The Kazakh woman was walking sideways, trying to use the overhang of the dilapidated shop roofs as protection from the downpour. She caught my eye and waved. This lady had an inviting smile, and her hair with its henna color—the exclusive hair dye used by local women—was neatly combed. She looked just a few years older than me, which would put her in her early fifties. I could see loaves of unwrapped bread sticking out of her shopping bag. I took the bread as a sign that I wouldn’t go without the basics if she was to be my host family. But would that extend to hot water and toilet paper? (Both had been scarce during my first six weeks in Almaty.
“Hallow, Djoic! I’m Saulye. I have no car so I bring you to my home. My English not good. Do you speak Russian?”
“Very little…nimnoga.” It was a good thing I didn’t forget my Russian-English dictionary. She tried to keep her umbrella over my head while we walked the several blocks to a building with large chunks out of the front steps and walls that hadn’t seen a paintbrush in a very long time. Yet when I entered Saulye’s sparse apartment, I felt at ease, and even more so when I saw my duffle bags in the tiny storage area transformed into my bedroom. That meant a Peace Corps staff person had been here earlier.
A pretty young woman was waiting for us in their kitchen. The samovar held hot water for our tea, and home-made jam was already spooned into little dishes. Tea came first, I could unpack later.
As we sipped our tea at a small, heavily marred table in a cluttered but clean kitchen, Saulye’s daughter, Anel, introduced herself. “I am on holiday from university in St. Petersburg one week only. Do you have children?”
“Yes, I have a daughter about your age and a son. My son surprised me with my first grandchild just before I came to Kazakhstan.” Their confused looks told me I’d better pull out my dictionary. Pointing to the words was easiest because my ability to pronounce Cyrillic letters had improved little in six weeks of lessons. (Peace Corps has no language prerequisite and since we were the first group placed in Kazakhstan, they had yet to decide whether we would learn Kazakh or Russian.)
After we negotiated our communication process, I learned that Saulye also has a son, but her son has serious health issues. During most of his youth, he had lived with his dad in Semipalatinsk, a former Soviet nuclear test site in Eastern Kazakhstan. Now he desperately needs hospital care but he won’t be admitted until he can deliver the prescribed medicine.
“Djoic, every day I call my druga [friends], ask for help. They want give, but tenge niet. Maybe Peace Corps help me?”
I said I would find out.
The next day I went with Saulye and Anel to the main Almaty bazaar to buy food. I nearly became a vegetarian that day because all the meat was unwrapped on tables with the head of an animal in full view, indicating the kind of meat for sale. Horse meat was second in popularity to sheep, although I never saw horse heads.
Saulye was successful in hawking a half-pack of loose cigarettes, three or four candy bars, and two bras (new) she had brought to sell at the bazaar, earning a few tenge that went into the collection for medicine. I couldn’t contribute much because volunteers are given a living allowance only slightly higher than the local “living wage.” But one of our benefits is an unlimited supply of condoms and of considerably more value, free medical care—something that is priceless in a country where the hospitals’ inventories of drugs are smaller than what most Americans store in their bathrooms.
I thought about how I’d feel if my son was as sick as Saulye’s. When I leave the Peace Corps, I will have no medical insurance, but at least my family and I cannot be denied hospital care. Thinking about this, I offered a silent prayer of gratitude to my ancestors who settled in the U.S. and saved me from this trauma. But what do I have to offer my Kazakh sister? I can offer her my empathy as one mother to another, but that won’t save her son’s life. Peace Corps won’t help our host families beyond a stipend. I tried reaching out to people in the U.S. but no help came. I contacted USAID’s Kazakhstan office, but one family’s medical crisis doesn’t meet their funding criteria. The best I can do is pray that Saulye’s friends and family come through.
Thinking about that solution, I realized that she may be better off than me; she belongs to a generous community who will sacrifice to serve each other. They understand they’re all they have.
The author, Joyce Elferdink, is currently a writer and communications instructor, but was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to go to Kazahstan. Her role during 1993-94 was to set up small business develop centers to assist people who for the first time could become entrepreneurs.
Amazon Book Listing (Kindle edition): http://tinyurl.com/927am9u; (Paperback): http://www.amazon.com/Pieces-You-Ms-J-Elferdink/dp/0615664490/ref=tmm_pap_title_0