They have eight daughters (yes eight) and one son (guess who the youngest is). The oldest daughters; Fatima, Zhanna, Sultanat, Alma, and Ainura, no longer live at home. They are all married. The youngest daughters; Ulzhan, Gulzhan (she graduated and now works at Pushkin School in Karatau), and Aizhan with their brother, Shulik, still lived at home during my first year in Karatau (Ulzhan left for medical school the next year). Asan and Adigul also have six grandchildren with many more to come in the future.
My first year with my host family was difficult but we overcame all of our problems (privacy issues, etc.). Things smoothed out during the second year and I was even given the responsibility of keeping the boys away from my host sisters (I chased a Kazakh boy with a stick once which was cool). In short, they got used to me and I got used to them. I now miss my host family since I spent so much time with them. My host mother and my host sisters were great cooks (except for Gulzhan). My host mother was worried that I would starve to death in the states (She didn’t believe that I knew how to cook). I proved her wrong when I returned in November, 1999. She was surprised that I gained weight, McDonalds, and I think she was relieved.
As I mentioned earlier, Karatau, which means “Black Mountain” in Kazakh, was my Peace Corps site. I taught English as a Second Language and Computer Keyboarding during my two years with the Lyceum. I was lucky enough to get my own classroom which used to be the German room. It was funny since one of the first things I had to do was remove all of the German grammer materials and books from my classroom. I then redesigned my classroom to represent more of an English classroom. I had brought many pictures and teaching materials from the US which helped in this task. First thing I needed was a couple of signs with all of my classroom rules and policies. I then split my classroom up into several parts; International, US, and Canada. The International section included maps and pictures of Japan and Germany (I only had English materials for these two countries). The US section included pictures and and information about American Democracy. Finally the Canadian section included pictures and information about Canada. Since the other English teachers already designed their rooms with a British theme, I decided not to include them in my classroom.
At the end of the year, the Karatau Lyceum hosts an event to honor the ringing of the last bell. At this event, students selected to attend the next year are given their letters of acceptance.
My Kazakh and Russian Students
The best part about being a Peace Corps Volunteer was definitely my students. My favorite students were the 6th/7th Formers (They graduated in June, 2003. Unfortunately I was unable to make it back to Kazakhstan to view their graduation as I had planned.). The 6th/7th Formers studied the hardest and were the most enjoyable to be with. During the first year, their classroom teacher, Raihan, and I worked closely with these kids. Okay, we were competing but it was fun.
My 7th/8th Formers proved difficult to deal with at times but were also enjoyable (They graduated in 2002). They were the only group that seemed interested in American sports. I played American football and frisbee with this group. My Kazakh students in this class had attitudes. They would have adjusted to an American school system very well.
My 8th/9th Formers always made me laugh. Made up mostly with Kazakh girls, they were more interested in the life of Americans than learning English. This group convinced me to create an English Club and met regularly. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to be of use to them in regards to the various student exchange programs. Ainura and Gauhar were two of my favorite students from this class. They graduated in 2001.
And last, my Computer Students made my Peace Corps work in Karatau worthwhile. I enjoyed working with them (They all graduated in 1999 and 2000). They were the brightest 10th and 11th Formers Karatau could offer. Most learned how to type relatively quickly and my made my Peace Corps Community Project successful.
I also had some other Russian and Kazakh students that I worked with in my English club. These kids were a great bunch and they really enjoyed the free English lessons. Many of them could not afford to attend the Karatau Lyceum so they were glad that I decided to start an English club for them. Overall, teaching in Kazakhstan, and Central Asia in general, can be challenging. You must have a lot of patience. There were times that I wanted to quit, other times I really wanted to stay. In retrospect, I wished I would have stayed an extra year but I really needed to return to the US to begin graduate school.
Peace Corps Kazakhstan Staff
Can’t forget to mention about the great Peace Corps Kazakhstan staff in Almaty. Galina Petrova is everyone’s favorite. Not only did she send out our mail, she also approved our vacations. She was a good ally for me. Ufilmalik Turguzhanova was my Assistant Program Manager for the Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) program. She helped me deal with my school officials so I could leave for Taraz, Kazakhstan, every weekend to help the Rose Kaplan School get organized as a nongovernmental organization. Overall, without the support and help of the host country Peace Corps staff, accomplishing my projects would have been quite difficult.
Islam in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan
Read my accounts on Islam in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to get a personal perspective on Islam in Central Asia.