Peace Corps staff have seen it all before of course. They know the frustrations Volunteers will feel, and can anticipate dips in energy and enthusiasm across our two year cycle of service. I am a Community Youth Development (CYD) volunteer. On the front of my training manual is that Canadian quotation warning workers that change takes time.
“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” —Nelson Henderson
Over and over during our 10 weeks of in-country training, we were told not to expect the exhilaration that comes with knowledge of a job well done. Peace Corps and many other international agencies have been here in Armenia for 25 years, helping people adapt to life as an independent state, no longer part of an all-controlling Soviet Union. Together Armenians and incomers have created infrastructure, experimented with innovation and accountability, and helped families and communities get on their feet. It is a completely different country than it was a quarter of a century ago. In twenty-five years time, I am sure that Peace Corps will be long gone– no longer needed here. But Peace Corps leaders are right– there can be days when things seem to be stuck at standing still and when all Volunteers wonder if their two years of service will ever make any difference at all.
And then there are other days. Great days. Joyous, surprising moments when Volunteers realize that something each of us did, did good.
Borio was largely silent and deliberately reserved when I last saw him at the end of May. The kind of kid who stands slightly on the outside edge of any group, watching carefully. Not unconfident, but definitely cautious.
Now it is nearly September. Borio is four, and fully a foot taller than he was three months ago.
When I lived next door to Borio I pretty much spoke to him only to stop him doing something dangerous. “Get out of the road Borio– watch that truck” “Come down before you hurt yourself”. “Not in your mouth Borio”. That sort of thing. I don’t remember saying goodbye to Borio, although there were hugs and kisses with lots of other kids. If you’d asked me, I’d have said my going or coming made no difference to him at all.
At the weekend, I went back to the place I lived when I first came to Armenia–the house next door to Borio’s. I heard him before I saw him. A whoop from behind a tree, boots on compacted dirt, and shouts as he ran to get his sister “Elizabet. Elizabet. She’s back. It’s Elizabet. She’s back”.
Screams from Lilia and two pairs of feet running towards me. While Lilia hugged me Borio pulled at the hem of my shirt. “Can we blow bubbles?”‘ Ah yes, bubbles. Borio had been one of my testers back in May as I had tried and failed to perfect a soapy mix guaranteed to make giant bubbles. Across a week, I’d made buckets and basins of bubble mix. Supplied with a bubble wand made from a pipe-cleaner, Borio had blown bubbles big and (mostly) small, not stopping until he and we and the concrete patch to the front of my house were thoroughly soaked and soapy. He couldn’t wait to do it again.
I had completely forgotten about the bubbles, and was touched they had made such an impression on Borio. But I didn’t have any pipe cleaners, and no-one in the neighborhood had either metal coat hangers, or any kind of thin wire. I could have rustled up a bubble mix, but what to do about a wand? I briefly thought of using scissors, with bubbles to be blown through the finger holes on the handle. Then I considered that it probably wasn’t wise to have four-year-olds running the streets armed with sharp, pointy implements…
I diverted. We did coloring outside, and tracked ants on the concrete, and made animals and machines and different kinds of food with plasticine, hastily bought at the small local store. A couple of girls joined in. They wanted witches nails (kakhardii yerrungner) made in green plasticine. Borio was having none of that. Gender is very definitely NOT fluid in small Armenian villages.
Borio lives with his mother, his sister, two grannies and his granddad. His dad works in Sochi in Russian and sends money back to keep his family. Armo can afford to spend only 3 months of the year at home. Borio’s mom does all the usual household stuff that women get landed with here, and runs a hairdressing and nail salon out of her front bedroom. One of Borio’s grans works several days a week as a nurse in a hospital in Yerevan. The rest of the time she is busy making lavash, or iced coffee, or something else the family needs. Her husband Boris, for whom Borio is named, spends all his time tinkering with the family’s ancient Lada parked at the front of the house. The other granny tends the hens, and pulls weeds. Her back is often sore–she doesn’t feel much like playing when she gets a chance to sit down. For Borio and thousands of other kids across Armenia and all over the world, the benefit of having a Peace Corps Volunteer in town is simple: they know someone with time to play. Playing is practically compulsory for Peace Corps Volunteers—it’s a great way of fulfilling goals 2 and 3 of our mission. I’ve told Borio I’ll continue to take play very seriously. He knows I’ll be back when the nights get dark early, and after the last grapes are harvested. My pipe cleaners and glycerin are already packed.
The Peace Corps Mission
To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.