Striving

Words of inspiration by Shanna Flowers

Kyrgyzstan journal

OCTOBER 2

A travel postlogue. I am recuperating from my trip and jumping back into the busy routines of work and school. I foolishly thought I could resume my lifestyle without taking time off. But physical and mental exhaustion near the end of the week prompted me to take a day off. I feel much better now.

The trip was a phenomenal experience in which I learned so much from my hosts. My message of volunteerism was well-received. My hope is to help develop a program in Osh, working long-distance with Dr. Nurgul Ajimamatova.

Dr. Ajimamatova is a cardiologist very interested in developing a program at her facility. She noted that it would not be an easy task, but I’ve recommended she start very small. I’ve sent her some information, and we hope to nurture the seed of interest into a pilot program to show that it can work.

Soliciting your good thoughts in this endeavor, and we’ll keep you posted. Who knows, I might get a chance to go back to train her small crew of volunteers in person!

As a side note, thanks to all who logged into this page and kept up with my journey far from home. Your prayers and best wishes are greatly appreciated.

SEPTEMBER 25

Home, sweet home! My trip was a wonderful experience. I am blessed to have had the opportunity and blessed to be safely back home.

SEPTEMBER 24

In fewer than eight hours, I will be aboard a plane heading home. This blog has chronicled my travels, my impressions and my interactions. But our journey would not have gone as smoothly without some dear people who sacrificed their time to make us feel at home in a foreign land.

Elvera

Elvira

Venera

Ilkham

Lira

Lira

I’m talking about the translators and other gracious people who took us under their wings and treated us like long-lost friends. The translators were mostly young adults who just wanted to be a part of the excitement of our forums encouraging women as emerging leaders. The translators’ youthful exuberance was palpable, their admiration for the United States made us appreciate more the country we call home.

Their attentiveness to our needs was instinctual. Knowing that I was dog tired the day before, Elvira, a chatty, recent college graduate insisted on knowing when she saw me the next morning if I had gotten some rest. When women with whom I didn’t share the language surrounded me, I would turn and look pleadingly at Venera, a young woman who works for a refugee placement agency. In a flash, she was by my side, bridging the language divide.

Without them, our messages would have been incomprehensible to the conference participants and our mission, impossible. The tramslators and others became our family away from home. We clung to them because they became our voice, and sometimes we clung to each other when we were both overwhelmed by conditions new to all of us. The day we visited an orphanage of mentally ill children in Djalabad, the translator, Zarfur, clearly shaken as we walked in, grabbed my arm and whispered, “Miss Shanna, you will have to help me.” I assured him we would help each other.

Ilkham has a longstanding relationship with the director of our trip. The slight, young 23-year-old has been to the States, speaks fluent English, Russian and Kyrgz. He became our go-to guy, an advance man of sorts with a brilliant, analytical mind who fixed problems before we were aware they had existed. Months before we arrived, we mailed handouts to share with participants in our sessioins. Ilkham translated the materials from English to Russian. We met his dad, a gregarious man who arranged our trip to the lodge our last night in Djalabad, and his mother who presented us with gifts.

Star was my translator one day when I visited a Maternity Hospital in Osh. But her real job was as director of the Center for American Studies at Osh University.

Star

One day, as I sat in the courtyard on campus, she saw me and escorted me to where she worked. It was a tiny piece of home in the middle of Kyrgyzstan! Everything was in English, from the resume-writing tips on the wall to the videos and many books on the shelves, including a dog-eared copy of a John Grisham novel. A tiny Stars and Stripes sat on the table, and portraits of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hung on the wall. Star was proud of her center and wanted to share it with her American guest.

Lira wasn’t a translator, but I met her when she traveled to Roanoke last year. She’s a teacher who speaks vociferously for the rights of teachers. Just hours before we leave, she invited us to the mountains for a picturesque picnic near a rushing stream. Her spread of fresh fruit, nuts, bread, tea and homemade meal of beef and rice was scrumptious, surpassed only by her generosity as she gave each of us gifts.

Asel went above her duties as coordinator and planner for our workshops in Kyrgyzstan. When her son was delivered prematurely as she planned the conference, she converted her hospital room into an office and kept working. This week, when there was a glitch with our plane tickets from Osh to Bishkek, Asel is the one who scrambled to get us seats. And tonight, as a farewell gesture, she invited us all over to her home for tea, homemade delicacies and fresh fruit.

These are the behind-the-scenes people who do all the work and never get enough credit for making our jobs easy. To them and many others, whose names I don’t all know, I thank you for making me feel welcome in your home, Kyrgyzstan.

SEPTEMBER 23

Roughing it: A beautiful, rustic lodge with snow-covered mountain peaks as our backdrop.

I’ve been off-line for a few days. Internet was a precious commodity in the southern part of the country. Djalabad has one cafe in town with high speed Internet. We made rushed trips, but I didn’t have time to blog.

We spent Thursday night, the 22nd, at a rustic lodge in Arslenbob, in the mountains above Djalabad. Imagine me, roughing it! But I did, and it was a great time. I never went to camp as a child, but the lodge was a camplike experience. No hot water, twin beds in each room, with an additional one pulled in our room for Venera, our interpreter and now new friend. Communal meals, cooked by village men on a huge, wood-stove outside. A local man with a raspy, Bob Dylan voice entertaining with guitar music after dinner. We hiked trails, climbed in caves, marveled over wild roses and waterfalls. It was a good time, a needed time.

We flew back today to Bishkek, the capital. It is Friday night, and I’m back online and watching BBC. It’s the only English-speaking television on the hotel TV, and I dig it. I watch it some late nights in the States when I’m awake. It has been a wonderful time here, but I’m happy to be coming home. I miss it.

SEPTEMBER 20

Men from the mountains herd cattle along a main street in Djalabad during lunch rush hour.

Well, it was back to work today, after taking Sunday and Monday off.

We’ve moved to our third and final city, Djalabad, in the far south of Kyrgyzstan. Remnants remain of the ethnic fighting that erupted here 18 months ago – smashed iron gates, broken windows and boarded-up buildings. We traveled here by minivan from Osh, an urban, grittier city. Djalabad is two hours north and a relaxed farming community. As we came into town, we shared road space with a herd of cows.

On our days off, we played tourists. We climbed Salimaan, a mountain in the middle of Osh where legend has it that King Solomon had a stopover with his army and prayed. OK, so we didn’t actually climb the mountain. We took the steps built into the side of it for the less-adventurous and less-intrepid tourists with bad knees, hips, backs and other creaking joints! It was still quite a haul, but we all made it!

The Uzgen Tower was a source of much-needed exercise. I took the steps inside 90 feet up.

Speaking of climbing, we scaled the extremely steep steps inside the Uzgen Tower, a 90-feet fortress built in the 11th century. It was used as a look-out for residents who lived in a valley between Osh and Djalabad.

I’ve immersed myself in Kyrgyzstan’s culture. Well, “immersed” might be too strong of a word, but I’ve adapted very well and even feel comfortable now with the currency, measured in “som.” I’ve mastered three words of the national language, Russian — “Da” (yes), “Nyet” (no), and “Spuhseeba” (thank you). We made a stop at an outdoor bazaar, but I didn’t buy anything.

As for cuisine, I’ll definitely be back in the gym when I come home. Kyrgyzstan is a meat, potatoes and bread kind of country. Because our bodies contain different bacteria than found in this part of the world, we were told to avoid tap water, unpeeled fresh fruit and vegetables unless they have been cooked. Lamb is a staple here, and well, I don’t care for lamb. But they do a nice job with beef as a substitute.

SEPTEMBER 18

The “paparazzi?” A young woman in Osh asked to pose with me at the foot of the Salimaan mountain.

Johna Campbell, my travel colleague and an HR professional, calls it “a gift.”

I call my ability to connect with people during this trip an answered prayer.

Throughout the week, I have been moved by people’s response to me, seeking me out to say how much they enjoyed my presentation, were inspired by my message or uplifted by my smile and energy.

Conference participants have skipped coffee breaks built into the conference for their convenience to talk one-on-one with me about how they could help their agencies establish volunteer programs. Some have jockeyed to stand next to me in group pictures. Countless others have posed individually with me for snapshots.

One day I stayed behind in my classroom, packing up my computer. When I came into the lobby, where all the conference participants were congregated, someone spotted me and yelled, “Shanna!” A surge of women rushed over with cameras and cellphones at the ready to pose with me. At the end of the conference in Osh, a woman presented me with a beautiful tapestry bag, calling me “the most honest and beautiful woman.”

After the conference in Osh, two Kyrgyz women join me and colleague Karan English, a former congresswoman from Arizona.

On the streets, a few passersby have asked to pose with me. My former pastor says they “see the Spirit of God on you.”

“You’re a star,” another colleague good-naturedly said. “They want pictures of you standing up. They want pictures of you sitting down. It’s like paparazzi.”

I hesitated to write this blog post because it’s not my style to shine the spotlight on anything I’ve done. But the director of our trip encouraged me to do so because it validates the goodwill such trips can engender.  After some thought, I knew I had to write it. Reaching these women wasn’t my achievement but God’s.

Before I left home, my Sunday School class prayed that God would use me to inspire women. After recalling that prayer, I came to the conclusion that to not write this post would be to not acknowledge God’s blessing.

Through His glory, I have connected with women, many of whom don’t speak a word of English. But through our struggles and successes, women share a universal language that unites us.

SEPTEMBER 16

“The Purpose-Driven Life” comes to mind when I think of some of the women I’ve met this week. They’re so focused, so determined, so passionate about their endeavors, most aimed at improving the lives of women, children and the disabled.

On shoestring budgets and, some working in buildings that would be close to condemnation in the United States, determined women doggedly pursue improvements for Kyrgyzstan’s most vulnerable people.

The leaders of three centers for domestic abuse victims share insights about their work. Kyrgyz women are doggedly pursuing issues ranging from housing to disability to conflict resolution.

Earlier this week, I met with four women who run centers in Osh and other southern locales to help victims of domestic violence. Sitting around a small coffee table, I listened as one told a story about a woman victimized by both her husband and mother-in-law. The victim supported her family by working at the local market selling crafts. When she came home, family members would beat her if  they decided she hadn’t made enough money.

The women I’ve met are enthusiastic, undaunted, selfless and eager to talk about their work. Abating domestic violence is just one of many causes Kyrgyz women are championing. One woman excitedly told me about her center for blind and deaf children. Another was eager to talk about working with the poor on housing issues. Yet another tackles Conflict Management,  an essential in a region where tribal fighting is a thread through history.

These women are doing vital work that will determine the trajectory of their country. I’m honored to be a cheerleader to their efforts.

SEPTEMBER 15

An outdoor fruit and vegetable stand in Osh: If my father were here, he would have to stop and thump a melon.

My parents are here with me.

This morning, my U.S. delegation flew from the capital Bishkek to Osh, the southern part of the country. Osh is mountainous — and agricultural. As we drove in, we passed a field white with large cotton blooms. “Look at that cotton!” I know my father, a Mississippi farm boy, would note. He would be surprised to see the plant but, at the same time, reminded of the arduous hours he spent picking it as a young man. Closer to Osh’s town center, outdoor fruit stands populate the roadside every few feet.  Again, I thought of my father. A backyard gardener, he would have stopped and picked up a watermelon or checked to see if the stand was selling  “Kentucky Wonders,” his favorite green bean.  That was Shannon.

This afternoon, I thought of my mother, Lois.  After a meeting with a staff of about 50 doctors and nurses at a birthing hospital, the hostess noted my speaking style. “She can be dramatic,” my colleague said of my sometimes animated antics.  What neither the host nor colleague knew was my style came from hours and hours and hours of practicing church Christmas and Easter speeches with my mother. “Say it with enthusiasm,” she drilled into me as I practiced those speeches over the years. It stuck.

Daddy passed away four years ago. Mama suffers from Alzheimer’s, but I know both would be enormously proud of me and the opportunity to teach women nearly 7,000 miles from home.

I can hear my father now. “Girl,” he would say, using a southern colloquialism he said sometimes that means a person is doing well, “you in high cotton!”

SEPTEMBER 14

Valentina Zhitenenvc, seated in the center, became my “mom” away from home.

Today, I confirmed what I want to do when I grow up:  Make women’s journey a little easier. I don’t know how, where or in what capacity. But my two days of meeting, sharing and swapping life experiences with nearly 50 Kyrgyz women in the first installment of this women’s leadership conference makes me know this is what God wants me to do.

My fellow delegate, Joe Robinson, told our six-member delegation a month ago that we would learn more from our hosts than they would learn from us. He was right. Ostensibly, I’m here to teach women in three Kyrgyz cities about volunteerism as they grow their nonprofits. But through their strength and fierce passion for their work and outreach,  the women inspired me. I also was impressed by their willingness to openly admire others. An elderly participant, Valentina Zhitenenc, a warrior for rights of the elderly, drew the respect of everyone in her presence. For these women, complimenting my earrings or outfit or calling me a “unique beauty,” was natural and heartfelt. Many American women aren’t that effusive in praising other women. We compete against each other.

Aimira Urustemova gave me beautiful handcrafts. Aimira and I became instant friends: She is a journalist and film producer.

I along with my Sunday School class had prayed for God to give me the tools I needed to reach these women. He showed His glory. We connected at a level beyond facilitator and participant. As an example, Valentina speaks no English. She had been in the audience at my first workshop. This morning when I arrived at  the conference, she called my name, firmly grabbed my hand and pulled me toward a classroom. She told the interpreter she wanted to present me with a book of her organization. When we got to the classroom, she gave me the handwritten, inscribed book and said through the interpreter that my “energy” had given them all energy. She called me her “daughter,” squeezed both my hands and kissed my cheek. As my eyes grew damp, I called her my Kyrgyz “mother.”

We weren’t old, young, American nor Kyrgyz. We were all just women. That’s the beauty of sisterhood. When we accept each other and realize that everyone’s life story is a teachable lesson, we all can learn from each other.

SEPTEMBER 13

Favorite moment of the day: A woman asked me through an interpreter if I were rich. I very quickly — and emphatically — told her “No.” She wanted to know my family background. I told her both of my parents grew up in poverty in the South, worked their ways through college and migrated north. She then asked if my father paid for my college education. Yes. She asked the cost. I noted that I went to college three decades ago, and the cost of my education in its entirety was less than what most college students today spend in a year. The woman asked my father’s earnings. I explained he retired nearly 30 years ago, then I gave her a ballpark figure. After hearing my response through the interpreter, she paused and said in English with a thick Russian accent, “Little money.” I laughed and said, “I told you I wasn’t rich!”

Her penetrating questions came during my first day of conducting volunteerism workshops. About 40 women attended two sessions. I was encouraged by the responsiveness to the idea. Sure, the concept of “free” work in a country whose economic stability was thrown into disarray 20 years ago with the end of socialism didn’t resonate with everyone.  What’s more important to me as a facilitator is to engage my audience to help them see our commonalities more than our differences. I have a heart for women, which is why I started this blog. Also under the umbrella of international sisterhood, I structured my presentation to give them encouragement and hope in taking leadership roles in transforming their country. (See Sept. 12 post.)

Obviously, the overwhelming majority had never met an African-American woman, so they took the opportunity to ask me cultural questions related to blacks, such as “Is President Barack Obama a Muslim?” and “Were a large percentage of Black Americans Muslim or Christian?” Given that Kyrgyzstan is about 75 percent Muslim, the questions were in context and appropriate.  I very much enjoyed meeting the women, and I think they realized despite the wide span in our geographic locations, we have much more in common than not.

SEPTEMBER 12

Gulmira Rasulova, right, discusses projects her Community Development Alliance is working on. I met Gulmira a year ago when she visited Roanoke.

During a series of meetings today with various nonprofit leaders, I felt the gravity of our visit. I knew my purpose for being here is to help a fledgling democracy develop a strong social and economic infrastructure. But listening again to the daunting yet admirable trailblazing challenges of participants in Kyrgyz Women’s Leadership & NGO Building, I was reminded of the serious nature of the trip.

As a brief recap, Kyrgyzstan was a former Soviet republic that became independent 20 years ago. Now without the oversight and resources of Moscow, Kyrgyzstan is working to build its institutional framework. To help you better understand, I’ll use Virginia as an analogy. Let’s say Virginia decided on independence from the United States. The federal oversights and programs that Virginians enjoy — mail delivery, food stamps, Social Security, for example — would be gone. Virginia would have to try to recreate those services on its own without Washington’s help.

That’s what a small, but determined group of nonprofit agencies in Kyrgyzstan is doing. Our six-member delegation is here to share with them our various expertises i.e. marketing, international commerce, nonprofit service industry, human resources, prenatal care and of course, volunteering. Change is challenging, but Kyrgyzstan has a group of women who inspire change with their tenacity.

SEPTEMBER 11

A girl needs a warrior

In a strange land, a girl needs her own warrior. After posing here, I sampled sheep and horse.

(8:30 p.m. local time) My visit to the hospital this afternoon was extremely enlightening. The idea of a volunteer program is daunting for people who practice medicine under what Americans would consider difficult circumstances. Yet when I explained some of the jobs of volunteers and then asked staff to think about their own jobs and how a volunteer might help them, they began to warm to the idea. The head physician closed our meeting by asking me how to go about setting up a program.

That was the “work” part of the day. We had dinner inside a “yurt,” one-room homes built as seasonal campsites. The host ordered several entrees, and we sampled each. Dinner consisted of a to-die-for grilled pink trout, roasted chicken, a very tasty vegetarian dish of eggplant, cauliflower and tomatoes. Other dishes served up sheep and horse. Yup, I had sheep and horse for supper! (Somewhere my vegan classmate Kelsey is going apopletic!) The sheep was distasteful and entirely too strong, but the horse wasn’t bad. I won’t eat it again, but I can now say I’ve sampled it. If your sensibilities are offended, there’s hope. At least I had the good sense to pass on the horse milk.

(11 a.m. local time) I am settled and comfortable in Bishkek, the capital city of Kyrgyzstan. I arrived, intact, at 5 p.m.  EST Saturday, 3 a.m. Sunday Kyrgyzstan time. (For those keeping count, Kyrgyzstan is 10 hours ahead of Roanoke.) The flights were smooth and noneventful. I popped Dramimine with a good bit of regularity, so I was zonked out most of the time! Our accomodations are beautiful here at the Golden Dragon. I leave shortly for some visits in the city. One includes a birthing hospital. I will talk with hospital leadership about considering a program to allow volunteers to come in and assist mothers and babies.

SEPTEMBER 9

Today is the day!

I’ll be off to the airport in a few hours. From co-workers to friends to family, everyone has been so supportive. My aunt called last night from Ohio with encouragement. She ended our conversation in fervent and heartfelt prayer.

I’m putting the finishing touches on packing and piddling around the house. From the beginning, I’ve felt God’s hand in this trip. I’ve been remarkably calm. Mark 5:36 says, “Don’t be afraid, just believe.” God is with me.  I believe.

SEPTEMBER 8

In the airport before we leave: From left top: Johna Campbell, Joe Robinson, Amy Pendleton, Roger Matthews, me; Kneeling: Jules Sowder and Dr. Khaled Hassouna

 

 

I haven’t even left yet, and the trip is off to a great start! Both of my professors told me I wouldn’t have any homework assignments due while I’m abroad! That’s great news, because I worried about having to file homework via Internet and not knowing what the access would be.

But both told me to just stay caught up with my reading, and I’ll remain on schedule with the class. My reading will be plentiful, but that’s OK. In the long plane rides, I’ll have plenty of time!

SEPTEMBER 6, 2011

On Sept. 9, 2011, I will leave the United States for two weeks in the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan.  Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet republic that borders China. During my visit, coordinated by Legacy International and sponsored by the U.S. State Department, I will visit three Kyrgyz cities and conduct workshops on volunteerism and do some one-on-one consulting. This page will become my journal of the trip as I post brief dispatches while traveling.

map of KyrgyzstanAs I’ve readied for my trip, I’ve had a few people say wistfully, “Don’t you need an assistant to go with you!?” Well, this time, I’m going
solo. But you can keep up with my travel adventures because in between teaching, consulting, sightseeing and keeping up with homework, I hope to file some dispatches about the trip on this blog page. Stay tuned!

5 Responses to “Kyrgyzstan journal”

  1. Kelsey says:

    Girl – sampled it? I think you meant sampled him or her. Bring on the tasty veg dishes! 😉

  2. Your Cuz says:

    Love all of this!

  3. Juanita says:

    Wow! You’re really there, God bless and keep you in his hands…………Love Ya, Cousin

  4. Amy Pendleton says:

    I just want to say Hi and I miss you guys. I hope the road trip to DA was uneventful. I am finally home and on some strong meds, to kill what ever got in my body. Not movinging to fast but building up my strength. Stay safe and healthy. Tell everyone thank you for the note, I read it on the plane and was brought to tears. I hope to see you all at the airport sunday.

  5. Glynis says:

    Things seem to be going well. I’m sure you’re a blessing to them as much as they are blessing you.